Seeking Solutions: Debbie Wells, Meadowbrook Collaborative

Higher rents and tightened tenant requirements at Meadowbrook Apartments in St. Louis Park meant hundreds of residents had to search for a new home last winter. In the midst of it all was Debbie Wells of the Meadowbook Collaborative, a community organization working on behalf of the Meadowbrook neighborhood. Wells shared her story in MHP’s Sold Out report released last week. By examining over 1,000 apartment property sales in the Twin Cities metro region over the past decade, Sold Out reveals how a hot rental market impacts Twin Cities renters – especially low- to moderate- income renters – and puts many households at risk of displacement.  

Wells’ story was reported by …

Debbie Wells didn’t ask to get roped into one of the Twin Cities’ most contentious housing battles this year. But when St. Louis Park’s Meadowbrook Apartments sold to a new owner in January, there she was.

When Wells stepped in to run a community organization nestled within the complex in early January, she figured she would put her experience as a school principal to work helping children and families. But then Meadowbrook’s new owner raised rents and tightened tenant standards.

Hundreds of residents, including many longtime tenants, faced a 60-day window to find new housing after the landlord increased rent rates across the board by at least $100 per month and ruled out residents with a history of late payments — even when there was a reasonable explanation.

“They were thorough-going,” Wells said. “They went through everybody’s files and they started noticing folks who were coming due for their lease. Either they would not be renewed, or they would be renewed but their rent would be going up.”

The policy changes sparked upheaval for several dozen tenants, Wells says. She hasn’t found a way to tally exactly how many tenants have been pushed out to date, but a recent count revealed 51 of 162 townhome units — which account for just one part of the complex — sit empty.

Now, several months after Wells started her crash course on the market dynamics reshaping Twin Cities housing, she’s exhausted and frustrated. She and other groups trying to help residents found a significant resource gap — there was no assistance available for displaced tenants, or ones who wanted to stay but needed to shoulder higher rent and other costs imposed by the new owner.

Wells estimates she spent half her work weeks navigating housing issues until recently, when squeezed-out tenants began making their way out of the Meadowbrook community. She still speaks with city officials and members of the new Meadowbrook management team, but there’s little she can do for the residents who had been so desperate to stay in their homes.

“There’s a big Swiss cheese hole in this whole thing,” Wells said. “There’s no way to bridge people through a systemic crisis like this.”

As more leases approach the end of their set terms, Wells expects more Meadowbrook tenants will look elsewhere for housing. The short supply of affordable units in the region complicates the search, but the threat of more policy changes hangs ominously over the complex.

“Anything can change in 60 days,” she said. “Your life as you know it is only secure for 60 days as long as you live here.