North Side story: A vacant-home tour

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You don’t have to go far into North Minneapolis to see it: Homes made dark by boards covering windows and doors. Most of the boarded homes here are festooned with gray plywood. Those boards — the ones the color of street grime or dryer lint — were hammered into place by city workers. Gray boards are a telltale sign that the city has had to intervene.

According to Tom Deegan, manager of Minneapolis’ problem properties unit, in 2004 there were about 250 properties on the city’s vacant and/or condemned properties list. Today, there are close to 900 vacant homes in Minneapolis. Eighty percent of those have gone vacant in the last 18 months. Two-thirds of the vacant properties are now condemned. All of the spikes can be directly attributed to the growing foreclosure crisis.

The North Side — the area hardest hit by the foreclosure epidemic — is home to around 560 of those vacant properties. In the city’s Jordan neighborhood, TVs, refrigerators, and air conditioners litter the alleyways. These are the things left behind. They get ripped open, stripped of copper, and the remaining guts now stream streets and yards.

Dustin Maddy, an administrative analyst for the city’s problem properties unit, drives through these alleys every day. His job is to make sure homes are still boarded and not open to trespassing. “This is what happens,” he says, noting piles of debris and electronic parts littering one North Side alleyway. “These homes become dumping grounds. And the city has to come and clean it up.”

Lenders have gone missing

Tom Deegan served as the city’s fire Marshall for a number of years before taking over as the city’s problem properties manager in 2004. Along with Deegan, there are only nine employees working on the city’s 900-plus-and-growing vacant properties, from inspections to maintenance to court orders to demolitions orders.

Since 2005, home demolitions by the city have increased by 97 percent. In the 600 block of North Third Avenue in the Jordan neighborhood, more than five homes have been demolished this year alone. The majority of them suffered fire damage by arsonists trying to collect insurance before the prices dropped further.

On a visit to that blighted block one day in early April, the city is razing another home, this time due to lack of maintenance. A Bobcat tears through the skeleton of the basement. Water is constantly sprayed over the remains to keep dust and asbestos from blanketing the neighborhood.

As a result of foreclosures, lenders now own a majority of the 900-plus vacant homes in the city. But Deegan says they’ve totally disappeared. And as a result, they’re thrusting the financial burden — from maintenance to boarding to policing — onto on the city. Boarding the homes alone costs taxpayers $350,000-$500,000 a year.

“What we would like to see is these banks come in and at the very least, certainly to offset the cost of the local taxpayers, respond to the problems these homes are causing in the communities,” Deegan says. “And that is not happening.”

There is no local accountability, he notes. Banks, even those with headquarters in Minnesota, have washed their hands of it, passing it on to Wall Street and beyond.

“Where is the local representative for these lenders?” Deegan says. “I don’t care if they’re in Tangiers. You’ve got a billion dollars worth of assets in a local municipality. And you have this crisis. This is an opportunity to come forward and say, `What can we do?'”

Homes become vestibules of crime

Some of the boarded homes have For Sale signs erected in their front yards. But the chances of them selling are slim. Inside, they are often gutted. They look like carcasses in a ghost town. One particular boarded home for sale in Jordan sits on a block where only two others don’t have the telltale gray boards decorating their outsides.

Dustin Maddy notices one of the boards on the home has been removed. Someone has busted a window and entered to steal copper. Inside, there’s blood everywhere — likely because the shattered glass split open someone’s knuckles.
The temperature is about 20 degrees cooler than it is outside. Warm sunlight doesn’t penetrate the plywood over the windows. A stripped mattress abuts a wall. Trash spreads across the floors. Standing alone and empty, the homes become vestibules of crime.

This is a single-family home. But many on the condemned and vacant list are multi-family units. In some cases, these were run by slumlords who took renters’ money but never paid utilities. When they become foreclosed and boarded, as many as four and five families lose a home each time.

“These are the people who are truly in the trenches,” Deegan says. “We’re on a slippery slope trying to give a sense of balance back to these people who have stayed behind. The people we talked about today? They’re not invested in these communities. And that’s the tragedy in this.”

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