U renters protest, sue landlord Eischens

Since 1996, 36 properties managed by Jim Eischens have been cited for housing violations 667 times.

by Josh Linehan

When she moved into her new house at 808 Fifth St. S.E. last September, Jessica Opad did not expect all this.

She did not expect to spend the next year on the phone with the housing inspection department. Did not expect the people at University Student Legal Services to recognize her voice when she called. Did not know part of her college education would be learning her way around the Minneapolis court system. Most of all, she did not expect to haul her shampoo and conditioner to the rec center to shower in the morning.

Opad’s mistake, she said, was moving into a house owned by area landlord Jim Eischens.

According to records kept by the attorneys at University Student Legal Services, more complaints are directed at Eischens than at any other University-area landlord.

Eischens said the high number of complaints results from the high number of properties he owns – in his name and the name of several family members – in the University area.

He declined to give an exact number of such properties. He also said he felt the tenants at 808 Fifth St. really wanted to break their lease and move out early, and that led to their complaints.

Opad, however, described the process as a tenant’s nightmare.

“Unfortunately, we started having problems from day one,” Opad said. “And being naive students, we had no idea what our rights were.”

Eischens Management owns at least 42 properties worth more than $10.5 million around the University. The properties are in the names of James, Richard, Patrick and Vicki Eischens.

Of those properties, the Daily obtained housing citations from 36. Since 1996, those houses were cited 667 times for housing violations under Eischens Management. At least 12 of those properties were obtained by the Eischenses after 1996.

Opad’s story is frustrating, but not unique, said Barb Boysen, a University Student Legal Services attorney.

“We tend to have groups of students come into our office with complaints about Jim Eischens,” Boysen said. “He’s accounted for a huge number of files in our office.”

In fact, according to University Student Legal Services records, students have filed 56 complaints with the office in the last four years regarding Eischens properties, the most of any area landlord.

Boysen said each of those complaints usually involves three to seven students.

“At any given time, he represents a large number of the problems and open cases we have. They tend to be more egregious problems as well as multiple problems within the same house,” Boysen said.

The number of workers Eischens employs to work on his houses is unknown. Eischens said he does some of the property work himself, but most is done by independent contractors.

Eischens said he always complies with the city’s directions on maintaining his property, and the public record bears him out. Few of his properties have unresolved complaints.

The narrative descriptions from housing inspection reports, however, sometimes reveal unsafe living conditions and many houses in general disrepair.

For example, an inspection of 1838 Hayes St. on June 14, 2001, showed “Holes in walls, faulty wires, A/C doesn’t work, fire detector doesn’t wor(k), pipe leaking in bathroom sink, hole in bedroom ceiling, blinds on windows broken, closet doors broken, wires hanging in kitchen where light should be.”

Another, from 800 University Ave. S.E. in July 2001, reads, “Dead squirrels, mold in attic, bad handrails, air condit(ioning) inoperable, trash, leaks, etc.” A report from July 2002 at 1103 Fifth St. S.E. found “squirrels in ceiling, holes in ceiling, toilet is inoperable, place is filthy, etc.”

Numerous other citations list junk in the yard, over-occupancy, broken windows, no working heat, parking on the lawn and numerous other housing violations.

Two Eischens-owned houses were cited 54 times each in the last seven years, and 12 others received 20 or more citations. Several of the records showed patterns of neglect.

For example, an Eischens property at 631 Ontario St. was inspected in July 2001 and found to have 32 separate violations. The housing department sent notice of its intent to condemn the house for lack of maintenance. By Jan. 18, 2002, all the problems had been corrected, according to housing records. The house continued to be licensed for rent.

On Nov. 14, 2002, inspectors returned to the house on Ontario again, only to find 16 more

violations. Again, a letter was sent and eventually the problems were corrected.

Housing inspectors have inspected another Eischens house at 1005 19th Ave. N.E. 18 times since 1996, finding violations each time.

Eischens said any new inspection is likely to turn up violations, regardless of the property.

“The housing inspector can find a violation at any property. And the worst thing, for me, would be to see a story where I’m portrayed to be a slumlord, because we really do constantly work on maintenance,” he said.

This pattern of code violations might seem frustrating but is somewhat normal, said Janine Atchinson, district supervisor for housing inspections services.

“The way it works, I can’t cite you for littering,” Atchinson said. “I can see the litter and send you a letter telling you to remove it.”

She said inspections occur through periodic checks of all property, area sweeps generally designed to look for specific citations and in response to tenants’ complaints.

Sweeps in the University area, for example, often center on exterior conditions such as abandoned vehicles, junk in the yards and over-occupancy, Atchinson said.

When inspectors find a violation, they note the citation and send the owner a letter. The owner then has a certain amount of time to fix the problem. If the violation remains, the inspections department can contract to fix it and bill the owner or take the offending party to court.

In most cases, she said, the letter prompts the owner to make necessary repairs.

If a property must be fixed by city contractors three times in one year, Atchinson’s department can revoke the owner’s license, she said, “But as long as all the situations are remedied, we don’t have a lot of recourse.”

And though Atchinson said there is “no such thing” as a house without a violation, the current system leaves renters open to shoddy, patchwork maintenance – and poor living conditions.

“Our codes are a minimum standard, and even if they bring it back under that minimum standard, it doesn’t take very long for it all to go back under again if they don’t keep up with the maintenance,” Atchinson said.

Another Eischens tenant, Kara Sommerfeldt, and her two roommates also had problems with their house at 615 Pierce St. N.E. from the day they moved in last September.

The previous tenants remained in the house when the trio tried to move in. Their situation did not improve, she said.

“Right away we weren’t happy and we ended up calling the housing inspectors,” Sommerfeldt said. “There were no covers on some of our outlets, there were holes in our screens, one of the windows had a huge crack in it and our smoke detector didn’t work.”

Twenty-three days after moving in, Sommerfeldt called the housing inspectors. By October, most of her immediate concerns were solved.

But in January, she said, she found her unit had been paying the heating bill for the top floor of the house – rented to other tenants – and the heating and electric bills for the basement and a garage to which they had no access.

Subsequent visits from Minnegasco and Eischens workers found plumbing problems. On Feb. 21, the house had a gas leak. Sommerfeldt said she called Eischens’ emergency after-hours maintenance number but was told the problem did not warrant attention until the morning.

Later plumbing work left the tenants without a sink for three days, Sommerfeldt said. But the final straw was when a plumbing inspector told them whoever had been working on the house’s plumbing had neither a license nor a permit and asked, “You’re not staying here long, are you?”

Eischens said there was a leak in the sink and he realized subsequent maintenance inconvenienced the tenants. Still, he said, the problem was eventually fixed.

“They had an axe to grind, and they ground it,” Eischens said.

Sommerfeldt and her two roommates sent Eischens a letter stating his maintenance practices had violated their lease, and they were vacating the property April 30. They also filed suit in conciliation court for the money they overpaid on utilities, rent abatement for the unfixed problems and the times Eischens workers did not give notice when entering the property.

The day before Sommerfeldt and her roommates vacated the house, Eischens’ brother, Patrick Eischens, was convicted in Hennepin County District on two charges of plumbing without a license, plumbing without a permit and contracting without a license in connection with Sommerfeldt’s plumbing problems.

Sommerfeldt said she expects Eischens to counter sue for breaking the lease, a feeling Boysen at University Student Legal Services seconds.

She said Eischens often sues to intimidate students who might not be aware of their legal rights as tenants.

“He’s very litigious and tends to sue more than most landlords,” Boysen said.

A check of Hennepin County Conciliation Court records showed 113 cases with Jim Eischens as defendant or plaintiff since 1996.

Boysen said many students do not know her office exists or do not know filing in conciliation court costs just $30. In addition, many do not know about rent escrow, where tenants can pay their rent to the court to spur needed maintenance work.

In Opad’s case, for instance, she and her roommates called the housing inspections department and University Student Legal Services, which filed suit for them in conciliation court. They began paying their rent to an escrow account rather than to Eischens.

Among their complaints were: Eischens and his workers often entered the house unannounced, sometimes to use the bathroom. Summer maintenance on the windows left the house without screens. The ceiling leaked and mildewed. The water pressure deteriorated in the shower to the point where it was unusable.

For his part, Eischens said he has done everything he can and he feels the shower works fine.

A judge ultimately decides fault and apportions the rent.

Another representative at University Student Legal Services, William Dane, said his office handles a lot of complaints about Eischens regarding damage deposits and maintenance.

“What he does do pretty consistently is withhold money from deposits for extra cleaning and things like that,” Dane said. “On a case by case basis, those might be justified, but we do see an awful lot of that.”

Opad, who has another hearing set for May 19 and is still without a shower, cannot wait until she can leave.

When finals are over, Opad said, she will begin to circulate a petition among current and former Eischens tenants asking the University off-campus housing office not to list Eischens properties on its Web site or at its office.

Sommerfeldt, meanwhile, has moved into a new house. She has a message for anyone who might move into her old house on Pierce Street – or any Eischens property.

“Don’t do it. It’s a big hassle. There are so many better places out there to live that it’s not worth your time,” she said. “And if you already live there, get out, because you probably know what I’m talking about.”

Josh Linehan covers legal affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected]