ACORN took city officials on a walking tour of neighborhoods they feel are neglected.
The Eastside chapter of Minnesota ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) invited Saint Paul officials on a walk last Thursday, through some neighborhoods they feel are being unnecessarily neglected. They fear that allowing for vacant and substandard rental housing has brought more crime and driven down property values and preventing people and business from coming into the Payne district.
Representatives of the city, including Inspections, Police and Fire Departments were present. Ward 5 Councilmember Lee Helgen and Ward Six Council candidate Pakou Hang were also present to observe the numerous dwellings with vacancy, foreclosure and abandoned property notices affixed to front windows. Many are falling to the elements from broken windows and are marked with gang graffiti.
The group gathered on the corner of Burr and Whitall Streets and made their way back to Payne Avenue via Case Street. Along the way the neighbors pointed out several vacant homes, some condemned and some empty but otherwise good structures that are falling into dilapidation from vandals and weathering.
ACORN attributed the problems in part to the damaging effects numerous home foreclosures and unimproved and uninhabitable but rented housing by absentee landlords. They discussed problem properties and crime and what they feel is a general lack of response from city and police regarding the complaints in these neighborhoods.
Brendan Hoffman, a homeowner in the troubled area, described with irony the homes on either side of his property. The vacant properties are often in better condition than the rentals.
One home, which had been occupied by an elder woman for many years, was in very good shape but is now marked as a vacant property, owned by an absentee landlord who either cannot rent or sell the property. He fears that it will soon fall into disrepair as vandals and the weather take its toll.
The other home is occupied – rented to a low-income family. It is in violation of several housing code regulations. The children in these homes and other like them are exposed to toxic black mold in the basements, lead paint, rodents and bug infestation.
“This is 2007,” he said, pointing out that lead paint should not exist in any home today. “It is ridiculous that this is still going on.”
Hoffman felt that the solution would be some type of rental home inspections screening to meet a codes standard, as is required with the Section 8 Voucher program.
ACORN members spoke of fears that these and other structural and electrical problems make the homes not only health risks but create conditions that could lead to fires.
They feel that property owners are under no pressure to upgrade because they are renting below market rates or to families that would likely not get a lease elsewhere because of poor credit, rental or criminal histories – the people least likely to reach out to police and city services – and ACORN says are the least likely to get a response.
The residents spoke of having trouble getting police to respond or follow through to reports of break-ins and sometimes felt intimidated in the process.
Councilmember Helgen said he was pleased with the neighborhood initiative for change and encouraged residents to work for change with the city. He asked that public safety and problem property issues be discussed with the SPPD East Side District Office at their weekly community and police meeting on Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m. at 722 Payne Avenue. Call 651-266-5565 for more information.
Bob Kessler, Director of the City’s Department of Safety and Inspections was present, and assured the residents that the City agencies responsible will respond. He said that the Mayor’s “Invest Saint Paul” strategy is set up to deal with this situation if people will make the calls, including those to recommend inspections of problem properties.
Nuisance calls and other non-emergency should go to the police at 651-291-1111 (Emergencies to 911). Call the Animal Control at 651-645-3953 regarding animal bites, complaints, quarantine information, and other animal related issues or concerns.
The Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI) number is 651-266-9090. They handle complaints or inquiries about licensed businesses, environmental hazards, building permits and inspections. However, call the Complaints Office at 651-266-8989, which can be used for general information and to report residential issues or any type of complaint when a specific department is not known. The number is also for any property nuisance outside a building (such as unkempt property, weeds, garbage, junk cars) and for housing code violations for single-family houses and duplexes.
For vacant building complaints call 651-266-1900. For questions regarding Certificates of Occupancy call 651-228-6230. This is the contact for building or housing code complaints about apartment buildings (anything with three or more dwelling units), commercial and industrial buildings. Also call this number for other problems which may be a potential fire hazard or for non-emergency hazardous waste incidents.
Pakou Hang, a candidate for the Ward Six seat on the Saint Paul City Council, currently occupied by Dan Bostrom, also seeking reelection, spoke with the group after the walk and collected their ideas. They ranged from things as simple as speed bumps near schools and parks to more innovative neighborhood youth employment programs and job opportunities for people returning from prison, in an effort to revitalize the local economy and keep homes and business occupied.
There approaches reflected both individual and collective responsibility to keep the community clean and safe. There were also calls to have more state and local government participation to ensure changes are made for the better.
Hang encouraged the individual citizens to continue to organize and progress could begin with neighborhood watch groups to avoid having individual homeowners having to confront troublemakers alone.
Hang also noted that she would like to see more community investment on the part of the city. This after observing a three-block area of Payne Avenue’s business District, with at least three vacant storefronts on each block, was a reflection and result of the decaying neighborhoods.
She would like to see more community investment on the part of the city and the community to make homeowners and business want to return. So far the ACORN members have worked with neighborhood associations and would like to work with the business associations.
“We are learning that people care,” said Mat Bexley, and East Side ACORN member. “…They want to have their voice heard.”
With 800 chapters in 103 cities, ACORN, the nation’s largest community organization of low-and-moderate-income families for the past 37 years, released a “Home Insecurity” study to identify zip codes with higher levels of home foreclosures in June 2007. The report (uses Realty Trac data) and shows that Minnesota ranks 34th, and Minneapolis, Saint Paul and Bloomington together rank 89th among the 110 cities and counties included in the national report. There were 5,589 foreclosures in Minnesota during 2006, an increase of 167 percent from 2005.
ACORN services include one-on-one mortgage loan counseling, first-time homebuyer classes, predatory loan prevention counseling, and finding affordable mortgages through lending partnerships. They also offer free tax help in partnership with the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Preparation (VITA) program. Contact Minnesota ACORN at 651-642-9639 or online at www.acorn.org.