‘They can’t be trusted’: Students displaced by construction delays testify before lawmakers

More than 100 University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus students were forced to stay in hotels with limited resources or travel long distances from home to get to school after a new Dinkytown housing complex was delayed for a month.

That’s because student tenants say Identity Dinkytown won’t let them out of their leases, even though the building hasn’t officially opened to tenants yet. Identity Dinkytown is a mixed-use residential complex being built steps inland from the campus formerly occupied by a McDonald’s restaurant. The building has amenities including a sauna, coffee lounge, tanning beds and study rooms.

Tenants were first informed on August 2 that the building would not be ready for its original opening date of August 27 and would instead open on September 15, even after tenants paid rent on August 1. The identity confirmed the planned move date for the fourth, fifth and sixth floors is September 29, and the remaining floors will be moved three weeks later in mid-October.

But they haven’t gotten city approval to let people move in yet, and tenants are concerned there could be further delays. Students began moving into residence halls on August 27 and classes began on September 6.

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“I’ve never seen a project this far behind,” Dan McConnell, president of the Minnesota Building Trades Council, said during the hearing. He’s worked on projects like this before and said it was “inconceivable” that Identity Dinkytown didn’t know months ago that the building wouldn’t be ready.

On Thursday, parts of the building’s exterior were fenced off and covered in plastic, and at least one window was missing.

A missing window on the fourth floor of Identity Dinkytown on Thursday.

Nicole K | MPR News

To compromise with renters who had to deal with a late move-in date, Identity offered two options: We’ll put you in a hotel and give you an $80 gift card for every day you’re late, or you can find a gift card for your lodging and we’ll give you $150 per day.

But according to three student tenants who testified Wednesday before a joint state Senate committee investigating the displacement of ID residents, it’s still unclear when the apartment complex will open.

Aria Mahan-Cleveland, a sophomore at the U and a lease holder, says construction delays and limited communication with Identity have negatively impacted her academic year.

“If I were to move in at the end of September, I would have to move into the middle of a construction site,” Mahan-Cleveland said. “I spend most of my time studying and amenities such as study rooms will not be available at the Identity Hotel and the property managers do not have any information to share with us regarding the timeline for when the amenities will be ready.”

Once Mahan-Cleveland found out she wouldn’t be able to move in on the original schedule, she chose to commute an hour every day to and from school.

“I have to spend a significant amount of time on the road commuting to and from classes instead of using my time studying,” she said. “It added an extra layer of stress and uncertainty.”

A person testifying at a Senate committee hearing

Aria Mahan Cleveland, a sophomore at the University of Minnesota, testified virtually about the delayed opening of Identity Dinkytown on Thursday.

Nicole K | MPR News

Student: “I’m missing a big part of my life.”

Others, like student Wajid Suleiman, didn’t plan to become travelers either. She had big dreams after she said she signed a lease in late 2020 for a five-bedroom, five-bathroom unit with friends, but instead drove to school from her parents’ home in Bloomington.

“Being on campus now makes me feel like I’m missing a big part of my life and living at home used to feel very lonely,” Solomon said.

“I don’t find it fair at all that they expect us to move in and pay our rent for this semester and expect nothing to happen, especially if it’s going to be built on the first or third floor,” she said.

She’s also concerned about the safety of the building. On Aug. 23, during an inspection, city building inspectors found the work was “not complete enough” to issue a temporary certificate of occupancy, Katherine Topinka, Minneapolis’s director of intergovernmental relations, said during the hearing.

The apartment complex will need another inspection, but Topinka said Wednesday that the management company has not yet reached out to city inspectors for a re-inspection. Apartments typically need a temporary occupancy license to begin moving tenants in as construction ends.

“What I feel about the entire administration now is that I can’t trust them,” Suleiman said.

Construction workers in an apartment building

Construction workers outside Identity Dinkytown on Thursday.

Nicole K | MPR News

Emmaline Godart was able to terminate her lease for a “technical reason”. Originally from Georgia, she had nowhere else to stay but a hotel room provided by Identity. But she was uncomfortable with the accommodation, which had no kitchens or microwaves and only one coin-operated washer and dryer.

“Everyone we spoke to was advised that my family was not near Minneapolis and we did not feel comfortable with the accommodations available,” Godart said. “Every time we meet, we say: ‘I understand but there is nothing we can do.’”

She said she emailed and called Identity’s leasing office every day in August to finalize the lease, but realized through getting legal help from the U’s Student Legal Service that the property manager had never signed her lease, so she never lived up to the lease agreement .

She is one of more than 100 students who have contacted Student Legal Service on campus. They get calls every day, said Shanna Tominis, a staff attorney at Student Legal Service.

“The most common feelings I hear in my office are feeling cheated and feeling stuck or trapped,” Tuminis said.

These student experiences are “the product of unequal bargaining power that tenants have when signing a lease,” she said.

Apartment entrance with plastic and traffic cones

Plastic wrap covers the exterior of Identity Dinkytown, a new mixed-use apartment complex, on Thursday.

Nicole K | MPR News

Dinkytown Identity: Construction delays were ‘inevitable’

The management team of Identity, CA Student Living Dinkytown II, LLC, was not present at the committee meeting, stating that it was “very short notice.”

“The excuse of not having enough time to prepare is ludicrous, given the lack of notice to tenants,” said State Sen. Omar Fath, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee.

The tenants have filed two lawsuits against Identity Dinkytown and are seeking to have their lease terminated and repay the rent money plus attorney’s fees. The Senate Joint Committee said in the upcoming legislative session that it will work to strengthen legal protections for renters.

Identity declined to comment on the pending litigation but shared the following statement with MPR News.

“We understand that the delay is disappointing and inconvenient for students,” an emailed statement from Identity said. “We want every student’s experience with Identity Dinkytown to be seamless, and this is not the way we wanted to begin our journey together. Although unavoidable construction delays have impacted expected move-in dates, we are working directly with the contractor who has assured us that We are doing everything we can to complete the remaining construction as quickly as possible. We hope that students will move in by the end of the month. In the meantime, we are committed to transparency and will provide students with regular updates until then.

Building materials stand next to the apartment

Building materials stand next to the column in Identity Dinkytown on Thursday.

Nicole K | MPR News

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