$200 rent increase forces tenants from homes

October 9, 2018
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When she returned to Villages at Essex Place on Saturday, one of the things Elizabeth Runyon noticed was the lack of children she knew.

“All the families had to leave,” she said, noting 10 children she knew at the apartment complex no longer lived there.

Runyon and her two sons left the complex after their rent increased by more than $200 in July.

“It was hard on my youngest son,” she said of 13-year-old Cody. “He has been here since he was 3.”

Her oldest son has moved to live on his own, but Runyon, who has cerebral palsy and is on disability, was able to find a two-story house in Rochester that actually reduced her housing expenses.

She now pays $825, rather than the $1,138 she was paying at Essex Place prior to the rent increase.

The transition, however, wasn’t easy. She said she and some of her neighbors fought to get approval to move and avoid charges after being given notice of the mid-lease rent increase.

“One day when I was fighting my own battle, I saw 20 people walk out of that office and five of them were crying,” she recalled Saturday during a rally hosted by CURE — Communities United for Rochester Empowerment — which sought to raise awareness of the increase.

The rally drew a crowd of approximately 60 people, mostly current and former tenants who faced unexpected rent increases in July.

While Runyon was able to find a lower-priced rental after what she called a stress-filled search, others haven’t been as fortunate.

Maryan and Ahmed Ali, who had lived in the complex for five years, were told they and their three children would need to move when they complained about the increase in rent, which went from $1,075 to $1,285.

“They didn’t give us a chance,” Ahmed Ali said, noting he tried to pay the amount cited in his lease, but was turned away. “They said, ‘You have to pay or go.’”

The couple ended up moving, citing a fear of future increases or eviction. The family now pays $1,400 for a three-bedroom apartment but are searching for something more affordable on Ahmed Ali’s truck driver salary.

During its rally, CURE and the protesters delivered a letter to the office Villages at Essex Place shares with its sister market-rate apartments under the Villages at Essex Park umbrella. Addressed to Paul Sween, managing partner of Dominium Management, which operates the complex, the letter seeks a reversal of rent increases, funds for tenants’ relocation expenses and an in-person meeting with CURE members, as well as tenants.

“We believe this is an opportunity for Dominium Management to demonstrate that it intends to act in good faith and become a partner with the Rochester community to help solve, rather than worsen, the housing crisis,” states the letter from CURE, which is an affiliate of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota.

Dominium spokesman Owen Truesdell noted the company supports the group’s right to rally and agrees there is a need for additional local, state and federal investments to create more affordable housing.

The federal tax-credit program Villages at Essex Place operates under provides tax incentives to encourage developers to create affordable housing. Those incentives limit rent levels.

For Villages at Essex Place, it means all units must be deemed affordable for anyone earning 60 percent of the area median income. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development uses local income levels to define the maximum allowable rent.

In April, the federal agency adjusted rent guidelines based on a report of an increase in the area median income, which also increased the maximum allowable rents.

“Following the HUD announcement, we evaluated the Rochester housing market and, based on a market survey, new construction and job growth data, we announced an annual rent increase consistent with the language included in every tenant’s lease,” Truesdell wrote in a statement provided Saturday.

Until the July increase, several residents reported having different rent amounts. Now, all rents are set at the maximum allowed.

Truesdell said the increases will benefit the tenants who stay, as well as future tenants. Additionally, future increases will only be able to occur with federal action.

“This action will allow us to continue to invest in the property and maintain it as a quality place for residents to live,” he said.

Former resident Paul Bell said he objects to landlords raising rents simply because they can, noting he no longer considers Essex Place to be affordable housing.

“Affordable housing should be based on my income, not what someone else can afford,” he said Saturday.

Bell lived for two and a half years at the complex with his sister and brother-in-law before seeing a $244 increase in their two-bedroom apartment in July. He said their rent was already set to go up nearly as much by the end of their lease in August, so they had been looking to move and found a place they could afford in Stewartville.

The move, however, adds the cost of a commute to his job at a Rochester retail store and has his sister looking for work in Stewartville so she can have an income while also helping her husband, who is disabled.

While circumstances varied slightly for the former and current tenants who gathered along 41st Street Northwest on Saturday afternoon, housing stress was a common theme.

For Terenki Sidibey, a refugee from Sierra Leone who is raising three U.S.-born children while her husband remains in a refugee camp, said she’s moving next month after receiving a notice of potential eviction.

She found a new home, but said it was difficult in the current market and has left her frustrated while trying to work as much overtime as possible in her $12-an-hour job.

“Everything just shut down,” she said of her circumstances. “We came here for a better life.”

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