Sandra Hart has endured many heartaches in her 62 years, but nothing quite as shocking as the notice she received from Hennepin County’s housing court last year.
She was informed she had repeatedly violated the state’s public nuisance law because of alleged drug and prostitution activity at 6131 Colfax Lane, the home in Minneapolis she owned for years. A hearing followed, and an hour later a housing court judge evicted Hart from her home. For the past 11 months, she, her son and three toy poodles have lived in hotels, with friends, in a van and in a tent in a Richfield park.
“I don’t even have a mortgage on the house,” she said. “I’ve never hurt anybody or been convicted of these crimes. How do they have the right to kick me out? I’ve been through hell.”
Last week, the state Court of Appeals ruled that the housing court had no authority to evict Hart, because it wasn’t allowed to hear cases about owner-occupied houses. Not only was Hart allowed to move back home, the ruling could affect how the housing court handles cases in the future, said Hart’s attorney, Jonathan Drewes.
“The county’s action seemed pretty extreme,” he said. “I think the Court of Appeals was concerned the process lacked enough safeguards.”
This isn’t the first time Hennepin County has used the nuisance law to go after homeowners. County Attorney Mike Freeman, who helped create the law when he was in the Legislature in the mid-1990s, said it has been used in dozens of homeowner and commercial property cases without a legal challenge. The law is intended to help landlords who felt intimidated by tenants and property owners overwhelmed by the problem, he said.
“We never thought this law only covered renters,” he said. Even with the ruling, he said, “nothing the Court of Appeals said will limit us profoundly.”
In its petition to evict Hart, the county stated that the law can be enforced if a person “using, selling or distributing narcotics maintains and permits conditions which unreasonably annoy, injure or endanger the safety, health, morals or repose of a considerable number of members of the public.”
The county claimed Hart’s home has been the site of nuisance violations since 2014, and she received several letters about the problems. Police had been called to her address more than 100 times during that time.
Those calls included an undercover operation that resulted in a resident at Hart’s home being arrested for prostitution. In the petition, Hart admitted to police that she allowed “the person to prostitute themselves” in her home and that Hart herself used drugs.
Other calls involved a methamphetamine dealer being chased by police out of her house and triggering a high-speed chase on Hwy. 62. Officers have responded to “shots fired” reports and backyard fires sending foul-smelling smoke through the neighborhood.
In a later court document, Hart refuted the claims of drug use and other illegal activity at her house. She blamed “evil neighbors” for stirring up trouble with the police.
Hart contacted Drewes a few days after her eviction hearing. The lawyer couldn’t believe that within six weeks, the county could take such a drastic action.
“So if the county is ‘annoyed by your morals’ as stated in the law, it can justify booting you out of your house for a year?” he said. “Because this is a civil action, you aren’t entitled to a public defender. And most of these people are low income and can’t afford to hire an attorney for the hearing.”
The court ruling said the statute’s rental property language is “plain, understandable and unambiguous,” and that the Legislature’s intent for housing court was to hear and determine matters related to residential rental housing.
“We will acknowledge it is a much more serious undertaking when we evict a homeowner,” Freeman said. “We only take their home for a year and have to go through many procedures. The statute is to protect neighborhoods. And we are bound and determined to protect them.”
Several years ago, Freeman lived about a mile from a house in Richfield that had its owner evicted under the statute. The mother’s sons were in a gang, and another gang would drive by and shoot at the house.
“When she was evicted, she thanked us for helping her gain control of her family,” Freeman said. “A year later, they were back in the house.”
Hart laughed at the thought that she is the scourge of her neighborhood, the same place she spent her childhood. She acknowledges that she’s had trouble in the past. In the 2000, she was tagged with her 10th drunk-driving offense and her name was invoked by lawmakers pushing for tougher DWI laws. She said she hasn’t had a drunken driving offense in a decade.
But now she is treated like she’s Ma Barker, Hart said. Cops swarmed to her house after her occupational therapist visited her. They thought he was looking for a prostitute, but he wasn’t, she said.
Freeman said his office could still try and evict Hart through the county’s district court. Drewes said that might actually give Hart a better shot at fighting the eviction.
She now has a job, and her son is close to graduating from college. The house remains boarded and vacant, but she hopes to move back in soon.
“It’s unbelievable what I’ve been through,” she said. “You think you are safe in your home.”