Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has filed a lawsuit against a longtime Minneapolis landlord, accusing him of failing to make repairs to substandard North Side properties and illegally discouraging his tenants from calling city inspectors for help.
Ellison said during a news conference Tuesday that his office is stopping Steven Meldahl "from preying on low-income tenants in a systematic and widespread eviction-for-profit scheme." He accused Meldahl of churning out eviction filings to keep thousands of dollars in tenant security deposits and charging residents fees if they call city inspectors to report a code violation.
"Steven Meldahl deserves to be held accountable, and I think it is very important that the folks who are here today, the people who lived in these properties, are in a position to say, 'No more,' " Ellison said.
In an interview Tuesday, Meldahl denied any wrongdoing and said a practice of forcing people to constantly move out would not be good for his bottom line. He plans to fight the allegations in court.
Minneapolis officials have cited Meldahl for more than 1,300 housing code violations at his rental properties since 2009. Ellison said his office pursued the lawsuit under the authority of the state's consumer protection laws.
On Oct. 1, a day after Ellison filed the lawsuit, Hennepin County District Judge Patrick Robben issued a restraining order that requires Meldahl to stop retaliating against his tenants who contact city housing inspectors and froze 10 of Meldahl's bank accounts.
The attorney general's complaint said Meldahl requires his tenants to pay large security deposits, refuses to make repairs to his 25 properties in north Minneapolis and threatens retaliation if his tenants call city inspectors.
The office is seeking the court's help to force Meldahl to repair his properties, stop charging tenants excessive late fees and stop him from making tenants sign leases that say they won't contact city inspectors. It is also seeking fines and restitution for tenants.
During the news conference, four of Meldahl's former tenants spoke about their experiences as a slide show played behind them. The photos showed holes in ceilings and walls and water damage. The former tenants said they felt helpless when confronted with high water bills, cockroaches, rats, mice, squirrels in ceilings, leaky toilets and repairs they had to pay for out of pocket.
Shakerra Evans said one of her children developed lead poisoning and another developed asthma while living in the property. The former tenants all alleged that Meldahl used their families' precarious housing situations to keep them trapped and constantly threatened them with evictions.
Catrina Teverbaugh, a former tenant of Meldahl's with seven children, said they videotaped and took notes of what was going on with the property. She said she was worried when her daughter contacted Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid because she didn't want to do or say anything that would cause Meldahl to evict them. But Teverbaugh said she felt bullied into keeping quiet about issues on the property because Meldahl knew she had few housing options available.
"He knew that I just wanted to keep a roof over my children's head," Teverbaugh said.
Meldahl said the damages to his property are often done by tenants, and that's why he asks them to make repairs by paying someone or doing it on their own. Much of his communication with tenants is done by e-mail, particularly with repair issues.
"For a lot of these folks, let's say their kid puts a hole in the wall, they think it's our responsibility to come over and fix it, and I disagree," Meldahl said. "Your kid broke it, you're responsible for fixing it."
Meldahl said his tenants are allowed to call city inspectors, but he just wants to be notified in advance so he can be there. He charges tenants $100 if they have a city inspector come onto the property without warning. Meldahl said he has this rule in place because "inspectors don't know what they're doing" and he has a better grasp on the codes than they do, particularly because he understands how to do repairs.
Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid also filed a complaint Monday on behalf of Meldahl's tenants.