When David Piehl arrived at home at about noon on September 19, he checked the nearby Regan house to make sure it looked okay. He went inside his own home, and when he came back out about 2:30 p.m., he saw that the stained glass was gone from his neighbor’s house.
“My heart just sank,” he recalls.
The neighbors of the Healy district were devastated about the Regan house, but not surprised. They knew that it was a dangerous time for the house, as it had just been recently foreclosed on and was not boarded. The neighbors had taken turns watching over the house.
“We were petrified it would happen,” says Connie Nompelis, who lives two doors down from the burglarized home. A real estate agent herself, Nompelis explains that right after a foreclosure is the most vulnerable time for a house. “One neighbor actually sat in his car overnight,” Nompelis recalls. Brian Finstad sat in his car in the alley and watched over the house. David Piehl watched the Regan house from his own house all night long on the day it was boarded.
The story of the William M. Regan house illustrates the strip and steal process. The Regan house, named after its first owner, is located in the Healy Block Historic District, located in Central neighborhood in Minneapolis, near Phillips. The block includes a collection of Queen Anne-style homes constructed by Theron Potter Healy. Rich with stained glass, curved windows, and decorative balustrades, these homes were at one point prime real estate for the upper middle class of the Twin Cities.
The thieves took stained glass, woodwork, and some copper from the building. The theft of copper pipes can cause explosions. Jackie Erickson, the Realtor for the house, says she had to shut off the gas because the thin strip of copper connected to the furnace was stolen, and its absence could make the house explode.
While figures on the number of fires or explosions due to copper theft are hard to come by, one such fire destroyed a north Minneapolis home in March, damaged the two adjacent homes, and scattered debris for blocks. Tom Deegan, manager of the Problem Properties Unit for the city of Minneapolis, said that the police department has reported 59 responses that were related to copper theft so far this year. The fire department has reported 135 responses due to copper theft since 2002.
With the increase in foreclosures across the country and here in the Twin Cities, the vacant houses pose problems for neighbors and for the cities where they are located. Securing vacant homes is a process that is riddled with bureaucracy that is sometimes counterproductive, and can jeopardize the safety of the building and the neighborhood.
Jacque Erickson is the real estate manager hired by Premiere Asset Services, an asset management company that assists homebuyers in purchasing foreclosed homes. In listing the house, Erickson tries to keep the fees for new buyers to a minimum, which means avoiding condemnation and protecting the house from damage.
Foreclosure laws set a redemption period of six months to buy back the house after the bank forecloses. In the case of the Regan House, the previous owner completely abandoned the property, so Erickson was able to get the redemption period reduced to six weeks.
But even leaving a house vacant for six weeks is liability. Boarding a house can protect it, but the boards also can serve as an advertisement for squatters and thieves. Additionally, once a building is recognized by the city as a building that should be boarded, its address gets listed on the city’s website which further advertises its vacancy.
Once a building is boarded, the property owner has 60 days to remove the boards and secure the building by conventional means — that might mean replacing broken glass and putting locks on windows. If the owner does not secure the building, then it is condemned after 60 days. When a building is vacant and condemned, the city assesses a $6,000 vacant building registration fee. This is an annual fee, for as long as the building remains vacant.
If someone buys the property, they may be able to negotiate the vacant building registration fee with the city. According to Tom Deegan, manager for the Problem Properties Unit in Minneapolis, the new homeowner could enter into a restoration agreement with the city. The agreement would detail plans and a schedule for bringing the building up to code and posting a bond to ensure that the agreement will be carried out. In return, the city would agree that, if the home is back up to code in six months, it would forgive part or all of the fee.
Erickson says she would prefer to board the house from the inside by herself, thereby not making the house unsightly to neighbors, and avoiding the costs of condemnation. But Deegan says that boarding a house from the inside can create a very dangerous situation for firemen, should a fire occur.
Deegan explains that the city won’t always board a house just because it is vacant. There have to be other factors that support the boarding, such as frequent 311 or 911 calls around the area. A house that is foreclosed and walked away from is more likely to get put on the list of houses to be boarded. Once a call is made about a suspect house, a photograph is taken of the house, listing its address and code violations such as an open window or door. The owner is sent a letter with a picture of the opening and must secure the building within six days. If they do not, a boarding contractor is hired to secure the property within 72 hours.
Deegan notes that ten days might pass between the notification to the owner that his/her building is unsecure and when it is boarded by the city, and ten days is a long time for a house to be open without protection.
In cases where the building is at a high risk for theft, the inspector might order an emergency board-up, which costs $135 dollars per opening instead of $45 per opening. (Depending on the number of doors and windows, total costs for boarding a house will run into the thousands of dollars.) Deegan explains that the city only uses emergency board-ups in very dangerous circumstances, because “we are cognizant of the fact that this is taxpayer’s money.”
David Piehl, who lives in a Healy historic home that had previously been foreclosed, is very unhappy with the lack of protections that the homes receive. He believes that police need to provide more protection for neighborhoods that have a lot of foreclosed homes.
“The mayor doesn’t believe there’s crime in this country,” Piehl says, “so neighbors have to look after themselves.”
Piehl was one of a group of neighbors to lobby the city to install very tall fences around vacant houses. They got the support of city council member Elizabeth Glidden, but couldn’t get the funding. They also unsuccessfully lobbied to have valuable structures such as stained glass, fireplaces and woodwork put into storage until a vacant house becomes occupied again. Removing and then replacing these items is a very expensive plan, though, and would not protect the copper in the house.
David Piehl and his neighbor Connie Nompelis agree that they are in favor of preserving old homes instead of demolishing them, which ignores the beauty of historical architecture and the green aspect of keeping the building.
Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.