City’s fight with unlicensed landlord highlights risks for low income renters
When Gabrielle Robertson rented a room at a house near the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, she says her only alternative was the street.
“It was literally, I didn’t have any other option,” Robertson said.
She says she found the rental on the popular website Craigslist for under $500 a month.
Robertson later discovered that her live-in landlord, Mohammed Shahidullah, was convicted of operating without a rental license in 2022 after 5 INVESTIGATES exposed a history of health and safety violations at the property on Erie Street.
“I typed up his address to the house, and it popped up a whole bunch of articles,” Robertson said. “He should not have been able to do any of this.”
But a review of public records reveals Shahidullah continued to bring in tenants without a rental license and, until last month, city inspectors took no additional action to stop him. Advocates say it is one example of a larger problem for those struggling to find affordable or low-income housing throughout Minneapolis and the state.
Between May and December last year, police were called to Shahidullah’s house at least 26 times, according to data from the Minneapolis Police Department.
One of those calls was for a “dead person” last July.
Police found no signs of foul play, and the case was later ruled a drug overdose, but the investigation also revealed the woman who died was among at least six tenants at the house.
Despite the property owner’s past violations, housing inspectors took no action at the time because the city says there were no complaints made to “Minneapolis 311.”
“Since it’s an owner-occupied property, Inspections Division would not do random, periodical checks on the property, but would respond to complaints,” said Sarah McKenzie, a city spokesperson.
McKenzie confirms the city only cited Shahidullah for “unlawful occupancy” last month after a Minneapolis Police officer contacted inspectors with concerns that the building might be “unsafe.”
A de facto eviction
Around the same time, Shahidullah attempted to evict Robertson with a handwritten notice to “vacate,” but she pushed back.
“You’ve got to take me to court, basically,” Robertson said. “And you can’t do that because you don’t have a license.”
Instead, court records show that Shahidullah sought and obtained orders for protection (OFP) against Robertson and at least one other tenant, accusing them of threatening him.
Such requests are often reserved for victims of domestic violence. But in this case, Robertson says it functioned as a de facto eviction when a police officer came to the house and ordered her to leave.
“He’s like, ‘Are you Gabrielle Robertson?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, why?’” Robertson said. “He’s like, ‘I’m coming here to serve you these papers. You’re no longer allowed at this property.’”
Shahidullah has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Julia Zwak, managing attorney of the Minneapolis Housing Unit for Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, says using an OFP for the sole purpose of removing a tenant would be an “abuse of the process.”
“A landlord seeking to remove someone from their rental housing needs to go through the eviction process,” Zwak said.
A common problem
Several housing advocates contacted by 5 INVESTIGATES say Shahidullah’s tactics are uncommon, but unlicensed landlords in the Twin Cities are not.
“Hearing about an unlicensed rental property is pretty run of the mill,” Zwak said. “We hear about it at least once a month.”
A review of data from the City of Minneapolis revealed nearly 70 properties with open violations for “unlawful occupancy,” “illegal bedroom,” and property owners or managers who are “ineligible” for a rental license.
Experts warn there are likely other properties with health and safety violations which are operating under the city’s radar.
“There’s so many rental properties within Minneapolis and Hennepin County that a lot of the resources are devoted to inspections and maintenance and things that are complaint-based,” Zwak said. “But if it is just something going on behind the scenes that nobody called about, the city may not have the resources to independently seek that out.”
A painful decision
The City of Minneapolis gave Shahidullah a new deadline of Wednesday to move all tenants out of his house.
It also fined him $2,000, which a spokesperson says he has not paid.
The city will not discuss any other “ongoing enforcement actions” it might be taking, but former tenants such as Robertson insist fines and citations are no longer enough.
“I want his place to get taken away. I want him to actually learn his lesson and not be able to do that to anybody anymore,” Robertson said.
Robin Wonsley, city council member for Ward 2, shared Robertson’s frustration when contacted by 5 INVESTIGATES.
“Minneapolis has a responsibility to keep all renters, especially vulnerable ones, safe from predatory landlords,” Wonsley said in a statement. “I am working with staff in regards to this specific property and appreciate their work to ensure a safe resolution for these renters.”
Soon after getting kicked out in December, Robertson — who was pregnant at the time — had to be rushed to the hospital, where her baby boy was born premature.
The city is now offering Robertson and others relocation assistance, but as she looks for a new place to live, Robertson is also faced with a painful decision about whether to place her child for adoption.
“I don’t want to give him up, but I don’t want to bring him into the world like that,” Robertson said through tears. “With nowhere to go.”