A group of disabled senior residents of a Newport apartment complex filed a lengthy lawsuit Friday against their landlord for what they allege was an illegal order telling them to move out for renovations intended to prepare the building for new tenants.
The 45-page suit, filed on behalf of six residents by the nonprofit Housing Justice Center, alleges fraud, retaliation, exploitation of vulnerable adults, and violations of the state's Human Rights Act and Deceptive Trade Practices Act.
It asks the Washington County District Court to fine landlord Christopher Onken, block him from evicting the tenants from the Wings of Newport supported living complex, and to appoint an administrator to oversee the building and to provide services that were promised to the vulnerable population when they moved in.
Onken, who said Friday that he's willing to work with tenants to help them find new accommodations, had not seen the lawsuit and had no immediate comment. Although some of the residents believed they would be served eviction notices, Onken on Friday said that he hadn't filed any yet.
The suit follows weeks of protests from the residents touched off by Onken's Oct. 21 notice that their month-to-month leases were ending and that they had until Nov. 30 to move. The four-story, 200-unit Wings building opened in September of last year.
The seniors moved in with a range of physical, emotional, and mental disabilities that require services to help them live independently, such as therapy, transportation, or help with cooking and cleaning. The services are paid with state and federal funds through the Community Access for Disability Inclusion (CADI) waiver, a program that in 2020 helped an average 29,493 Minnesotans each month at an average monthly cost of $3,638. The waiver program allows states to get Medicaid matching funds for the services, and to support people who would otherwise need to live in institutions.
Onken has said that a change earlier this year to the state's licensing regulations forced him to file for a new type of license, one that would see the building's units go from 100% assisted and supported living to just 25%. At the same time, damage to the building by a handful of tenants requires some $100,000 in repairs, he said. He said he told about 30 tenants living on the first, third and fourth floors to move out so that he could make the repairs and then rent out the units as market-rate apartments. Tenants living on the second floor were told they could stay. Onken has defended the decision, saying last month that he hasn't broken any laws.
In their lawsuit, the tenants allege that the building never lived up to its promises. The Newport City Council was told in January 2020 that the building would offer supported living for seniors 55 and older, but plaintiffs allege that services were provided intermittently, if at all. Resident and plaintiff Crystal Rex alleged that trash collection was the only service provided to her this year, although her CADI case manager made clear that Rex needed help with housekeeping, grooming, laundry services, meal preparation and an emergency call button. The suit alleges that Zumbro House, a Woodbury-based company run by Onken, continued to take payment for services to Rex through July 13 of this year, though none were delivered.
Rex and other tenants received a notice from Onken in May that said Wings of Newport would no longer offer licensed home care services starting in July. The suit alleges that this was a violation of state law.
"It's breaking my heart seeing people I really care about here having to make a decision about getting an eviction or going to a group home or a shelter," said Lucretia Brewer, a Wings resident and one of the suit's plaintiffs. She said some residents have already left the building to move into a homeless shelter because they don't want to get an eviction on their housing record.
Rex said she's looking for another apartment, but just applying for new housing takes longer than the 30 days she was given to find a new apartment.
A Gofundme page to help the residents pay for application fees has been set up.