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Evicted in a harsh housing climate

Brent Tweet expresses his frustration at being unable to get a leak in the ceiling of his apartment fixed. His landlord said a safe repair could not be made until Tweet moved out. Spread out in front of Tweet is some of the paperwork from the ongoing court case involving his recent eviction. (Bob King / / 4
Brent Tweet points out the numerous buckets that fill up each day with water leaking from the living room ceiling of his apartment. While the buckets are supposed to be emptied by housing staff, Tweet often must do it himself. Tweet was evicted from the house after withholding his rent in escrow until the problem was fixed. (Bob King / 2 / 4
Brent Tweet points to a leak in the ceiling of his former apartment. Plastic sheeting did not solve the problem. Tweet turned to Joel Kilgour (right) of Dorothy Day House for help in dealing with his landlord. (Bob King / / 4
Region's least affordable metro rental markets.4 / 4

Brent Tweet, a 43-year-old U.S. Navy veteran, recently found himself homeless because of a leak in the ceiling of the one-bedroom apartment he had been renting in Duluth.

Since his eviction more than a week ago, Tweet has been couch-surfing, with most of his worldly possessions locked up in a storage unit. He has spent several recent evenings as an unexpected guest of the Dorothy Day House.

Joel Kilgour, an outreach worker for Loaves & Fishes, which operates the Dorothy Day House, sees Tweet as walking evidence of the many challenges low-income tenants face in Duluth’s drum-tight rental market. A recent analysis flagged the Twin Ports as one of the least-affordable metro areas for renters in the region.

Upper hand “In a market like this one, tenants usually get the short end of the stick,” Kilgour said. “The system tends to benefit landlords who can afford to hire a legal team, especially over tenants who don’t know how to exercise their legal rights.”

Grant Odegard, a manager for JAS Properties Duluth LLC, said Tweet was evicted through no fault of his own but rather as the result of an unfortunate situation. He explained that extensive repairs to the ice-damaged roof of the apartment building, and the ceiling of Tweet’s apartment, could not safely be completed without vacating the unit first.

But Tweet believes his eviction was an act of retaliation. He first reported the leak to his landlord in January and filed paperwork in February to have his rental payment held in a court escrow account until repairs were made. At the time, Tweet said he was collecting 8-10 gallons of water daily from buckets placed below his leaking ceiling.

Judge David Johnson later ruled that Tweet should be able to reclaim rent payments made in the interim. But it was a short-lived victory. A counterclaim by JAS subsequently heard by Judge John DeSanto resulted in Tweet’s eviction.  

Odegard said JAS did offer Tweet another apartment less than a block away in the interim, but he rejected it.

Tweet, a mechanic in training, explained that the efficiency unit was too small to accommodate all the possessions he had accumulated, including his sizable collection of automotive tools.

Having fulfilled his obligations as a tenant, Tweet said he was dumbfounded to find himself out on the street, especially after four years of active duty service to the U.S. Navy and his dedication of yet another four years to the Navy Reserve.

“It seems like you fight for people’s rights only to come back home and get your own rights trampled on,” Tweet said.

Elusive search Tweet took a week off from his job at the Union Gospel Mission to search for another one-bedroom apartment he could afford with the help of a Section 8 housing voucher. But for all the calls he made and doors he knocked on, Tweet came up empty.

“This housing market is so tough. It’s unbelievable,” he said.

Local vacancy rates for rental housing have been running at about 3 percent, according to Keith Hamre, Duluth’s director of planning and construction services.

But Pam Benson, director of housing services for the Duluth Housing & Redevelopment Authority, described the local supply of affordable one-bedroom apartments as especially tight, and she said some people who are authorized to receive Section 8 rental assistance have been unable to find a suitable unit within the 60 days they’re normally allotted.

Minnesota is suffering from a statewide shortage of affordable rental housing, according to Leigh Rosenberg, director of research and outreach for the Minnesota Housing Partnership. She noted that more than half of renters in the state are unable to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

But few tenants residing in Midwestern metropolitan areas face as acute a challenge as those calling the Twin Ports home. Of all the major cities located in Minnesota, or on its borders, none ranked worse than Duluth, where an estimated 59 percent of renters are unable to afford to pay the fair market price of a two-bedroom apartment.

Affordability Federal guidelines define any housing cost that consumes north of 30 percent of a household’s income as unaffordable.

Benson said the local HRA has approved Section 8 vouchers for households paying as much as 40 percent of their household income in rent. But the consequence has been that the local HRA has been unable to stretch its funding far enough to cover 4 to 6 percent of the vouchers it would normally be authorized to issue.

“Sometimes people think they can afford to pay a rent that’s higher than 30 percent of their income, but then their car breaks down, or they need a new tire, or they have a medical expense and they get behind,” Benson said.

Rosenberg said renters living beyond their means sometimes have to scrimp on food, medicine and other necessities.

“When people don’t have enough to pay for the basics, everyone suffers, including children,” she said.

With an annual median household income of about $21,400, renters in the Twin Ports market have the misfortune of bringing home less money than residents of any other metropolitan area in the state. A local renter’s household earning the median income could expect to afford a monthly rent of just $534 in the Twin Ports.

In order to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Duluth or Superior, the local median rental household income would need to be about 30 percent higher than it is today, using the same federal guidelines.

Rosenberg said the pending increase in the state’s minimum wage will help, but more support for low-income housing also will be needed to address the challenges confronting Minnesota renters.

Behind the numbers The recent recession and the surge of home foreclosures that accompanied it pushed a large number of new households into the rental housing market, Rosenberg said.

As demand for apartments rose, so did rents, and Benson said many landlords determined there was more money to be made renting units at market rates instead of dealing with tenants who required subsidies and all the accompanying paperwork.

Yet Rick Ball, executive director of the Duluth HRA, sees some encouraging signs with the pending development of the 50-unit Steve O’Neil Apartments project as well as the redevelopment of the former Lincoln Park Elementary School into affordable housing and a community center. Both those projects are advancing with the help of public subsidies.

Ball also is heartened to see developers focusing new attention on additional market-rate and senior rental housing in the Twin Ports.

“As people move, those projects could free up some additional rental housing throughout the community, and that could help everyone,” he said.

As the local economy strengthens, employers are creating new jobs, and Duluth Mayor Don Ness recently predicted the city will need 2,300 housing more units by 2020 in order to accommodate its expanding work force.

The improving economy promises to create additional challenges and new demand for rental housing in other ways as well.

The recent recession forced many people to move back in with parents or to double up with roommates. As people begin to feel more financially secure, however, housing markets across the country can expect see the results of pent-up demand. That means more individuals will likely be looking for apartments of their own, and that will have still more implications for tenants across the board.