A Hennepin County district judge has fined a north Minneapolis landlord $133,500 for what he called "horrific" conditions in his rental properties of "biblical plague proportions."
Judge Patrick Robben ruled Thursday that landlord Steven Meldahl operated in bad faith by telling tenants that they were not allowed to contact city inspectors, violating the rights of 267 families who rented his properties.
Robben levied a fine of $500 per family.
He also issued a permanent injunction preventing Meldahl from engaging in illegal and deceptive practices, and gave him until Dec. 15 to comply with all housing correction notices.
The case was brought by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who praised the tenants for stepping forward to testify during an eight-day trial in May.
"The landlord's behavior is appalling and unacceptable, and I am glad the court agreed," Ellison said in a statement.
Ellison filed the case against Meldahl and his business, S.J.M. Properties Inc., in September 2019 and immediately secured a temporary injunction to stop Meldahl from barring tenants from contacting health and safety inspectors.
Court-ordered inspections revealed 383 housing code violations at 27 of Meldahl's properties, which the city ordered corrected. In February, the court ruled that he violated state law by charging tenants $50 per month on top of an 8% late fee. State law caps the fee at 8%.
Former tenant Dawn King, 22, who testified at the trial, said Meldahl "got what he deserved."
"I just don't want anyone else to go through this," she said.
Robben wrote that numerous former tenants testified about living conditions "that can only be described as appalling."
"Infestations suggestive of biblical plague proportions — squirrels, mice, rats, gnats," the judge said. "Tenants being resigned to simply keeping the bathroom door closed to try and isolate a squirrel infiltration. Ongoing water damage, destroying property, in one instance even causing a ceiling to collapse."
But Robben rejected Ellison's request that Meldahl be ordered to pay $3.1 million in restitution to tenants, saying it was not a substitute for civil penalties.
Larry McDonough, a housing rights attorney who has been involved in the drafting of most of the housing laws passed in Minnesota since 1988, called Robben's ruling "a great decision." But he said he was disappointed the court didn't order restitution.
McDonough, who is with the St. Paul nonprofit Housing Justice Center, said Ellison's decision to take on Meldahl was "historic" and that the case was brought under state consumer protection laws that hadn't been previously used against landlords.
"The vast majority of [housing] cases are between individuals and landlords and occasionally tenant groups suing landlords," McDonough said. "Until this attorney general, we did not see this this type of action."
McDonough also said the unusually harsh language the judge used in describing Meldahl's practices was unprecedented. "Judges reserve these comments for exceptional cases," he said.
Reached by email on Friday, David Shulman, Meldahl's attorney, declined to comment.
Dawn King, whose testimony was cited in Robben's ruling, said in an interview that she rented an apartment in the 2400 block of Emerson Avenue N. in 2018 when she was 18. She said Meldahl demanded a $3,000 deposit that was never returned. "He said it was required of all tenants who were not born in Minnesota," she said.
After moving in, King said, she found mouse holes along the walls in every room. When she would return from working a 12-hour night-shift job, she said, "the mice would be partying in my room."
King said family members had to wear boots in the basement because of standing water and that the toilet would not stop running, leading to an enormous water bill. She said Meldahl told her the bill was so big because her family took too many baths.
She said that squirrels infested the walls and came into the kitchen, once knocking over her brother's birthday cake. When the washing machine broke, Meldahl told her to go to a laundromat.
"We couldn't ask inspectors to come in," she said. "He said that would be breaking the lease."
Kelley White, who also testified in the trial, said in an interview that she rented an apartment in the 2900 block of Queen Avenue N. She said Meldahl told her she couldn't call housing inspectors about infractions. When she was moving out, she said, he referred to family members with her as "gorillas" and then used obscenities.
"I was really appalled," White said. "Why would you say this in front of our kids?"
Randy Furst, 612-673-4224