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Seward Towers Corp. v. Ogbe

Court of Appeals of Minnesota

October 21, 2013

Seward Towers Corporation, Appellant,
v.
Mebrat Ogbe, Respondent.

UNPUBLISHED OPINION

Hennepin County District Court File No. 27-CV-HC-13-204.

Robin Ann Williams, Peter L. Gregory, Bassford Remele, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for appellant).

Samuel Glover, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for respondent).

Considered and decided by Hudson, Presiding Judge; Ross, Judge; and Schellhas, Judge.

ROSS, Judge.

The manager of an apartment building sought to relocate a tenant receiving federal rent subsidies, seeking to move her from her two-bedroom unit to a smaller unit because the manager deemed the tenant ineligible for the subsidized two-bedroom unit. More specifically, the manager of Seward Towers apartments told tenant Mebrat Ogbe that she must move to a one-bedroom unit or pay higher rent for her two-bedroom unit. Ogbe refused to move or pay the higher rent. Seward sought to evict her. The district court granted judgment to Ogbe. Because the district court's decision rests on a misinterpretation of the lease governing Ogbe's tenancy, we reverse and remand for the district court to enter judgment in Seward's favor.

FACTS

Appellant Seward Towers Corporation is a project-based Section 8 program in Minneapolis. "Section 8" refers to section 8 of the United States Housing Act of 1937, codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1437f (2006).

Section 8 provides rental assistance that is "project-based" or "tenant-based." In project-based programs, rental assistance is available to tenants who live in specific housing developments or units. 42 U.S.C. § 1437f(f)(6) (Supp. V. 1999). With tenant-based assistance, the unit is selected by the tenant, who may rent anywhere a housing authority provides a certificate or voucher program. Id. (7) (Supp. V. 1999).

Occhino v. Grover, 640 N.W.2d 357, 359 (Minn.App. 2002), review denied (Minn. May 28, 2002). Subsidized housing units at Seward are in such high demand that even its waiting list is closed to families who qualify. Respondent Mebrat Ogbe qualifies for Section 8 assistance and has rented a two-bedroom unit from Seward for more than 13 years.

Regulations of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) govern Section 8 housing. See 24 C.F.R. §§ 5.100-.2011 (2013). HUD also issues several handbooks, including HUD Handbook 4350.3: Occupancy Requirements of Subsidized Multifamily Housing Programs, defining its policies. Ogbe most recently entered a standard Section 8 lease for her two-bedroom apartment effective June 1, 2012, covering a one-year occupancy term and requiring monthly rent payments of $154. Section 8 rental rates may be adjusted during a lease term, and on June 4, 2012, Seward notified Ogbe that HUD had raised her share of the rent to $230, effective June 1, 2012. The HUD-approved market rental rate for Ogbe's apartment is $1, 018, and, under Section 8, HUD pays the $788 difference between Ogbe's monthly rate and the approved market rate.

Despite living alone, Ogbe has occupied the two-bedroom unit since sometime in 2005. But a landlord ordinarily must assign a single person receiving Section 8 assistance to a one-bedroom unit unless her disability requires a larger unit. See 24 C.F.R. § 5.655(b)(5); HUD Handbook 4350.3 § 3-23(G)(2). Until about 2005, Ogbe shared her two-bedroom unit with her daughter. Even after her daughter moved out, however, Ogbe maintained the two-bedroom unit despite the regulation because she successfully asked permission from the apartment manager to do so. She based that request on a doctor's note that stated only, "This patient requires a home exercise regimen and space to put such equipment." The arrangement continued for quite some time, until Seward reviewed the basis for Ogbe's two-bedroom request. On that review, Seward determined that Ogbe was required to move to a one-bedroom unit or pay the HUD-approved market rate for her two-bedroom unit.

The review occurred in April 2012. Complying with HUD regulations, property manager LeAnn Love conducted an annual inspection of Ogbe's unit. Love noticed that Ogbe had no exercise equipment in her second bedroom, prompting her to question Ogbe's alleged medical need for a two-bedroom unit. Love sent a letter to Ogbe "requesting to reevaluate [Ogbe's] need for a reasonable accommodation." The letter directed Ogbe to fill out a new reasonable accommodation request, and it stated that if Seward did not receive a new application, the letter would serve as the required 30-day notice for Ogbe to move into a one-bedroom unit or pay the HUD-approved market rent of $1, 018 to remain in the two-bedroom unit. Over the next months, Ogbe, Love, and other individuals at Seward exchanged letters ...


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