Overcrowded house?


What do you do when one day a truck pulls up on your block, people get out and unload 22 beds…and take them into a nearby triplex that’s got a history of problems?

If you’re like Windom Park neighborhood residents Stephanie Peterson and Jim Madson (who said he saw the beds being unloaded), you get busy trying to find out about the new tenants in the 2200 block of Fillmore St. NE. What they discovered, through various phone calls and conversations, is that a Brooklyn Park rehab center named New Guidance Counseling Clinic is housing some of its clients in the three-story house.

And, depending on how many people live there and what’s going on, it might all be allowable under city and county regulations.

“I had a plainclothes officer knock on my door the next day, asking if my house was the new treatment center,” Peterson said. (She lives across the street from the triplex.) “After that, I talked to one of the new residents, a young man who said he was from Georgia and had come here for a five-week drug and alcohol treatment program. Then I called New Guidance.”

Peterson said she was told by a woman there that New Guidance has three live-in house managers, all the residents have been referred to the treatment program by Hennepin County courts, and all were on probation.

Peterson said, “Obviously, neighbors get concerned about court-ordered drug rehabilitation; that can include people who don’t necessarily want to get off drugs. You wonder, are they going to be casing our homes for their next fix? On the other hand, if they’re decent tenants and not doing anything that scares me, or doing bad things out on the lawn, then fine. It could be better than what we’ve had.”

When the Northeaster contacted New Guidance, the call went to owner Laura Cavanaugh. She said they are renting property on Fillmore Street to house some of their clients who need to be in sober housing. People who live in the house have to sign a contract not to use (drugs or alcohol), she said. Residents are in either an 80-hour program, four hours a day, five days a week for four weeks, or a 60-hour program. “If they don’t have a place to stay, we rent a place for them. There is a house manager. There are always weekly and random UA’s [urine analyses].”

The house is not licensed by the state, she added, because that’s not where the program is. The three-story house has nine bedrooms and belongs to a family named Surma, she added. “We were dealing with an attorney for the lease. They’re [clients are] only here [in the program] for 20 days, and at night they need a place to stay. The clinic pays for it. We just provide it if we need it; a lot of them have homes. But this is more structured; some need a little help by staying in a sober environment.”

Meetings are in the New Guidance Counseling Clinic offices, she added. “We are licensed for chemical dependency outpatient treatment.” She estimates that 40 people a day go through their clinic. Only 20 percent of them need housing, she said, and the rest go home. The ones who go home include “a nice group of professional people,” Cavanaugh said.

People are referred to the clinic by past clients, a variety of private assessors, the county or the courts. The clinic is a for-profit organization and is in its fourth year of operation, she said.

She said residents are housed on Fillmore Street one to a bedroom and there are nine bedrooms, which means they can accommodate nine clients. “The third floor has three bedrooms and a kitchen and living room,” she said, “the second floor has four bedrooms and a kitchen and living room. The main floor has a great room, dining room, kitchen and pantry and the downstairs has a bedroom and a pretty big utility room.”

When asked if 22 beds going in equals 22 clients, she said, “No, we don’t even have that many people in our day program.”

Cavanaugh said she knows that some neighbors have questions about New Guidance; they have told her that the house has a history of drug selling and drug busts, “they said the cops were always there,” and there was even a murder at the house about 10 years ago.

She, the administrator and the house manager would like to sit down with neighbors and “go over everything,” she said, to “make sure everybody is aware of what we’re doing. We would love to have our clients staying there be part of the community, maybe helping at the church across the street. I’m kind of excited to talk to the neighbors. We run a tight ship. Our house manager is a wonderful person. This is not a group home or a halfway house.”

The clients are all men, 18 and older; their average age is 32 and the majority are from Minneapolis, Cavanaugh said. They cannot leave the house on their own until they are halfway through the program; then they might be issued a pass. While they are staying at the house they can’t have visitors, and no children or pets are allowed. The maximum time they can be there is 20 days.

Cavanaugh said she wanted to buy the house, but the attorney told her it was not for sale.

Steve Manuel, who said he is “the maintenance guy” for the property, said he did the remodeling on the house and “everything is up to code.” Manuel said there are 11 bedrooms in the house. “That’s what I think; I didn’t really count.” The house, he added, is owned by the estate of John S. Surma; it is in probate court.

Hennepin County records show the owner as John Surma.

Jennifer Jordan, principal city planner for Minneapolis, said the house is in an “R-2 B” residential area. If it was a community residential facility, it would need a city license, Jordan said, but it doesn’t seem that any programs are conducted at the house.

(A group home—as defined by the Minnesota Department of Human Services—she added, is allowed in that zoning, but no more than six people could live there.)

According to city records, she added, the city’s Board of Adjustment approved “three dwelling units” in that structure, which means each unit could house a family and three unrelated people, for a limit of 15.

But Minneapolis First Ward City Council Member Paul Ostrow said that because the house does not have a family living there and the residents are not related, there can’t be more than nine residents. The city, he said, has had “a number of concerns about properties owned by the Surma family;” and the 2nd Precinct CCP/SAFE units and his office have gotten involved.

In 2001, the Surmas requested that the house be declared a legal triplex. Although the Board of Adjustment rejected the request the Surmas sued and won the lawsuit, which means it is legal to have three rentable units, and a total of nine unrelated residents.

“However, 22 beds is more than double the allowed number of residents. Our housing staff has been alerted about this property, and they have told me that they will be very aggressive in looking into this,” Ostrow added.

“It’s a good thing people called about this; it shows that the neighbors care,” he said.

“The best practice for the agency would have been to go around and knock on doors and let people know who they were, like Teen Challenge [Grace Manor’s new occupants] did.

(Grace Manor, on Lowry Avenue NE, provides transitional housing for women who have completed Minnesota Teen Challenge’s drug and alcohol program.)

“They’re calling this a sober house, and we have no city rules about that; this is a question of occupancy,” Ostrow said. “There don’t seem to be any services for these people at the house; it’s just a place for them to live. We don’t have any right to say you can’t live there because you’re part of some program. But when 22 beds move in, it’s pretty hard to imagine there was any other intention than housing that many people.”

Neighbor Jim Madson said he, like Peterson, had talked to staff at New Guidance. He said he was given the impression that there would be “20-plus” residents, “but their story seems to have changed after Paul Ostrow got involved.”

Madson said he had watched people carry in the beds on a Saturday afternoon. “The house is not very well maintained. They never finished siding it in the back. It would be nice to have somebody move in that takes care of it, and if we’re getting responsible people now, it could be a good thing.

“But if it is so positive,” he added, “then why did they try to sneak in through the back door?”