Steve Brandt does a number on Maw Lee

The front page of the Metro Section of the Star Tribune on Monday, Jan. 22, 2001, had a picture of a mournful-looking African-American woman named Lucille Dyson who is looking at a jar filled with dirty water. The picture suggests that sewage has backed up into Ms. Dyson’s sink because the landlord, an Asian woman named Maw Lee, had neglected basic maintenance. The accompanying article, by Steve Brandt, goes on to mention several maintenance deficiencies. It does not present the landlord’s side of the story but states simply: “Lee didn’t return a call seeking her comment.”

If reporter Brandt had contacted Maw Lee, he might have learned that the two “victims”, for whom Legal Aid obtained months of free rent, were actively engaged in drug activity and were frequently threatening the landlord in various ways. He might have learned (and should have known) that the police did a raid on the building and found a large quantity of drugs in one of the units; and the County Attorney evicted that tenant. He might have learned that Maw Lee was at the building much of the time responding to “maintenance” complaints.

The article refers to lack of heat but Ms. Lee had a heating contractor at the building three or four times to check out such complaints. The contractor always reported that nothing was wrong with the heating system; instead, the complaining tenants opened windows to let in the winter air. Reporter Brandt might have learned, if he had asked, that the landlord had spent thousands of dollars trying to repair the leaky room but the roofing firm was refusing to stand behind their work. Brandt might have learned that there was nothing wrong with the sewer system but, possibly, with a stopped-up sink which the landlord fixed.

These two women, Dyson and Miller, were not victims of landlord negligence but “tenants from hell” who were taking advantage - with the help of ACORN and Legal Aid - of a small, pregnant woman who has some difficulty in speaking English. Several credible witnesses, including two other landlords and an attorney, have personally witnessed the threats made against this Asian landlord by groups of tenants who appeared to be heavily drugged.

I asked Maw Lee point-blank if she had ever been contacted by Steve Brandt as the article suggests. She said “no”. She had an answering machine and there were no messages from Brandt on the machine. Let me say that I believe it highly probable that Steve Brandt was lying. I asked him by e-mail to state when and how he tried to contact Lee. He has not responded to that question. Maw Lee has further told me that Brandt was at the court hearing when she tried to evict the two tenants for nonpayment of rent. Even though she was personally identified during the court proceedings, Brandt spoke only with the tenants. He did not approach her to ask any questions.

A week ago, a panel of Minneapolis City Council members held a hearing on a proposal brought by ACORN for the city to intensify efforts to take over the management of buildings owned by private-sector landlords. Both Steve Brandt and Maw Lee were present. I walked up to Brandt and told him that this might be a good opportunity for him to ask Maw Lee some questions. He replied that he would consider it if she testified before the panel. When I later approached Brandt with Maw Lee at my side, Brandt walked hastily away.

So it seems to me that Brandt’s story was horribly distorted and he may well have lied about trying to contact Lee. It further seems that he is quite uninterested in correcting the misplaced aspersions cast upon the character of Maw Lee. Brandt seems to live in a tidy, little world of stereotypes about landlords and their victims, and is unwilling to report the realities of a situation even when given compelling evidence.

One should know that city Inspections has backed off many of its work orders and now recognizes that an injustice was done Maw Lee by an inexperienced inspector. A group of friendly landlords is assisting Lee in her legal problems and will help to fill her building with decent tenants. ACORN’s “slumlord” vendetta appears to be mainly a vehicle to propel its leader, Shada -, to a seat on the Minneapolis City Council in the Sixth Ward.

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