Huyam Dakkam (left), 27, and her 61-year-old mother, Elradia Abdelmagaid (right), pictured in their apartment in The Legends of Columbia Heights apartment complex in June 2023. Their family lives in two units in the building. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

Huyam Dakkam recalls feeling safe when she, her parents, and her siblings moved into The Legends of Columbia Heights apartment complex more than four years ago. The Sudanese family migrated from the United Arab Emirates and had first settled in north Minneapolis. 

At their new fourth-floor apartment, the family received key fobs for the secured package room. The parking garage has a security system. There are surveillance cameras throughout the apartment building. They never felt in danger or witnessed any crimes in the neighborhood, Dakkam said. 

But that sense of security is being threatened by a “suffocating” rent increase, the family says. Dakkam’s family relies on her brother, brother-in-law, and 69-year-old father to afford the rents for two units in The Legends of Columbia Heights apartments complex, where they live in a multigenerational household. 

Last July, Plymouth-based company Dominium, which manages more than 38,000 housing units across the nation, raised rent by 12.5 percent for residents at The Legends. Dominium owns, manages, and developed the affordable housing complex for people 55 or older. 

The Legends of Columbia Heights, pictured in June 2023, is an affordable housing complex for renters age 55 and above. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

Dominium said in an email statement that residents are notified about rent increases 60 to 75 days before they have to decide whether to renew their lease. The company said it is discussing what to charge for rent this year.

Many residents at The Legends say they are already struggling to make ends meet after last year’s rent hike, a nationwide trend that has prompted cities such as Minneapolis to explore rent control. 

Many older residents who receive monthly benefit checks that make up their fixed income can’t keep up. Some say they are being forced to choose between making the rent and paying for healthcare. Others say they have to pool family members’ income to cover rent. 

A multigenerational household

The Dakkam family has three main family members covering their rent—father Mohamed Dakkam, son Maaz Dakkam, and brother-in-law Khalid Musa. There are eight family members total, including an 18-month old, living across two different units. 

When they first moved into the fourth-floor apartment, rent was about $1,300. Now, rent is $2,035 a month, which includes their parking spots, and about $1,500 for an apartment on the third floor.

“My family loves it here and so I’m gonna stay here,” said Maaz Dakkam, 37. “But if they keep suffocating me, I don’t have any option. In this case, I have to move, because it will come a time that I cannot afford it.” 

Huyam, 27, and Maaz Dakkam said they were speaking on behalf of their family, including their father and mother, Elradia Abdelmagaid, who immigrated to the United States six years ago and don’t speak English well. Sixty-one-year-old Elradia Abdelmagaid’s name is on the lease for the third-floor apartment in the building while 69-year-old Mohamed Dakkam’s name is on the lease for the fourth floor apartment. 

The family is split between the two units, with one parent living in one and the other often living in the other to help care for a grandchild.

The family has held celebrations in the community room downstairs, such as baby showers, engagement parties, and graduation parties. Huyam Dakkam said her family members attended the nearby schools. The school where she teaches English to middle schoolers is less than ten minutes away, and downtown Minneapolis is less than 15 minutes away. 

Elradia Abdelmagaid, 61, pictured in her apartment in The Legends of Columbia Heights apartment complex in June 2023. Her family lives in two units in the building. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

The family of six planted their roots deep in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. They converted the dining room of their two-bedroom apartment into a third bedroom. When Dakkam’s older sister started her own family about a year ago, the best apartment they could find was the one right below on the third floor. 

To rent at The Legends, at least one occupant in the apartment unit must be 55 or older, but tenants below that age are allowed to live with the renter. Renters are also required to make 60 percent of the area median income or below, which is $74,520 for a household of four people, according to The Legend’s website. 

Huyam Dakkam is worried about the family’s rent increasing again, with her father working part-time as an airplane cabin cleaner, her brother’s delivery business declining, and her brother-in-law currently unemployed. She contributes as much as she can with her income as a teacher, but Huyam has student loans and is also paying off her twin sister’s student loans. The sister is unemployed.

Dominium said rent increases are determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Last year, the department found that the median income in the Twin Cities area significantly increased, allowing management companies such as Dominium to raise rent by 12.5 percent. 

Many residents at The Legends said they were told by Dominium that rent increased last year because income in the area grew significantly and because of rising costs to maintain the building’s operations and upkeep.

Experts say other factors, such as the overall rate of inflation and housing market conditions, are also driving rent prices higher. 

Dominium acknowledged that the rent increase was “unfortunately causing pain for some residents in our properties.” It said in an email statement that increases for previous years had been much smaller—an average of 2.7 percent per year between 2000 and 2022. 

Huyam Dakkam said the annual rent increases were the biggest downside to living at The Legends, and that her family is reaching a breaking point. 

“It’s not just one—we have to worry about two apartments as well,” she said. “Any more of that [rent increase] or even the current amount that we pay right now—it’s just, it’s too much.” 

Huyam Dakkam said her family saves money by sharing their cars and not indulging in entertainment. Since the family arrived in Minnesota in 2017, Maaz Dakkam said, they haven’t been able to afford a trip back to the United Arab Emirates to visit relatives. 

Many struggle with rent

Others in the building are struggling as well. When rent increased for her three-bedroom apartment last July, Linda Lindahl used her entire social security check to cover her rent, which is about $1,700 a month. 

With a few thousand dollars left in her bank account, Lindahl, 70, said she uses her social security checks and $500 from her bank account to make rent. On days when she can find a ride, she sells crafts to make extra income. 

“We moved here because we had limited income–knew that it wasn’t going to change much in the next five or 10 years, which for a lot of us, that’s what we’re expecting, to live five or 10 more years,” she said of herself and older residents at The Legends. 

Lindahl had to start paying out of pocket in January for her prescription medications after a grant to cover the costs ended. 

Lindahl said she only had two choices at that point–pay for rent or pay for her medications. She chose rent. As a result, Lindahl said her health rapidly declined. Lindahl has been in-and-out of hospitals between January and May to treat her congenital heart failure. 

“It was kind of like when I shut the door to not getting the pills, I kind of shut the door to being healthy,” Lindahl said. “So, I’ll be paying for that for the rest of my life–whatever life is left. That’s been the hardest, not being able to afford the pills and seeing what it’s done to me down the road.” 

Lindahl started searching for a new apartment that she could afford. She heard from a friend in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that “everything” was cheaper there. When she toured a retirement community there, she finally found a place that fit her budget.  

While in Sioux Falls, she was unexpectedly hospitalized and realized her dilemma: Leave her community of friends, family, and church in Minnesota to live about three hours away, or risk eviction at The Legends. 

She chose to leave after her lease ends in December. 

“When I first came home that week… it was emotionally draining,” she said. “And I think that’s probably why I ended up in the hospital again, because it was kinda like dying. You know, my church family’s gone. Church is big to me. My church family is gone. My friends here are gone. My kids are gone.”

After last year’s 12.5 percent rent increase, many residents started sharing stories about their financial hardships with one another as they sat together for morning coffee, played cards, or passed each other in the hallways. 

Residents noticed that many were struggling. Some moved out, sold their cars, or parked on the street instead of paying to use the garage. A bigger crowd showed up for food drops to receive free donated food. 

The Legends of Columbia Heights, pictured in June 2023, is an affordable housing complex for renters age 55 and above. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

Eventually, residents organized to support one another and to pressure Dominium to cap rent increases. They hosted community meetings, rallied at the State Capitol, and connected with their local officials. 

Julie Zapp, a resident of The Legends, is part of a taskforce to facilitate communication between residents and property management. Zapp said residents at The Legends are working alongside residents from other Dominium-managed properties throughout Minnesota to form a stronger coalition to achieve the same goal. 

“I think there’s no going back on that anymore,” Zapp said of the organized efforts. “So, that cat’s out of the bag and is happening.”

Residents and elected officials, such as Columbia Heights Mayor Amáda Márquez Simula, have unsuccessfully asked Dominium to implement a cap on rent increases. They supported a bill this past legislative session to cap rent increases for all Section 42 affordable housing, which includes The Legends, but the bill didn’t pass.  

“Of course we can keep on asking Dominium if they’re willing to institute some kind of rent cap for a year and keep on talking to the Legislature and the governor’s staff and the governor,” said City Council Member Justice Spriggs. “But outside of rental assistance, the options are very limited and super concerning.”

Simula said that the city of Columbia Heights does not have enough funds to provide financial assistance to residents. However, Simula and Spriggs said they plan to explore conversations with other city council members about implementing a city-wide ordinance to cap rent increases. 

Katelyn Vue is the housing reporter for Sahan Journal. She graduated in May 2022 from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Prior to joining Sahan Journal, she was a metro reporting intern at the Star...