The hallway on the second floor of Jamilo Hussein’s apartment was always dark: The ceiling light, for some reason, didn’t turn on. Then one night her children plugged their phone chargers into a nearby outlet, and the light began to flicker.
“My kids used to say we have a ghost in our home,” Jamilo said.
Jamilo has lived at the Pondview Townhomes in Woodbury for eight years with her husband and five children. She reported the strange, flickering light to Northstar Residential, the landlord, who sent a technician to change the lightbulb. “I told them, ‘That’s not the problem, the problem is electrical,’” Jamilo said.
A flickering light may call to mind the evocative atmosphere of a horror film. But in a modern home, it may be a sign of an electrical hazard.
Ever since a Northstar technician tried to fix the problem, Jamilo said, the light no longer turns on when her children charge their phones. The light still flickers, though, so the family still cannot use it.
Pondview is home to a small, close-knit Somali community that has lived with a host of electrical and appliance problems for years, residents say. Lights flicker. Stoves do not work. At least three units have had water—leaking from the floor above—pool in a light fixture. Residents say they have reported the problems to the landlord, but many persist.
On December 6, a fire broke out in an upstairs bedroom closet of a Pondview apartment and quickly spread to two adjoining units. No one was injured, but three families were forced to relocate. There’s no evidence that an electrical problem caused the Pondview fire. Residential electrical fires are rare, and the cause of the Pondview fire has yet to be determined by investigators. Nevertheless, the fire caused scared residents to come forward and speak out about electrical problems at the complex.
Even before the December fire, several frustrated residents approached the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations to discuss problems in their units and their landlord’s failures to address them. Since then, CAIR-MN has worked with residents to publicize their concerns, including allegations of racism.
The landlord’s employees at the property, they say, treat maintenance requests with hostile dismissals and have blamed some tenant problems on a lack of English proficiency. One tenant reported that when she requested a repair, a company representative asked why she had so many children.
In other cases, residents report that they have received bills for maintenance requests that should be paid by their landlords. Some charges are for hundreds of dollars.
Sahan Journal heard accounts from 12 current and past residents from different Pondview units; four gave tours of their homes to demonstrate their housing problems. Sahan Journal also reviewed 10 years of inspection reports from the Washington County Community Development Agency, which documented numerous problems, including electrical deficiencies.
Taken together, these accounts and reports indicate widespread and potentially hazardous electrical problems in the Pondview Townhomes.
Pondview was built in 2004 by Duffy Development Company, which has developed and continues to own 23 properties including over 1,000 units in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Duffy, which is based in Minnetonka, still owns the property and manages it in-house through a related company, Northstar Residential.
The Pondview complex comprises 40 units in 8 rowhouses standing just off Interstate 94 in Woodbury. By Jamilo’s informal count, Somali families live in 28 of these units.
In a phone interview, Northstar president Jeff Von Feldt said the company was “not aware of any large-scale electrical problem in the buildings.” (Von Feldt is also the CEO of Duffy Development Company.)
Von Feldt added that investigators have told him they are not looking at electrical problems as a cause of the December fire. In an email to Sahan Journal, Woodbury Fire Marshall Rick said that his office did not determine “the immediate cause of the fire” through a preliminary investigation. The case has been handed over to the Woodbury Police Department “due to the nature of the possible cause of the fire,” though he declined to elaborate.
Whatever the cause of the December fire, it has alarmed residents, who feel a renewed urgency for Northstar to repair their homes.
Flickering lights, tripped circuits, broken appliances: ‘They don’t want to repair anything’
Jamilo immigrated to the United States from Mogadishu, Somalia, in the early ‘90s to escape the civil war. She lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for a time, and in Pennsylvania and Ohio after coming to the US. Eventually, she settled in Tennessee. She met her husband there, and they started a family.
“Back then, there was not a lot of Somali stores,” Jamilo said of Tennessee. Finding halal meat was a particular struggle.
But Minnesota already had a vibrant Somali community. “I had family in Minnesota send me Somali clothes,” she said, “The culture is strong here.”
Minnesota also offered more jobs and better public schools. Family and friends encouraged them to move, and in 2013, they came to Minnesota.
Jamilo had friends who lived at Pondview, so the family toured their apartment on a scouting trip to the state. The 1,000-square-foot, three-bedroom unit was already in poor condition back then, Jamilo said, but she didn’t care. It was in their price range—they pay $1,300 now—and the landlord promised to replace the musty carpets before they moved in.
In many ways, the move has been positive. Her husband found work, Jamilo has focused on their children, and the family has created a community with their neighbors.
(One thing she misses about the South? “Tennessee had better weather,” she said with a laugh.)
But the housing problems began almost immediately. When the family arrived to move in, they discovered the carpets had not been replaced. Jamilo tried for a year to get Northstar to swap them out. It took a note from her doctor that the carpet might be impacting her children’s health to get Northstar to act, she said.
Over the years, the family also became concerned about the electrical problems, beginning with the flickering light. In December, Jamilo gave Sahan Journal a tour of her apartment and several others to show what she identified as some of the worst issues.
Walking into Jamilo’s unit is like stepping from day into night. The windows are covered in heavy, colorful curtains to do what the windows cannot: keep out the cold. Glancing back at the front door, a crack between the door and the jamb lets in a wide ray of winter light. Jamilo said the family cannot use the living room in the winter because of the cold, even though the heat is on.
A month after Jamilo showed her apartment to Sahan Journal, a Washington County housing inspection found that water leaking from the upstairs bathroom was pooling in the living room light fixture.
Aside from these problems, the apartment looks like a modern single-family home, with an open floor plan. That day, her young son had a small trampoline set up in front of the living room TV, where he jumped while watching cartoons. Her high school–age daughter sat at the dining room table doing homework.
In the kitchen, Jamilo demonstrated her electric stove, where only three of the four burners worked. Above the stove, the fan is missing its cover, leaving bare blades exposed.
On the upstairs landing, Jamilo demonstrated the light. When she flipped the switch, the light flashed, then went dark.
Inside the breaker box (the main electric panel in the house), one breaker trips when the air conditioner fan turns on.
The apartment also has extensive discoloration from mold and water damage. Yellow-orange splotches and dissolving particle board can be found inside kitchen and bathroom cabinets. Trim is rotting in the upstairs hallway, right outside the bathroom. A hole in the bathtub has been repaired with some kind of tape. Directly below it, on the living room ceiling, yellowed paint and drywall is peeling off around the light fixtures in palm-sized chunks.
“They don’t want to repair anything,” she said of the building’s management, Northstar.
‘The other light did the same exact stuff before it exploded’
After finishing the tour of her home, Jamilo walked across the parking lot to another of Pondview’s rowhouses, where her friend Fadima Ali lives.
At Fadima’s house, two boys shoved past their mother, laughing. A little girl sat on the couch, skeptically eyeing the journalist who had come into their home carrying a large, silver voice recorder. A teenage boy did homework at the dining room table, seemingly accustomed to the noise around him.
Neither Fadima nor her husband Mohammad speak English, so Jamilo translated.
Fadima also left Mogadishu for the United States during the civil war. She and Mohammad lived at Pondview for two years with their 10 children, aged 1 to 16. Several weeks after they spoke to Sahan Journal, they bought their own house and moved out of Pondview.
During the visit, the family said they struggled to get Northstar to make basic repairs, even though they paid more than $2,000 a month in rent for a three-bedroom unit.
Fadima said that the family’s garage door would open by itself. Unlike Jamilo’s stove, where one burner won’t turn on, one of the burners on Fadima’s stove got extremely hot and occasionally sparked, she said.
The problem that alarmed them the most, however, waited in the basement.
Jamilo, Fadima, and Mohammad walked down a flight of stairs to a dark room. Aside from the light trickling in from upstairs, the only illumination came from the harsh glare of a phone and a computer screen, which glowed on the faces of two of Fadima’s children. Otherwise, they sat in the dark.
Mohammad pointed out a ceiling light fixture that housed the remains of a lightbulb. Fadima said that two weeks prior, “it just exploded.” Another light on the same circuit flickered when Mohammad turned it on.
“The other one did the same exact stuff before it exploded,” one of their children said from somewhere in the dark. Fadima and Mohammad said the family reported the blowout weeks earlier, first to Northstar’s on-site property manager, then directly to the maintenance technician.
‘We didn’t see fire, didn’t see anything, then all of a sudden, BOOM!’
Several days later, Jamilo brought Sahan Journal to her neighbor Farhiyo Maalin’s apartment, which is a mirror of her own. Jamilo and Farhiyo lived in the same Kenyan refugee camp for a time after fleeing Mogadishu, though they only met at Pondview.
“Utange Camp was better than here,” Jamilo said, laughing.
Farhiyo demonstrated her stove—which got very hot, like Fadima’s—and her water heater—which didn’t work properly and had to be turned off and on multiple times a day.
Jamilo watched the community grow in the years after she moved in, beginning with Farhiyo, who arrived shortly after Jamilo. But few people stay at Pondview longer than they must. Almost all the neighbors who lived at Pondview when Jamilo came have since left.
Still, the community is strong. Neighbors visit each other in the hospital when one falls ill. Many of their children attend the same school, so the parents exchange car rides. Jamilo knows English better than many of her neighbors, so she helps her friends read and write their mail.
Though many of the families came from different regions and backgrounds in Somalia, she said, “We are the same community and we help each other.”
While Sahan Journal visited Farhiyo’s apartment, several other neighbors came to talk about the problems in their own apartments. One of these women was Safiyo Yonis, who also shared her experiences at Pondview.
Safiyo has lived in Pondview for five years with her seven children. She said her husband does not live with them because of the occupancy limits on their apartment.
Safiyo was initially excited to move into Pondview. At three bedrooms, it was a larger apartment than the family had been living in, and the manager promised to paint and replace the carpets before they moved in. Again, though, Safiyo said they never did.
Like Jamilo, Safiyo got a letter from her son’s doctor explaining that the carpet might be impacting his health. When she showed it to the manager, she said, the manager told Safiyo she could move out if she wanted.
As she was speaking, the evening call to prayer played over a speaker in the house. But Safiyo didn’t stop talking until Jamilo gently scolded her, “Safiyo!”
When the prayers were finished, Safiyo continued to explain how a heating coil on her electric stove catastrophically failed in her apartment last year.
Safiyo’s 14-year-old son was cooking noodles on the stove. He walked away to sit with his mother at the table. “We didn’t see fire, didn’t see anything, then all of a sudden, BOOM.” Safiyo pantomimed an explosion with her hands.
There was a loud crack, and a shower of sparks and hot water rained down in the kitchen, she said. In the aftermath, Safiyo found a hole in the bottom of the pot and a fissure that split the heating coil “in two pieces.”
“Imagine if my son had been right there,” she said.
Safiyo said she threw away the damaged heating coil and pot. She reported the problem, but, after a month of waiting, she bought and installed a new heating coil herself.
A record of failed Section 8 housing inspections
Just how common are electrical problems in rental units like Pondview? Sahan Journal asked Eric Hauge, the executive director of Home Line, a nonprofit that provides free and low-cost legal advice and representation to tenants in Minnesota. The organization works with more than 1,000 households statewide each month, and Hauge said repairs are the most common issue on which they advise tenants.
The organization does not track detailed data about specific repair issues. Households typically face multiple issues, so comparing the prevalence of different housing problems is difficult. But water damage, mold, bedbugs, and insufficient heat are among the most common complaints. Home Line does receive complaints about electrical and appliance problems, though they are not “common things that we hear about,” Hauge said.
But government housing records suggest electrical and appliance problems are widespread at Pondview.
Any unit subsidized through the federal Section 8 housing voucher program—which provides rental assistance to low-income tenants—requires an annual inspection. This process is meant to ensure that government-subsidized rentals meet the housing quality standards of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Sahan Journal obtained 10 years’ worth of these inspections for the Pondview Townhomes from the Washington County Community Development Agency.
Only 2–6 units were inspected each year, and officials redacted unit numbers and tenant names. But the reports echo tenant complaints.
One unit failed because water was leaking from the bathroom and pooling in the living room light fixture. One unit listed three appliances that didn’t work: It actually failed because of a broken oven, which prompted the note, “tenant advise [sic] ‘it sparked then stopped working.’” Two other units listed inoperable stove burners.
Others failed because of an inoperable light, an inoperable bathroom vent, or a fridge not cooling properly. And some failed for reasons that may have been caused by tenants, such as one report that reads, in part, “looks like toothpaste put in electrical outlet.”
From 2010 to 2016, 3 out of 27 inspections failed because of electrical or appliance problems. From 2017 to 2019, 4 out of 13 inspections failed for these reasons. In 2020, 3 out of 4 did.
Looking at all sources for failed inspections—including things like mold and water damage—30 percent of Pondview units failed Section 8 inspections between 2010 and 2020.
In each instance, the unit eventually passed after a reinspection or after Northstar certified the repairs had been completed.
Pondview’s 30 percent HUD inspection failure rate appears to exceed the norms for other Section 8 rental units in the area, according to Ann Hoechst, the housing assistance and administrative services director for the Washington County Community Development Agency.
Between 2 and 5 percent of Section 8 inspections fail in Washington County depending on the month, and across a landlord’s entire portfolio.
“A good failure rate for a normal year would be in the 5 percent range,” Hoechst wrote by email.
However, Hoechst added that high failure rates don’t necessarily bother the agency. “If the landlord will make repairs to meet HQS”—HUD housing quality standards—“and the tenant is satisfied, then it is not a concern.”
An electrician reviews the situation
Derrick Atkins is training director at the Minneapolis Electrical JATC Training Center, which trains union electrical apprentices. He currently serves on a panel of experts who help update the National Electric Code, which serves as the basis for electric codes in all 50 states.
Sahan Journal shared the tenant accounts with Atkins, along with selections from the Section 8 inspection reports. He couldn’t definitively diagnose the problems without more direct information, but he offered several possible causes for each issue.
“It’s almost too broad to list everything,” said Atkins.
Some of the problems, however, were consistent with a “loose neutral.”
Most homes get their electricity through two “hot” wires. The hot wires run through the house, providing either 120 or 240 volts of electricity to outlets and light fixtures, depending on whether one or both wires are connected. A third wire, the neutral, carries electricity back to the breaker box to complete the circuit. A fourth wire, the ground, is a failsafe in case of a short circuit.
When the neutral wire is not securely connected to the lead in an outlet or light fixture (it’s “loose”), the wire may jostle, causing flickering lights as the wire connects and disconnects with the lead. It can also cause excess voltage—which should be directed down the neutral wire—to flow across the circuit. In extreme cases, the problem can cause lights and even televisions to blow out.
Loose neutrals have also been known to cause electric stoves to malfunction, Atkins said, though that is more likely a problem with the appliance itself.
Jamilo recalled that a Northstar maintenance technician told her the flickering light in her apartment was caused by a loose neutral.
Atkins pointed out that residential electrical fires are rare because modern homes have many failsafes built in to the wiring. Buildings constructed as recently as the Pondview Townhomes—which were built in 2004—would have been inspected to ensure these failsafes were present.
“I’ve seen loose neutrals burn up, but it was contained in the electrical equipment. I have never seen a loose neutral cause a home fire,” Atkins said. But, he added, “That’s not to say it couldn’t happen.”
Atkins repeated that he’d need to see the wiring himself to identify potential issues. But his takeaway about electrical work was clear: “It needs to be installed and maintained properly, and it sounds like this is not.”
The properties should be inspected by a licensed electrician immediately, Atkins recommended. Otherwise, “You could, potentially, have a fire hazard.”
Under state law, all electrical work in rental properties needs to be done by licensed electricians (or under their supervision).
Von Feldt, the president of Northstar, said the company does not employ certified electricians.
Yet Jamilo and other residents reported that Northstar employees have done electrical work in their homes.
Northstar Residential said by email, “It is not uncommon in the property management industry to have maintenance technicians, not a contracted vendor, perform minor electrical work such as replacing light fixtures or outlets.”
‘Don’t come to my office’
Jamilo and other residents said they have reported problems to Northstar staff—both the on-site property manager and maintenance technicians—with inconsistent results. Residents say a new property manager who was hired last year has reacted to repair requests with hostility that residents characterized as “racism.”
Once, when Jamilo went to the office to request repairs, the new manager complained that some of the residents didn’t speak English, Jamilo said. “‘Some of us don’t speak English, yes, but we live here and we pay the rent,’” Jamilo replied.
She reminded the manager about the electrical problems (which she had already reported) and said she was worried they were dangerous. “She was screaming, and she told me ‘Don’t come to my office,’” Jamilo said.
Speaking through a translator, Fadima said she and her husband repeatedly tried to report the problems in their apartment to the manager. Neither speaks English, so they took their children to translate.
The manager yelled at them and their children, Fadima recalled. They stopped reporting problems months before they left Pondview, Fadima said, because they were scared of the manager.
Speaking through a translator, Farhiyo said that when she reported a washing machine breakdown last year, the manager told her to go to a laundromat. Farhiyo said that wasn’t an option: She had to watch her children and couldn’t take everyone to the laundromat. She said she needed her washing machine fixed.
The manager, in turn, asked why she had so many children.
Because they report problems in person or over the phone, most residents could not provide documentation of requested repairs. Jamilo, however, shared an email she sent to Northstar in May, 2020, asking the company to fix her stove and the flickering light. Nine months after she reported the problem, the stove still does not work and the light still flickers.
Call for repairs—and receive a $327 bill
Jamilo, Safiyo, and other residents said that they have stopped reporting many problems in their apartments because of Northstar’s failure to act. When the company does send a technician, they frequently charge the tenant for repairs. The residents add that the repairs are often ineffective.
All ten families who spoke to Sahan Journal reported being charged for repairs, though only Jamilo could produce an invoice. In 2019, the company charged her $327 for repairs in her apartment. Line items include light fixture covers, a refrigerator light, a replacement stove burner, and labor. (The stove burner still does not work.)
A Minnesota statute establishes that landlords are obligated to repair everything in an apartment unless they can prove the damage “has been caused by the willful, malicious, or irresponsible conduct of the tenant.”
According to Hauge, the executive director of Home Line, this means landlords have the burden of proof and are not supposed to assume tenants are responsible for damages in an apartment. This law supersedes whatever language a property owner may write into a lease.
Von Feldt said his company uses a different standard: whether the damage was “normal wear and tear.”
This approach to charging tenants is common among Minnesota landlords, despite the law. If a tenant refuses to pay illegal charges, they still may face eviction. “That’s the problem with the law right now,” Hauge said.
“There are reasons for charging back a resident. I have to say we don’t do it lightly,” Von Feldt said. “We hope our residents are doing the best to maintain the units and not causing the kind of damage that we’d have to charge them for.”
When told of Jamilo’s invoice, Von Feldt added that the company also charges tenants to replace lightbulbs. He said he could not comment on the other charges because he didn’t know the specifics of the situation.
Northstar Residential responds
Sahan Journal spoke to several representatives of Northstar Residential who all said the company had few records of tenants seeking repairs, or of the other issues tenants described in interviews.
“We can’t repair things if we don’t know about them, so it is contingent on residents actually reporting,” Von Feldt said in a January phone interview.
When told about the May, 2020, email where Jamilo reported the flickering light and malfunctioning stove—problems that continue at press time—Von Feldt said it was “concerning to hear of a repair request that has not been acted on.”
Von Feldt wrote in a follow-up email that the company has 13 open work orders at Pondview, though only two relate to electrical or appliance problems: one for a “stove burner not working”; and one for a “water heater issue.” A third work order—for “water leaking from upstairs”—may be a reference to water pooling in light fixtures.
Von Feldt declined a follow-up interview, but an unidentified representative of the company responded to questions in a series of emails in January and February. “It seems unfair to us to have a story written about a lack of maintenance in situations when we were unaware of them to begin with, or to generalize maintenance issues because each work order is unique,” Northstar wrote.
“In our experience, when a resident knows they have caused some damages, it is common that they do not report it because they know they will be charged,” the company wrote. “Because we have minimal open work orders related to your findings, that could be what happened in those situations.”
When asked about resident reports of hostility from management, Northstar wrote that their resident handbook directs tenants mistreated by management staff to contact the company’s director of property management. Northstar reports that tenants have not contacted this company representative about any of the incidents described in this article.
“Staff members that engage with residents are required to take periodic fair housing training,” the email said. “That is a job requirement, and it is paid for by Northstar Residential. Treating people fairly and equally is a continuous commitment for all employees.”
The Northstar email added, “We have our own anecdotal evidence of residents being extremely disrespectful to our staff and our property.”
Seeking housing justice
In late September, seven families approached the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations about their housing problems and Northstar’s failures to address them. Since then, the advocacy group has spoken to 25 families in two Northstar Residential properties, deputy director Mohamed Ibrahim said.
Many of these resident accounts echo problems described to Sahan Journal: water damage and mold, electrical problems, ignored repair requests, and charges for replaced appliances and basic repairs.
The group’s efforts are part of a state-wide CAIR-MN campaign focusing on housing justice. Mohamed said the situation at Pondview is typical of what the organization has seen elsewhere.
“We have noticed across the state of Minnesota this type of predatory behavior from many property management companies that are taking advantage of immigrants,” Mohamed said.
Mohamed said CAIR-MN is currently focused on ensuring tenants know their rights and is investigating several other options, including a discrimination lawsuit against Northstar.
In January, Jamilo asked Washington County to conduct an emergency Section 8 inspection, hoping to force Northstar to make repairs in her unit. The unit failed. The report lists nine reasons, including an inoperable burner on her stove, a malfunctioning water heater, and a ceiling that was falling in because of water leaking from above.
It was a particularly bad report: No other inspection at Pondview in the last decade has found more than four reasons to fail a unit.
A month later, despite the inspection, Jamilo said that few of the problems had been fixed. Her stove burner still does not work, her water heater still malfunctions, and her living room ceiling is still falling in.
The light and circuit breaker were not listed on the inspection report (Jamilo did not know why), but they, too, still don’t work right. She also checked in with her neighbors, who said none of their issues had been addressed.
Pondview Townhomes residents are eager for a solution, but dread the prospect of a protracted fight with their landlord.
The last time Sahan Journal visited the Pondview Townhomes, Farhiyo had finally found a solution to her housing frustrations: a moving truck. Her family had recently bought a house and was in the process of packing up.
Jamilo’s family has applied to Habitat for Humanity, looking for a house of their own. For now, however, they are staying put. “We just want to have safe homes,” she said. “What would you do, if your children lived in a place like this?”
No heat? Bogus charges? If you’re a renter in Minnesota, here’s how to handle problems with landlords
Tenants in Minnesota have several legal avenues to fight evictions, reclaim money from improper charges, and force repairs in their apartments, said Eric Hauge, executive director of Home Line. However, a lack of documentation can hamper tenant legal efforts.
It is important to thoroughly document the problems and your communications with your landlord. Here are some recommendations for renters:
- Write a description and take photos of the apartment’s condition when you move in and out,
- Make all repair requests in writing and save a copy. Home Line provides a useful template.
- Keep copies of all communications, bills, and invoices from your landlord.
- Document interactions with management in writing, noting time, date, location, and the employee’s name and job title.
- Contact your city government to find out if they conduct rental inspections. They may help you document the problems or even pressure your landlord to follow the law.
- If your landlord does not respond to your repair request in 14 days by fixing the problem or making plans to do so, or if the disrepair is causing an emergency (such as low or no heat in the winter), seek legal advice immediately.
Several organizations in Minnesota provide low-cost or free legal assistance. Contact them to see if you qualify or for help finding a lawyer.
- Home Line provides low-cost or free legal support to tenants. Reach them at 612-728-5767.
- Mid Minnesota Legal Aid provides free civil legal assistance in multiple areas of the law, including evictions and landlord abuse. Reach them at 612-334-5970.
- Volunteer Lawyers Network connects volunteer lawyers with low-income clients. Reach them at 612-752-6677.
- Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services provides free legal help to low-income people in critical civil matters. Reach them at 833-454-0148.
Each organization has different requirements based on factors like geography and income. Hauge recommends that tenants begin their search for assistance at Home Line, which serves all of Minensota, applies no income screen, and offers an intake process that can be completed in less than a minute. “We’ll advise and refer to the appropriate legal aid office if their case makes sense,” he said.
Your city may be able to conduct a rental inspection if you feel your landlord is not making necessary repairs. In Minneapolis, call 311; in St. Paul, call 651-266-8989. In other places, check your city website for more information.
State law protects tenants from retaliation–both eviction and rent increases.
If you are an immigrant or a new American and you have a story to share about your rental problems, please contact us at Sahan Journal: [email protected], or call us at 651-983-1550. (A Sahan Journal reporter may contact you. Responses will be treated confidentially.) —Logan Carroll