Minneapolis homeowners likely to bear the brunt of new graffiti ordinance


Minneapolis homeowners likely to bear the brunt of new graffiti ordinance
It may seem like the ultimate example of blaming the victim, but the city of Minneapolis is determined to stop graffiti by cracking down on property owners who can’t or won’t clean up after our local army of taggers.

A key City Council committee on Monday approved an amendment to the city’s graffiti ordinance that places responsibility for graffiti abatement in the hands of the Public Works Department, expands the department’s latitude to order graffiti clean up, and gives property owners whose buildings have been tagged half as much time to clean it up before city workers step in and a fee is assessed.

“The program will be more effective if we are more strict,” said Henry Reimer, the city’s director of inspections.

The city has been focusing on graffiti abatement for the past 18 months without a way to recover any of its costs, Reimer explained to the Ways and Means Committee. Levying a fee or assessment had been left to the discretion of the Regulatory Services Department. The new ordinance flatly states that the city will charge property owners a fee for cleaning up the graffiti—if the property owner doesn’t do it within 10 days of receiving a notice from the city.

The former ordinance gave property owners 20 days to do the clean up and exempted all residential structures. The new ordinance applies to all properties in the city.

The more hard-nosed approach had some council members questioning whether this was fair to the elderly and poor, who may not be physically or financially capable of cleaning paint off their homes in the time allotted. “What’s the average cost of a paint-over?” asked Council Member Elizabeth Glidden. “Is it in the hundreds of dollars?”

That cost can “vary tremendously,” explained Susan Young, director of solid waste and recycling. “It depends on the surface and where on the building it is.”

She and Reimer, however, pointed out that hardship cases can be appealed or the fees for the clean up can be assessed to the homeowner’s property tax bill and paid off over time. Ordinarily, the fees would show up on a resident’s utility bill.

The city offers paint-removing supplies at a very low cost, for those who are able to do it themselves, they added.

But Council Member Sandra Colvin Roy argued that the new ordinance should explicitly state the conditions under which hardship waivers, or “deferrals,” would apply, an approach Reimer opposed, arguing that it should be left to staff to decide when a waiver is appropriate.

“We don’t want a quasi-judicial hearing process,” he said. “Staff are very sensitive to hardships.”

Council Member Paul Ostrow noted that the new ordinance would still be less stringent than St. Paul’s graffiti laws, which require property owners to remove the offending artwork within two days of receiving a notice from the city. “There’s a strong incentive to remove it in two days, and most of them do,” he said.

As a result, St. Paul does “far less graffiti abatement” than Minneapolis, Reimer said.

While the new ordinance would put more pressure on property owners, the city aims to do the same to graffiti artists. A pilot project will explore the efficacy of filing civil suits against taggers as a way of recovering the clean up costs. That approach, of course, has its challenges, Reimer noted. It’s not easy to identify taggers and it may be even more difficult to collect damages from them. But it can’t be any more difficult that charging them in criminal court. With all the graffiti sprouting around town, the city has only six criminal cases currently in process.

The City Council will take up the matter at its Friday meeting.