Charles Donald eagerly signed a lease for a one-bedroom apartment in north Minneapolis after struggling with homelessness.

Then he saw mice climbing on the stove and squirrels chewing through the ceiling. The front door didn't lock and his heat stopped working. "When I would go to sleep, I turned the oven on low," he said.

His landlord didn't return calls for repairs, so his daughter urged him to stop paying rent. That got the landlord's attention; Donald, 68, got an eviction notice.

Thousands of Minnesotans face eviction notices each year and end up in court — often without a lawyer or an understanding of their rights. Many sign lopsided settlements drafted by landlords that leave them with an eviction record that makes finding another place to live even harder.

Now, nonprofits and philanthropists are zeroing in on the issue, investing in efforts to keep renters from losing their housing in the first place. The Pohlad Family Foundation, which pivoted its focus to housing stability last year, has given money to Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, Volunteer Lawyers Network and Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services to provide counsel and representation to renters.

"Evictions can cause a downward spiral for families that leads to homelessness," said Susan Bass Roberts, vice president and executive director of the Pohlad Family Foundation. "There are concrete things we can do to prevent this."

Mid-Minnesota has hired four attorneys to represent as many as 600 renters — out of roughly 6,000 total — facing eviction in Hennepin County each year. They also give legal advice to nearly 2,000 more.

"Eviction prevention to us is homelessness prevention," said Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid Executive Director Drew Schaffer.

Nonprofit Volunteer Lawyers Network has opened a housing court clinic in Ramsey County and increased its work helping people expunging eviction records. Nine out of 10 people appear in housing court without an attorney, said Muria Kruger, housing program manager and resource attorney for Volunteer Lawyers Network.

"If there is no one pushing back making sure landlords are following the law fairly, they are going to use those advantages and over time we know it won't be fair," Kruger said.

Process moves quickly

The epicenter of evictions in Minnesota is north Minneapolis, attorneys and nonprofit leaders say.

According to a study completed by the city, landlords filed eviction notices against nearly half the renter households there in a three-year time span. People of color and women-led households were disproportionately faced with eviction, the report concluded.

One of the biggest challenges for Minnesota renters facing an eviction is timing, said Luke Grundman, Legal Aid's managing attorney for their Minneapolis housing practice. Evictions must be heard within 14 days of filing. Landlords often serve eviction papers via mail.

"They oftentimes get just a couple of days warning that they have to be in court," Grundman said.

Minnesota counties can provide emergency financial assistance to help people pay their rent, but even that comes too late.

Landlords often have attorneys or professional property managers arguing their case while tenants are representing themselves. Maintenance issues that jeopardize the health and safety of tenants are a defense for withholding rent in Minnesota, but tenants often don't know that.

Minnesota Multi Housing Association, which advocates for landlords, said they support better representation for tenants.

"What Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and Volunteer Lawyers Network does is great. We know they ensure that the lawyers that are providing these services are competent … so that the tenants have the best experience," wrote housing association President Nichol Beckstrand.

Sometimes, the issue isn't a bad landlord, advocates on both sides agree.

"Most landlords are good people and they have the right to make money," Bass Roberts said.

But some landlords use tenants caught in a cycle of eviction to profit, advocates said. Landlords charge families as much as a $4,000 damage deposit and pounce on the first opportunity to evict and keep the deposit.

"They will put three families through the same house in the same year," Grundman said. "They do it because families are so desperate to find housing, especially families who have any kind of hurdle including large families, low income, past evictions, any kind of criminal conviction even if it's ancient."

'An excellent job'

Donald said he was minutes away from signing a settlement prepared by his landlord that would have required him move out in seven days and pay thousands of dollars. Then Legal Aid attorney Jeffer Ali agreed to take his case.

Ali, a 52-year-old patent attorney who had been a shareholder at the firm Carlson Caspers, joined Legal Aid in April thanks to the Pohlad grant.

He said he likes helping individuals, but he's also using his position to find test cases to appeal to force greater systematic change. He said he's already filed four federal cases alleging discrimination under the federal Fair Housing Act.

In Donald's case, Ali used witness testimony, documents and photos to show the landlord initially misled the court about the amount Donald owed by thousands of dollars.

The representative for Assertive MPLS Properties conceded that point in court. The landlord did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

The judge ruled that withholding the rent was justified and Donald was allowed to stay.

"I think he did an excellent job," Donald said of Ali.

"If he hadn't had that lawyer, he would be evicted and packing his stuff right now," said Donald's daughter and trial witness Rasheeda Smith.

Bass Roberts emphasized that the legal aid efforts aren't meant to prevent landlords from evicting tenants when there's legal cause to do so. But some tenants cannot afford their rent or face financial crisis. The Pohlad Foundation also is helping families who need one-time assistance to keep their home, Bass Roberts said.

"We are talking about working families making very difficult choices when a car breaks down or a child gets sick," she said.

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804