It's been a rough few months for Korrie Holzer. Her uncle died. She lost her job and her husband came down with COVID-19. Then the biggest bombshell of all hit. The Columbia Heights Fire Department last week taped a notice to the front door of the house she rents telling her she has 45 days to leave.
The City Council on Jan. 10 revoked two rental licenses held by Georgia-based HavenBrook Homes for failing to make mandated repairs and meet the requirements of the city's Residential Maintenance Code. The city subsequently learned HavenBrook had 21 licenses for single-family homes in the city and all of them, including the one for Holzer's 123-year-old home on 5th Street, were canceled, said City Manager Kelli Bourgeois.
"My city is breaking my heart," said Holzer, who is in her late 40s. "I have had three days of tears under all the stress to begin with. We are terrified we all will be homeless."
In a statement, HavenBrook said it is committed to ensuring its residents have access to quality, affordable rental housing.
"We are immediately stepping in to conduct the appropriate remediations in the two homes following a lack of action from these residents," the company said. The statement also said HavenBrook would "do everything in our power to ensure our residents are either able to remain in their homes or facilitate alternative accommodations at no additional cost."
But with their landlord no longer holding valid rental licenses, tenants like Holzer technically have to leave their properties by March 4 and would become squatters if they stay. Bourgeois said the city is working with Judicare of Anoka County to come up with a deal known as a Tenant Remedies Action that would allow Holzer and others to stay in their homes. Judicare is a nonprofit that provides free legal representation in noncriminal matters to low-income residents of Anoka County.
"Our issue is not with the tenants," Bourgeois said. "We do not want community members to have to leave their homes, but we do have to keep landlords accountable. We are trying to find a resolution so they don't have to leave. That is beyond the scope of what is required [by the city], but it is the right thing to do."
If residents don't leave their properties by the deadline, they are subject to a fine for unlawfully occupying a property. HavenBrook could also face penalties for allowing properties to be occupied, said Assistant Fire Chief Dan O'Brien at a City Council meeting earlier this month.
Bourgeois assured residents that no tenants will be forcibly evicted and the city does not have the authority to force someone from their home.
Bourgeois said HavenBrook's properties were rife with problems, ranging from missing or broken carbon monoxide and smoke detectors to mold in the kitchen, holes in walls, broken windows, peeling siding, and incorrectly installed or poorly maintained electrical wiring. The city contacted HavenBrook over a period of many months to correct the problems, but the company took no action, she said.
Holzer said her basement is constantly damp, the foundation has a "massive crack" in it and the porch is detaching from the house. She said she uses a space heater to keep the water line from freezing. Like the city, Holzer said she has called HavenBrook incessantly to request repairs but the company has been silent. Often times, Holzer said, she made plumbing and electrical repairs herself.
"These are our homes and we treat them like that," she said. "This is our community, and they are asking us to leave because the homeowner can't do the right thing."
Holzer, a three-year tenant, doesn't know where she will go. She had planned on buying a house later this year but then lost her job. Her son has three pets, so finding a short-term rental that will accept them would be difficult, she said.
"We are stuck in the moment," said Holzer, who was packing on Monday. "This came out of the blue."
Holzer and many of her neighbors found out about their plight only last week after the fire department stopped by, even though the city had been corresponding with HavenBrook for months.
"You can't kill the messenger, but if the city knew, why didn't they give more notice if they care so much?" she wondered.
Bourgeois said the city notified HavenBrook about properties on Tyler and Jefferson streets that were in disrepair in July. After repeated inspections showed problems went uncorrected, the City Council revoked HavenBrook's licenses Jan. 10. That is when it discovered the company had 19 other licenses, which also were voided.
"We revoked two licenses and it had that effect," Bourgeois said. "Because of corporate ownership, we didn't know all the players."
Once known, the city alerted affected tenants, she said. The city, Bourgeois said, has recently updated its systems to better track rental property owners.
Holzer is hoping the city can at least extend the deadline so she won't have to move while the pandemic is still raging and it's still winter. Bourgeois said the city has to proceed.
"This is a tough one — it's not good," Bourgeois said. Tenants are "entitled to safe and adequate housing, and licensing is the only way of ensuring that. We value those community members. We are doing what we can."