See more of the story

When tenants at a Hopkins apartment complex suddenly had to pay for utilities that once were included in their rent, and had their parking garage closed over safety worries, they found there was little the city could do to help.

The Knollwood Towers West tenants' troubles highlight gaps in tenant protection ordinances and other city regulation and enforcement mechanisms — which could affect thousands of residents in Hopkins. Almost two-thirds of Hopkins residents rent their homes, according to the city. That's a higher proportion of renters than even Minneapolis, where just over half of residents are renters.

Even though the cost to live in Knollwood Towers West has increased by hundreds of dollars each month — since rent was not lowered when tenants started paying for utilities separately — residents said they feel they have few options if they want to stay in Hopkins. Knollwood Towers West is advertising rents between $825 per month for a studio and $1,039 for a two-bedroom apartment.

"It's hard to find something under $1,300," one Knollwood Towers West resident said.

Building residents who spoke to the Star Tribune asked not to be named for fear of retaliation from the property owner, Utah-based Investment Property Group. The company said in a statement it believes it has not broken any laws and is proactive in maintaining its buildings.

The residents are organizing a tenants' union with faith-based advocacy group Isaiah.

Hopkins has a tenant protection ordinance on the books, but it's limited. Like similar ordinances in neighboring cities, the measure only applies for three months after a building is sold, and only requires that landlords help renters with relocation expenses when rents are increased.

No city regulations exist to help renters in cases where a building has not been sold, or when landlords start charging separately for utilities or raise other fees but do not raise rents. Hopkins officials did not respond to a request for comment about the city's regulations.

Neighboring St. Louis Park was the first city in Minnesota to pass a tenant protection ordinance in 2018, after a rash of building sales resulted in drastically raised rents, re-screening of tenants and non-renewals of leases. The St. Louis Park ordinance requires new property owners to provide relocation assistance if they take any of those actions within three months of buying an apartment building.

Hopkins soon followed St. Louis Park's ordinance. Meeting minutes show City Council members were watching the development of the Southwest light rail line with concern over what the train could mean for less expensive apartments.

But tenant protection ordinances, now common in the west metro and in place in Minneapolis, do not protect tenants when existing landlords want to raise rents or make other changes. Only St. Paul has a rule, as part of its rent stabilization ordinance, that addresses situations where utility costs are separated from rent and rent is not then decreased — since tenants end up paying more per month even if the rent was not technically raised.

In Hopkins, another set of issues arose this spring when the parking garage at Knollwood Towers West was closed for months due to safety concerns. Engineers eventually determined the garage was safe, but residents were still frustrated about losing access to indoor parking amid a snowy spring. City officials gave residents fliers suggesting they call the nonprofit Home Line for help breaking their leases.

Eric Hauge, Home Line's director, said tenants take on a lot of risk when they go up against landlords in Minnesota, and breaking a lease can be risky.

Tenants who break their leases and just leave an apartment can be sued by a landlord for whatever rent they would have paid, he said. State law places the burden on the tenant to show there was a real problem, and the law can be interpreted to favor landlords, he said.

"The burden lands on the tenants to enforce their rights," Hauge said.

A lot of the Knollwood Towers West tenants wanted to break their leases, he said, but they grew more concerned about taking that risk after the Minnesota Attorney General's Office announced in April its investigation into practices at another building owned by Investment Property Group.

The company has denied wrongdoing in response to the investigation, as well as in response to a lawsuit brought by a former Hopkins tenant.

Hauge said some cities have laws that let city officials suspend a landlord's rental license, which can mean the property owner is barred from collecting rent until a problem is solved. But it's rare for officials in any city to take that step, he said.

Hopkins officials are keeping an eye on repairs at the Knollwood Towers West parking garage. But residents are left to wonder how they will keep up with the higher cost to live in their apartments, even as they grow frustrated with maintenance.

There are few other low-cost options in the city, tenants said. Even though there are several apartment buildings under construction, few of the new units will be affordable to people with moderate incomes.

Hopkins did not require developers to include affordable apartments in the buildings now underway — the city only passed an "inclusionary zoning" ordinance in May 2023, years after such ordinances passed in neighboring cities. So new apartment buildings springing up near future light rail stops are out of reach for many of the Knollwood Towers West residents. Some new buildings advertise rents starting at $1,500 — almost double the cost of a studio apartment at Knollwood Towers West.

"We love Hopkins. We want to stay in Hopkins," another resident said.

But because her apartment has gotten so much more expensive, she said, she is thinking seriously about living in her car next year.