Northsiders cheer inspection sweeps, until tight deadlines hit home

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Minneapolis’ housing inspectors are sweeping the North Side in force, so far writing more than 8,000 orders to homeowners and landlords for a host of violations. Chipped paint. Tall weeds. Crumbling driveways. While some residents say they approve of the intentions behind the sweeps, they are chafing under the strict policies. They cite inconsistencies in who’s getting cited for what, for instance, and also complain that the time frames for making repairs are too short.

J. Kevin Flagg, housing coordinator for the Harrison Neighborhood Association (HNA), said that many neighbors who have been cited for violations have contacted HNA.

“These people have been in the community for years and years. Most of the violations are for minor things, but they’ve only been given a month to fix them. Many people here are senior citizens, and most of our residents are low income. The median yearly income for a family in Harrison is $26,000. They understand the sentiment behind wanting to keep the neighborhood up, but it’s having an impact on them.”

(But not every North Side neighborhood group is hearing those kinds of complaints. Debby Nelson, staff person for the Cleveland Neighborhood Association, said she’s taken calls from residents who ask her why the inspections aren’t getting done faster, and complain that their neighbors aren’t mowing their grass.)

The HNA meeting
At a recent HNA meeting, resident Lisa Faibault said she was given just 10 days to move two boats off her property. (Storing the boats on grass instead of a paved surface is illegal, she said.)

Faibault said that the neighborhood has many bigger problems, such as long-time abandoned gas stations, yet home owners who take care of their property are the ones getting the citations.

“I feel that the length of time people are being given is not reasonable. In this case, I was able to get the boats removed, but I felt picked on. We home owners do care about our neighborhood.”

Another woman said that she needs to have major work done in a short time frame. “Some work is just beyond us. I have to get my family together to help me when they have time, and I have until August 1 to get my garage painted.”

A resident who has lived in Harrison for 64 years, said that she can’t afford to put in a new driveway. “I’ve lived in this house for 30 years and have never gotten any notices like this. It will take me time to raise the money. Everybody says there are loans, but what do I need another bill for?”

Some people said they weren’t worried about themselves, but they did have concerns for their neighbors. Lyle Kill, for instance, said his neighbor was ordered to fix his driveway, but had recently paid nearly $2,000 to remove trees on his property. Another woman said an elderly neighbor cited for minor repairs “is so worried he doesn’t know what to do.”

Craig Eliason, district supervisor of housing inspections, attended the Harrison meeting. He said getting cited doesn’t cost anything, but if people don’t comply with the orders, they might face a $100 reinspection fee and a $200 fine. After that, the fines go up every month. When asked if residents might get an extension, he said, “We’re not as liberal as we used to be on extensions.

People get 10 days for environmental violations such as tall grass, rubbish, or junk cars. For other violations such as structural problem, painting, trim, driveways, people get 60 days. “Our directive is that there will be no extensions for environmental violations. All other extension requests go directly to Rocco Forte [head of Regulatory Services]. There’s a feeling that we were being too lenient on extensions in the past. Somebody would say they didn’t want to fix up their garage because they were tearing it down and they’d get an extension. Then they wouldn’t tear it down.”

The North Side initiative “happened very quickly,” Eliason added. Inspectors were notified in March or April that the sweep would start May 15. Eight inspectors, including some who have been pulled in from other parts of the city, are working on the North Side initiative. “This is a big undertaking. The inspections are curb to alley. It’s taxing our support staff.
“We hope to get through the Fourth and Fifth wards this summer.”

If property owners don’t make environmental repairs, Eliason said, the city hires contractors for such things as cutting grass or shrubs and removing hazardous trees. The charge for that goes on the owner’s property tax bill.

Forte’s view
Forte confirmed that “All extensions come to me.” Regulatory services has been too liberal, he said, adding, “When homes are not taken care of, it brings down property values. We believe people should comply with orders in a short time frame. In the past there have been abuses with extensions. We have given extensions in some places two, three or four times, for up to a year and a half. Then it comes up to late fall and the owner says they can’t fix things because of the cold weather.”

The curb-to-alley sweeps are starting in north, going to northeast, and then south Minneapolis, Forte said. “We’ve got to get the neighborhoods back to standards we’re all comfortable with. And we’re hitting commercial properties next, with the help of our problem properties unit.”

Between May 15 and June 9, he said, inspectors had written 8,686 orders in North Side neighborhoods. “There are 23,000 parcels [in North]. We’re getting on with it; the initiative will be from May 15 to Sept. 15. We’re doing a little, also, in south Minneapolis, in Phillips, that’s next. And we are still doing inspections in the rest of city, but not with this intensity.”

When asked if he’s heard any complaints about the sweep, Forte said, “I’ve heard every complaint you can think of. But when I started [in Regulatory Services four years ago], the first complaints I heard were that we weren’t doing enough. We have to be proactive and aggressive, and stay proactive and aggressive.”

Fifth Ward City Council Member Don Samuels said he views the inspections as the city’s responsibility, “like putting out fires and sending police out on calls. The North Side has been under-served for decades in the area of regulatory services.

“Now we’re seeing the worst of all cases, where home ownership is transferring to rental property. It’s nowhere near as high anywhere else in the city, and the march continues. Almost 60 percent of the foreclosures in the city of Minneapolis are happening in North, and a lot of those [owner-occupied homes] will turn to rental.

“Our inspection system is obsolete,” Samuels said. “It was designed in the days when there was a friendlier social context and people were readily accessible and had pride in home ownership. Those things are gone with the wind. Inspections had still been operating at the level of that era. They were totally unable to deal with things happening in 2000 and beyond. And now we have landlords who recognize that. [Some of] Our fines were only $30; it became cheaper to pay the fines than do the repairs.

“And the bizarre part is, with rising property values your equity was growing. Even a slum was improving. That has resulted in a further disincentive to make an investment in your property. What a great thing, huh?” Samuels asked. “All these things conspire to make a predatory absentee landlord environment.”

Samuels said he knows some residents are complaining. “When you try to correct some historic wrong, you hurt people. But in fact what we’re trying to correct is what has been neglected. We’re trying to bring our community the same level of scrutiny that is exercised in Kenwood [an upscale South Minneapolis neighborhood] with rigor. In doing so, you hurt people whose income level is compatible with neglect. It is a sad thing, but there’s no other way to help your community than to raise everybody’s standards. We want to see what funding sources we have available and urge people to take advantage of them. In the worst of cases, that probably won’t be enough. Some people are absolutely on the edge, and so vulnerable financially.”

Jose Velez, who is a member of the Fifth Ward council staff and who attended the Harrison meeting, said that after listening to residents’ concerns, he thought that the city should have sent out more notices and resource information to residents before the sweeps started.

“Resources need to be focused in this community. This community is hurting. These inspections are like pouring hydrogen peroxide on a wound. It hurts, but it will get better. In this case, we did not do a good job of making sure that the resources were available.” He suggested that neighborhood groups might help some people out with minor repairs, “like [the days of] the old barn raisings.”

Kill said, however, “That’s kind of hard when it’s the whole neighborhood that got cited.”

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