Thankfully, Lewis discovered the hidden camera and moved out of her apartment in the landlord’s St. Paul building.
Privacy violations in rental housing are surprisingly common: they are one of the top five legal issues for which Minnesota callers to the nonprofit tenant hotline HOME Line sought assistance last year. Female tenants like Lewis are especially likely to be subjected to unwanted invasions of their privacy. 71% percent of the Minnesota HOME Line callers were female.
Existing laws require landlords to give “reasonable” notice before entering a tenant’s home, but in practice, renters often fear for their safety and face retaliation when they invoke their rights. Property owners or managers typically carry keys to their rental units, and a recommendation from a former landlord can greatly influence a tenant’s future housing options. Even when an individual does intend to enforce their rights, they must wait fourteen days before filing a rent escrow case in housing court. Such cases often take several more weeks to play out in court.
With help from HOME Line and Gender Justice, two separate lawsuits were filed in Hennepin County District Court on behalf of female tenants alleging sexual harassment they both say they experienced at home. (See Lewis v. [redacted], 0:14-CV-04971; Malchow v. Tam, 27-CV-14-20178).
“Harassment at home is especially traumatic because victims and their families have no place to retreat from the abuse, and they risk losing their housing if they complain.”Co-Founder of Gender Justice, Jill Gaulding
That’s something Kimberly Malchow, who filed suit alleging sexual harassment against her former landlord, Harvey Tam, knows all too well.
Malchow’s suit claims Tam sexually harassed her and consistently violated her privacy in her Richfield, Minnesota home. At one point, the suit explains, Tam barged into Malchow’s bedroom after learning she was breastfeeding her daughter.
Unable to find another apartment, Malchow demanded an end to her landlord’s abuse. Her family was soon facing eviction and homelessness.
“Difficulty finding replacement housing makes low income renters and single-parent families most vulnerable to harassment. Threats of eviction are especially compelling, because the eviction stays on your record.”HOME Line Attorney, Jess Mikkelson
To avoid sending her family to a shelter, Malchow temporarily moved back into Tam’s building while she sought other options, but Tam’s harassment became even worse. When she objected to it, he evicted her yet again.
“We clearly need to do a better job of protecting renters from privacy violations and sexual harassment at home,” said Gaulding. “These two lawsuits are proof of that.”
Past legislative proposals aimed at strengthening privacy rights in rental housing have included specifying a clear notice timeline (24 hours instead of what the landlord deems “reasonable”), increasing the $100 penalty for privacy violations, and offering tenants a choice to file privacy cases more speedily in conciliation or district court.
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