Why They Don’t Get It or, perhaps, Don't Want to Know

When more than thirty landlords, homeowners, and others picketed St. Paul City Hall on August 17th, it attracted sparse coverage from the mainstream press, including electronic media. The few news reports on this event chose to balance their coverage by reporting slogans on the signs which the picketers carried followed by a measured statement from Mayor Kelly to the effect that the city was committed to preserving quality housing stock. Is this what the protest demonstration was about? Of course not. It was about crime and corruption in the St. Paul Housing Inspection Department.

The first ward Council member came out briefly to talk with the protesters. Empathetically, she mentioned the difficulties of keeping properties freshly painted and in good repair. But some owners of “problem properties”, she said, shirked their responsibilities.

I told her that I was more concerned with “problem city government”. What about the St. Paul housing inspector who peppered a house with work orders and then told its owner to sell that house to a certain named individual for $40,000 or else he would see to it that the house was condemned and torn down (which it later was)? The Council member chose not to respond to my question.

The line which distinguishes government from organized crime is sometimes a thin one. In this case, at least three St. Paul property owners have brought suits in federal court against the City of St. Paul under the RICO act - a statute designed to prosecute organized crime.

Persons on the receiving end of the city’s corrupt practices sometimes become apoplectic about their experience, tossing the words “criminals” or “crooks” around freely without coherently presenting the facts. My purpose here is to try to approach the same subject with greater detachment.

Most reasonable people would grant city government certain powers to regulate housing stock for the sake of public safety. If a building is structurally unsound or if there are conditions that would put it at risk of being destroyed by fire, we would want the community to take steps to prevent possible injury. What about minor instances of peeling paint? What about torn screens? What about tall grass or weeds in the yard? Does city government have the right to prosecute those conditions aggressively?

I would submit that there needs to be some element of forbearance in the city’s approach to housing inspections if it is to avoid going to a tyrannical extreme. Otherwise, all homeowners would be at the mercy of any martinet inspector who had it in for them personally. They would all, in effect, be working for the city. That is surely not the purpose of housing inspections. It is, however, what happens in bureaucracies out of control.

My own view is that most housing inspectors try to be fair. The problem arises when city politicians, taking a hands-on approach, tell them how to do their job. Then we start to have political ulterior motives.

A common one is to tackle crime problems by use of housing inspections. If the police cannot solve crime, then the way to do it is to link crime with residential housing, call these houses “problem properties”, and then punish the owners by peppering them with work orders. The imperative to find housing violations in predetermined buildings is an unlawful abuse of the city’s inspection powers - but it is hard to prove in court. Such abuse is common in any organization - e.g. a “problem property task force” - which requires police and housing inspectors to work in a coordinated way.

There is a racial dimension to this situation. In some neighborhoods, black criminals live in rental properties owned by whites. It is politically difficult for politicians of a liberal persuasion to wage publicity campaigns targeting the criminals individually. Their solution is to whip up resentment against landlords who rent to black people. Thus, the poster child for crime becomes a white landlord who is on the city’s “problem property” list. However, the real agenda is to get rid of the tenants. If the city can close down a rental property, it can force the tenants to go elsewhere. It can rid neighborhoods of black people or poor people by denying these people housing - and it can do so without incurring the stigma of racism.

Keep in mind that many black people are suspected of crime because of their appearance or lifestyle. I talked with a black woman whose home was raided by St. Paul police - ten squad cars of them. They were having a barbecue in the back yard. Some women were braiding girls’ hair. The police claimed that drugs were being used though nothing was charged. According to this woman, a police officer knocked a woman to the ground who had delivered a baby less than a week earlier. When she handed the baby to her brother, they went after him, too. She claimed that an elderly man, perhaps a retired officer, told her in confidence that Mayor Kelly wanted to get rid of people like her in the neighborhood.

If racial motives are kept hidden, the bias against poor people cannot be denied. Inspections abuse does not occur in Highland; it’s concentrated in poorer neighborhoods such as Frogtown or the East Side. City officials are heartless in enforcing their housing policies. Many homeowners are law-abiding citizens who live on limited incomes. It’s nothing to target them with work orders which they cannot afford to complete and then condemn the house and throw the homeowner out on the street. Is this what the good citizens of St. Paul demand in the name of preserving “quality housing”? What about preserving “quality social justice”? What about basic human decency?

We can tell the story of a 69-year old woman named Betty Speaker who used to live in the neighborhood behind the State Capitol. Her troubles began when city workers accidentally damaged a sewer line. Then the city assessed her for the repairs since it was on her property. A housing inspector named Lisa Martin began peppering Speaker with work orders. She was even cited for weed control during winter months. She was cited for potential fire hazards inside her home. Then the city fined Speaker for “excessive consumption of inspection services.”

Meanwhile, Betty Speaker’s health deteriorated under the stress of bills she could not afford to pay. The climax came when Speaker’s home was condemned by the city. She had to move out and live with one of her sons. Keep in mind that this was a woman who had always paid her taxes and kept her home in good shape. Now she’s on a dialysis machine, not expected to live much longer. These people, Dawkins and Kelly, are heartless.

I talked with a young woman named Theresa Lund who lost her home on St. Paul’s east side. She is the mother of five young children. Here inspections had issues related to weed control and parked vehicles. She lost her husband, then her house, and finally, because she had so many “personal problems”, her job. Lund, whom I met, struck me as a responsible person. But she did not have many personal resources; and that type of person easily runs afoul of the city.

Then there was another woman, who shall remain nameless, who thinks she is nearing the end of a long list of work orders. She is hoping that she will be released from inspections agony soon. Among the few to whom she gave her personal cell phone number was the city housing inspector. Right after receiving work orders from the city, she received a call - on her cell phone - from a realtor who was wanting to know if she was interested in selling her home. She later learned that this realtor and the city inspector were good buddies.

One should keep in mind that for every person willing to go public are several others who think they can weather their problems with the city by keeping a low profile. The people in Highland or Crocus Hill think everything is fine with city government. After all, city inspectors seldom visit their neighborhoods.

At worst, they think, the Randy Kelly city administration is administering “tough love” on people like Betty Speaker and Theresa Lund. Maybe they will learn from this experience that to own a home in St. Paul incurs the responsibility of maintaining it in tip-top shape so we can all live in a community of which we can be proud for its high-quality housing stock. The matter of inadequate incomes is their problem, not the city’s. The St. Paul politicians are high-minded persons who do not descend to that level of grubby detail.

The U.S. Constitution is supposed to protect citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures. That means that city inspectors are not entitled simply to enter your home to look for code violations. St. Paul inspectors often seek and gain unreasonable access to people’s homes as a prelude of having them condemned. Once a building is condemned and everyone has to move, then the house becomes subject to compliance with new housing standards. City-favored contractors stand to benefit.

Another trick is to bunch inspections so that an owner of several properties has to complete a large amount of work in a limited time to avoid noncompliance. This goes well beyond a program of inspections to maintain high-quality housing stock. It allows city politicians to play games with St. Paul residents which will force the financially weaker players off the road. Then well-connected individuals can acquire properties under “fire sale conditions”. Getting something for nothing is indeed the way the political game is played.

Yes, Virginia, there really is corruption in the city of St. Paul. You Cleopatras - queens of denial - in the Twin Cities media, get rid of your ‘70s idea that Minnesota is a “good-government” state. Descend from your high-level cloud and see what is happening on the ground.


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