Two Perspectives on the Minneapolis Problem Properties Unit

A new strategy for dealing with the city’s problem properties

by Gail Olson

If your business is rental property, you might be interested to know that the City of Minneapolis is taking a closer look at police and housing inspections records.
The recently-formed Problem Properties Unit (PPU) is part of the inspections department. It was organized to tackle the city’s ‘worst of the worst’ residential and commercial properties. According to PPU manager Ricardo Cervantes, 19 or the 35 properties on the unit’s active list are on the North Side.

The unit’s methods are new, he said, because for the first time a city agency is pulling together information from many sources, including the police department, housing inspections, fire inspections, and the city attorney’s office.

‘ We were looking for a way of doing business differently,’ Cervantes said. ‘The piece that’s been missing is that there hasn’t been any dedicated staff within the city (to deal with these properties). Every department has been taking care of its own business.’ In addition to police calls and housing violations, the PPU staff checks animal control reports and even tax records and water bills to see if there are back taxes or unpaid bills. They check for Section 8 fraud, and work with constructions inspections, Environmental Health, Business Licensing and community planning and economic development staff.

Cervantes says they plan to target 120 properties in a year, ora bout 10 a month. They operate on a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ principal, he added. ‘This is a more intensive effort; we’re more in the owners’ face. Once we go through the selection process and identify properties, we set up a meeting with the owners and their property manager. We go over the building’s history with them, and tell them we’re spending an inordinate amount of city resources on their property. We give them the opportunity to let us know about their history, if there are tenants or family members involved with criminal activities.

‘ Then we come up with an action plan,’ Cervantes said. ‘They’re required to bring the building into code compliance within 90 days, otherwise we move forward with a whole host of enforcement tools. they can’t create problems for a neighborhood and stand idly by.’

He said the city has had success using the administrative citation. ‘They’re similar to a tag but the fines are higher. The first violation is $1000, then $400, up to $2,000. If a building owner is ordered to get a smoke detector repaired and doesn’t, for instance, they could be charged with an administrative citation for $200.’

If an owner doesn’t fix the problems, he said, he or she might receive a letter of intent from the county, saying that their property will be condemned. ‘At that point owners typically sell,’ Cervantes said. ‘In the past, that has worked well with owner-occupied houses.

The PPU has expanded its activities to rental properties, he added. ‘We expect the owner to have a management plan in order. The city should not have to be involved in management. They have to have a plan for picking up the garbage and cutting the grass. There can’t be any abandoned vehicles on the property. they have to have a long term maintenance plan for things such as the roof and the furnace.’

A property’s history

Cervantes cited the history of a house in the 2500 black of Irving Ave. N. that has had a history of 283 police calls since 1999. The incidents included shots fired, domestic abuse, assault, burglary in progress, damage to property, prowler, and narcotics.

‘ When we first got involved, two (of the three) units were occupied. One of the tenants crossed paths with some gang members and went running from one unit to another.’ (The units are connected.) the gang members followed, kicked in a door, and beat up the tenant’s girl friend. The tenants in the downstairs unit refused to return to it after the incident, Cervantes added.

Since 1990, the building has had 210 housing violations. Housing inspectors found broken windows, mice, roaches, and illegal wiring. The ceiling, walls, floor and a roof overhand needed repair and a storm door needed to be replace. there was no weather-stripping and the porch was collapsing.

The owner had done substantial repairs, Cervantes said, and has also paid some fines. He received three administrative citations this year and has contested them all. the city prevailed on the first one; the other two haven’t yet gone to court.

Another North Side property has had 48 violations in 2004. The second floor windows were all knocked out, Cervantes said, the the owner has made no effort to get the house put back in order. Police incidents reported included an assault in progress, suspicious vehicle, two domestic assaults, a prowler, and an assault in progress in street in front of building. The police listed the building as ‘high risk’ to persons serving warrants; Cervantes said that is typically the case when narcotics are involved. The building is now vacant, he said, and police calls have dropped.

Old Highland meeting

Cervantes said he recently met with residents from the North Side’s Old Highland neighborhood. They had eight properties they wanted to see put on the Problem Properties Unit list.

‘ I think they left the meeting somewhat disappointed,’ he said. “We checked our reports and were not finding the police record of calls. BuI I told them that if the problems at these properties rise in severity I wanted to know about it.’

Resident Tracy Loso said that the ‘biggest pressing issue’ for many in the neighborhood is the fact that their frequent calls to housing inspections or 911 bring them no relief. ‘We have gang activity, drug dealing, parties that spill out into the street. There are houses with broken windows. Places were there is constant trash, loud music, major housing violations.

She said some residents from nearby Near North and Willard Hay neighborhoods have recently enlisted Old Highland neighbors’ aid in getting some help from the city. ‘We are trying to help them out to keep our own neighborhood safe. We have some problem properties but they are not as concentrated as they are in other places.’

She said she was concerned at the meeting with Cervantes, to learn that it seems some 911 calls are not being logged. On one property, for instance, housing inspections had a record of only four calls, when several neighbors said they had personally made many calls about it.

‘Some information is getting lost in the city,’ Loso said, adding that its’ frustrating, because people get tired of calling and seeing nothing change. ‘We want to see somebody get fined, somebody lose their house. Hopefully this unit will provide some type of coordinated effort and follow up and bring long term change. We’re getting new homeowners coming in who up and leave because of a constant lack of things getting done. We try to hold down our fort. We are consistently firm believers in calling 911, getting to know our neighbors and not turning away and closing our blinds.’

Fifth Ward City Council Member Natalie Johnson Lee also attended the meeting between Old Highland and the Problem Properties Unit. ‘The exciting thing about this meeting is that one of the things i’ve seen is that many systems in the city are broken,’ Johnson Lee said. ‘When departments don’t communicate with each other, it leaves the average citizens in the lurch. This not only brings to light some of the flaws, but might be helping to resolve them.’

She said she is concerned about 911 calls not being logged ‘because that’s what they look at to see if it’s a problem property.’ The group will meet again on Nov. 17, she added; representatives from the 911 dispatch office and the county attorney’s office are expected to attend.

Cervantes said that he prefers to rely on city staff, beat copes and city council members to refer properties to the PPU. Because they can only deal with the worst ones, he added, may properties don’t meet the criteria for the PPU to investigate them. ‘Obviously, the public would like everything to go to the PPU, but that’s not feasible. I think we have a pretty good view on the severity of the problem city wide, and which properties don’t have those elements.’

Tom Deegan, former Minneapolis fire marshal, will soon take over as manager of the PPU. Former Minneapolis Fire Chief Rocco Forte was recently appointed assistant city coordinator. Forte oversees the PPU.”

This article appeared in the neighborhood newspaper, North News, on November 11, 2004.


A Letter to Mayor R.T. Rybak

Dear R.T.,

Relations between your city administration and landlords connected with Minneapolis Property Rights Action committee seem to have taken a turn for the worse. From our perspective, this is because the Minneapolis Police Department, with our backing, has returned to the philosophy that rental properties or their owners cause crime and that the centerpiece of your crime-fighting strategy will be to crack down on “problem properties” and on people like Howie Gangestad who is one of our members.

Evidence of your new strategy lies in the city’s creation of a “problem properties task force” which combines police and inspections functions. I wrote an article for the Watchdog newspaper about that development. It is improper and also illegal for the city to use its inspections powers as a facade for carrying out police functions. The legal terms for this is abuse of process, although the violation is admittedly hard to prove in court. Another problem is that it is a waste of taxpayer funds to have a large group of professionals - with a payroll of what, $200,000 - devoted full time for part time to harassing certain landlords. With a few exceptions, landlords are not the criminals. You should be going after the people who cause crime or otherwise be implementing a sound crime-fighting strategy.

Yesterday, I watched your cable-television show on the city channel. You were interviewing Police Chief Bill McManus. When you asked the chief about his strategy to fight crime, he emphasized the “problem property” approach. this bothered me. We held MPRAC’s monthly meeting last evening. On camera, I denounced you and Chief McManus for your premeditated reversion to discredited policies of the past.

With respect to McManus, let me say that his conduct to date does not impress me much. Admittedly, he may be doing many good things in the city that he has managed to conceal from landlords. We have tried to reach out to him several times. Twice, Eve White invited him to be the guest speaker at our monthly meeting. Twice the chief canceled at the last minute, citing more important business. I have also tried to communicate, without a satisfactory result. Meanwhile, I notice that crime in my own neighborhood has gotten worse and that police officials do not respond adequately to neighborhood attempts to seek guidance or help. Some persons who have observed the chief at social functions describe him as arrogant.

As you know, most members of our landlord group had high hopes that relations with the city would improve after you were elected mayor. Some of us worked in your campaign. Others gave money. Several times we featured you on our television show. Despite an initial flap about your appointments to a housing task force, most of our members including me have remained your supporters. We recognize the mess you inherited from the previous city administration and have acknowledged that you and the City Council have made serious, intelligent decisions to cope with this.

The fact that the city seems to have returned to the strategy of scapegoating private-sector landlords for crime changes the situation. As stepson of a landlord who supported our group, you know or ought to know how crime affects rental properties, drug stores, and other businesses. When you ran for mayor, you made public statements which revealed your understanding of these problems. When we first met, I stood up at a public meeting to compliment you for a statement you had just made about housing issues. But you seem now to have given in to political pressures to go back to the canard of demonizing private sector landlords.

We at Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee thought yours was a benign administration. I have watched quietly for several years in expectation of establishing a mutually respectful relationship. It has been my hope that the city administration, including the police, would have a dialogue about issues affecting us. In that spirit, we produced for you, at your request, a statement of issues and proposals concerning landlords shortly before your election. I have also given copies of our proposals to other city officials. These are not set in concrete - we wanted to offer something to get the dialogue started. We offered them to you in good faith as a way to resolve our differences through cooperative discussion rather than confrontation. I must say, there has been no response from the city. Instead, you’ve apparently treated us as suckers.

Let me suggest this. Could not the city and its landlord community focus on one question? That question would be: If the city doesn’t want provate-sector landlords to offer housing to certain types of people (criminals, vandals, thugs, drug sellers and users), where are these people supposed to live? Don’t pretend that to not exist. there are such people who often cause problems for the community. The city needs to be honest about it and decide what arrangements need to be made to deal with these so called “housing undesirables”. Obviously, the providers of housing need to be brought into the scheme. As much as the city or its communities are affected by misbehaving individuals, so are those who own rental properties. Landlords need to work with the city on this because it is our common problem. We’d be glad to meet with you or your representative to discuss what can be done. But we cannot accept dishonest dealing where you shift the blame for crime to us.

At last night’s meeting, certain ideas were advanced about housing the “housing undesirables”. Sheltered living arrangements might be an answer for some people. We also think that Public Housing should accept its fair share of people with problems. the worst of the offenders should live in prisons. Then there are private-sector landlords such as Howie Gangestad who accept people as tenants that other landlords would reject. He, too, is offering a kind of solution.

But instead of commending these landlord for giving often desperate people a “second chance”, the city has hypocritically turned on them. This approach is indeed hypocritical because, if a particular landlord rejects these ‘undesirable” tenants, they will only live in someone else’s building. The problems they cause will not go away but merely be shifted to some other place. Or is it your policy to run these people out of town? Then own up to it. Don’t make us the instrument of your policy. Dealing with the city’s crime problem is your responsibility. You ran for mayor. You willingly sought out its responsibilities. You can start by providing a clear answer to the question: Where are the “housing undesirables” supposed to live?Maybe private-sector landlords should work more closely with social workers and counselors who can offer personal services to tenants with problems. Maybe there could be mediators to help resolve problems between landlords, tenants, and the community. Maybe tenants with a poor housing record could apply for rental housing accompanied by advocates who would commit to helping if problems arose. I understand that HUD money is available for providers of sheltered-living arrangements but only non-profits are eligible to apply. I think costs could be lowered if private-sector landlords could also bid on those projects.

I am suggesting, then, that many of our outstanding differences could be resolved if the city developed a more constructive approach toward housing the types of people who cause problems for the community. We landlords would be glad to sit down with city representatives to see how we could play a part in the solution. It does call for creative thinking. But, above all, it calls for honest dealing. We insist on being treated fairly and honestly by the city.



William McGaughey,

member, Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee


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