More than a dozen vulnerable adults must find new apartments in a tough housing market, after South St. Paul officials revoked property owner T. Ryan Johnson’s rental licenses because of what they said were barely livable conditions and failure to make needed repairs.
The list of problems plaguing the five properties included leaky windows, nonfunctional stoves and garbage and cat feces strewn throughout, city documents said.
“The conditions were deplorable,” City Administrator Joel Hanson said.
Many of the 13 adults who are disabled received a second blow. They will lose government-funded services to live independently since the company providing those services, One Life Health Services, received a license revocation order from the state because of a finding of neglect, and One Life discontinued services. The order can be appealed, but in the meantime tenants losing their housing also will have to find another company to help them with grocery shopping, cleaning and getting around.
David Brooks, who owns One Life and got a master lease from Johnson allowing him to sublet units to tenants, said he believes the rental licenses were revoked as part of South St. Paul’s plan to remove people with disabilities from the city — perhaps because of a 2018 incident in which two police officers were shot by a mentally ill group-home resident.
Hanson denied that and said officials thought carefully before revoking Johnson’s licenses, a decision they saw as beneficial in the long run even though it left renters scrambling to find housing in the interim.
“That was a serious concern of the council, but they felt that the failure to act would be a worse outcome,” he said. Johnson’s attorney didn’t return calls for comment.
Dakota County officials said that while they understood the reasons for the city’s actions, some tenants may end up homeless as a result.
The rental market “continues to be really tight,” said Madeline Kastler, Dakota County’s deputy director of housing and community resources. “What we’re expecting is some of these people will be entering into homelessness.”
The city gave tenants 90 days to find new housing in early February, but many have received notices from the landlord to vacate by March 31, county officials said.
“I’ve got a lot of anger toward this place right now,” said Tina Todd, who has lived in her stucco fourplex for four years. “They’ve ruined my life.”
Her neighbor, Tracey Roberts, said the building is so unsafe he won’t let his 6-year-old son visit. “I don’t need my son to see a man passed out in the laundry room,” he said.
The state Department of Human Services (DHS) licensed One Life in 2014 but revoked its license in December 2017. A May 2018 settlement resulted in a conditional license, but three correction orders and 26 violations followed over the next year and a half. The revocation order came last month after DHS found 13 violations, 10 of them repeat violations, a department spokesperson said.
Christa Groshek, an attorney who represents Brooks, said her client will appeal the state’s actions. One Life, which has clients in Ramsey and Dakota counties, may operate in the meantime.
She denied allegations that One Life had failed to provide adequate services and said it tried to meet maintenance needs when told about them. The unsanitary conditions the city documented weren’t One Life’s fault, she said. Services are voluntary and the vulnerable adults sometimes didn’t want help or wouldn’t let workers inside, she said, so no one knew how bad things were.
Brooks’ master lease with Johnson allowed him to sublet apartments to high-risk tenants that no other landlord would take on, Groshek said.
“This is going to greatly impact these vulnerable people that have very few options to begin with,” she said.
Roberta Opheim, state ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities, said there’s some “gray area” in terms of responsibility when vulnerable adults resist help. At the same time, she said, “If those conditions are that way due to the mental health of the individual, then that’s some of what customized living services is supposed to address — how to help people, how to teach people.”
The situation shows the complications that can arise when housing is linked with the service provider, Kastler said. Both DHS and Dakota County discourage that linkage, she said, because often tenants are told they must keep the service provider to stay in their apartment. Clients are supposed to have options in whom they hire, but “choice really goes away” when one entity becomes involved in both areas, she said.
Kastler said the One Life situation is “unique and unfortunate” because most service providers are “really strong.”
Todd, who receives services for a brain injury and bipolar disorder, said that problems with both property management and One Life services abounded.
“Everything is broken here,” she said, adding that the landlord has lost seven of her maintenance request tickets.
Todd said the kitchen has flooded twice and her refrigerator has been replaced three times over a four-year period. She said that she was told to use the bathroom in the building next door when her own bathroom had plumbing issues. That presented challenges because of her walker, she said.
Sidewalks weren’t shoveled consistently, Todd said, and the trash collector came infrequently. She was told never to call police unless she had a medical problem.
Roberts, who has fetal alcohol syndrome and receives help with independent living skills, said One Life has billed him for an hourlong visit for a simple text or phone call. When he has dialed One Life’s 24-hour crisis line, he said, no one answered or they failed to show up.
Neither Todd nor Roberts, who are looking for apartment options in the $575 to $650 price range, had yet found housing. Todd said she was happy to see her landlord and One Life face consequences, despite having to pack up and move.
“No one should have to go through what we’ve gone through,” she said.