Shortly after Jessica Kearns put a Black Lives Matter sign in her Roseville apartment window, her landlord sent her a text to take it down. She refused.

Two days later, she got a note under her door giving her 60 days to leave but stating no reason. When she asked why, the landlord responded that the sign violated her lease.

“He never had a problem or a complaint with me in the 14 months I’ve been here,” Kearns said. “Then two days after I stick up for myself and tell him that there’s nothing in the lease that says I can’t put up a sign, he wants me out.”

The landlord, Barry Star, disagrees and says that he had received complaints about Kearns and her two sons in the months before he demanded that she take down the sign.

But Kearns, a single mother of two, is preparing to fight the vacate notice in court if necessary, saying that it was clearly retaliation for posting the sign.

The dispute has prompted Roseville City Council Member Tammy McGehee to propose the study of a “just cause for eviction” ordinance, modeled after cities with affordable housing issues and requiring landlords to give a reason for asking a tenant to leave.

“This just seems like a discrimination issue, and right now we don’t really have any teeth to do anything at the city,” McGehee said. “We should look at it.”

A landlord generally is out-of-bounds if he or she refuses to let a tenant put a sign in the window, said Kirk Tisher, a real estate lawyer at the Burns and Hansen law firm in Minneapolis. But the law gets trickier when a lease has expired, Tisher said, or the tenant is going month-to-month as Kearns is doing. Then the landlord isn’t technically evicting the tenant when a notice to vacate is given, he said.

On the other hand, he said, the law forbids landlords from discontinuing a month-to-month lease for retaliatory reasons.

“You could make that argument — that putting up that sign is just the tenant exercising the right to use the property and that the landlord didn’t like it,” Tisher said. “But in court that could get ugly. In the end, it would depend on what the referee says.”

‘Not a simple issue’

Kearns, 31, is a student in the University of Minnesota’s sociology of law, criminology and deviance program, and hopes to use the degree to go to law school.

Sometime in mid-August she put the Black Lives Matter sign — about the size of political yard sign — in the second-floor window of her brownstone apartment off Snelling Drive.

Kearns’ yearlong lease had ended June 30, when she moved to a month-to-month lease. She previously had propped another sign in her window for several weeks, she said, and had heard nothing about it even after Star and an insurance agent did a walk-through of the apartment while it was up.

On Aug. 18, Star sent her a text to take the new sign down. When Kearns asked why, he told her it was a violation of her lease and wrote, “We absolutely cannot have signs in our windows.” She got the notice to leave two days later.

Kearns has contacted lawyers with Legal Aid, hoping to avoid or delay the Oct. 30 deadline Star has given her as she looks for a new apartment. The search hasn’t been easy because she receives Section 8 rent vouchers, which aren’t accepted by many landlords, and she wants to keep her two sons, ages 6 and 9, in Roseville schools. She is white and her sons are black.

“We have the right to say ‘Black Lives Matter’ in this apartment,” Kearns said. “I’m not going to give up that right because it makes my landlord uncomfortable.”

But Star said the sign in the window was the least of the problems with Kearns. “She wants to make this a simple issue, about the signs. Well, it’s not,” he said.

Star said he had received several complaints from other tenants about Kearns. He said that her sons threw bottles off the roof of the apartment building in September 2017, that he had fielded several noise complaints and said that her kids had ridden their bikes in the apartment’s parking lot, which is not allowed. In late August, he said, her sons scratched another tenant’s car.

“I have to think about other tenants and try to protect them and keep them happy,” Star said. “The biggest issue is just that her kids are unsupervised and they’re harassing other tenants.”

Star said he doesn’t want any signs in apartment windows, whether political or sports-related. “I’m trying to operate a professional building and having signage denigrates that,” he said.

Kearns disputed that her kids were ever on the roof of the building. She said that Star’s complaints about her and apartment noise were raised only after she refused to take down the second sign.

“It’s really odd to me that right after the sign incident is when he started flooding me with complaints,” she said.