Letter to Editor of NorthNews in response to statements

by Council Member Don Samuels

November 18, 2004

Northeaster/ NorthNews
2304 Central AvenueN.E.
Minneapolis, MN 55418

Dear Editor:

It is disheartening to me to read in your newspaper the many ignorant statements made by Third Ward Council member, Don Samuels, a charismatic, conscientious, and, I think, good person.

Basically, Samuels has decided to beat up on landlords in the press. A city election is coming next year and this is the politically popular thing to do.

Samuels and others are blaming landlords - the owners and managers of rental property - for crime in neighborhoods which the city links to residential buildings. It is certain that these buildings did not do the crimes. It is unclear how their human owners did. The theory which I have heard is that the city thinks the building owners were too lenient toward applicants for the residential units. The owners should have screened more thoroughly for past criminal activity on the part of the prospective tenants.

The reality is that most landlords do try to exclude potential criminals from their buildings. But the information is not always there. The police do maintain a telephone line at which landlords can obtain information about arrests but detail is scarce. The landlord must travel to another location for trial information. Apart from this, the police have much information about criminals in neighborhoods which, for various reasons, they will not share. Landlords and other residents are mostly on their own in trying to decide which individuals are causing the crime in or near rental properties.

There are also a few landlords who do not screen but who, as long as rent money is forthcoming, give each applicant a chance to rent an apartment until proven wrong. This approach is not illegal or even immoral. Yet, the city has decided to target these landlords for inspections and other punishment.

I say to Don Samuels and other city officials: Put up or shut up. If you don’t want landlords to rent to certain types of individuals, then pass an ordinance to that effect. State in the ordinance what our screening criteria should be. But, of course, city officials would never do that because they would be criticized as uncaring people and, perhaps, sued. Instead, they want landlords to assume all the bad publicity, risk, and legal exposure. They have deliberately created a gray area, putting the onus of crime solving upon landlords without a clear legal framework in which to operate. This is wishy-washy, mediocre government, to say the least.

Samuels is quoted in your article to the effect that a certain “property owner paid about $5,000 in taxes, but the property cost the city $10,000 in public expenses ... We’ve been subsidizing the landlord at a net loss to the city of $5,000.” This statement is flat-out false. The property did not cost the city $10,000 or anything. It was individuals, not buildings, whose activities prompted the 911 calls. Many of these individuals did not pay any taxes to the city. So the city isn’t interested in them. In this era of “deep-pockets justice”, city officials are interested instead in going after landlords who they think have money.

The Minneapolis police play a little game with statistics about police calls. They pretend that certain property addresses are responsible for each call. A property owner told me recently that the police had charged a speeding violation to his property because the driver of a speeding car was stopped onthe street in front of his building. Even if a crime did occur in or near a building, it’s unclear how the owner caused the crime. Do the police blame the owner of convenience stores for the crime if the store is held up? Do the police say that the store manager was “asking for it” by having a cash register in the building?

This statistic, given by Samuels, of each police call costing the city $225 is a bogus number. As a former cost accountant, I know the difference between fixed and variable costs. The police department maintains a huge bureaucracy. Most officers would be employed despite the level of crime. In other words, most of the cost of police operations is in the nature of a fixed cost. That means that the $225, or whatever, would be paid even if the 911 call did not occur. The number is valid only if the police would incur additional expense as a result of the call.

If my analysis is wrong, I challenge Samuels to let this newspaper know. I will apologise profusely to him if he can present convincing evidence to show that the $225 per call represents a variable cost.

Samuels makes a big thing about personally meeting with landlords - “massaging these delinquent property owners and landlords”, as he puts it. Mr. Samuels, as a landlord in whose district you may live when the redistricting plan is implemented, let me say that I want to meet personally with you. I will put in a call to your office next week to schedule an appointment. I want to visit with you in your office, perhaps in the company of several other landlords, to discuss how the city and landlords can work together more productively to deal with the city’s crime problem or other problems of concern to us both.

Mr. Samuels, even before you were elected to office, I mailed you several typewritten sheets on which were listed issues of concern to the city and its rental-property owners. These points represented the best effort of a landlord group to identify problems and find solutions. You have never gotten back to me. Perhaps at the meeting which I would like to have with you we can discuss some of these issues. Or we can discuss other issues if you wish. But I would like to have a discussion which is constructive and mutually respectful rather than an exercise in blame-shifting.

Mr. Samuels, you have effectively exercised your position on the Minneapolis City Council to gain publicity calling attention to the crime problem. I applaud you for that. However, as a member of the Council, you also have control over certain city resources and control over its ordinance-making function. I would challenge you to graduate beyond rhetoric and become a city official who offers thoughtful initiatives to deal with crime. This is, after all, your responsibility.

It seems to me, Mr. Samuels, that we are dealing here with a certain segment of the city’s population which is involved in criminal activity. These individuals have not committed crimes serious enough to be in prison, but they are obviously a nuisance to the neighborhoods. (If landlords are among these criminals, then, fine, throw the book at them. But, in the main, landlords are interested in being good citizens and making a living.) At any rate, the city needs to decide what to do about these people? Where should these troublesome people live? What arrangements should be made with landlords who agree to house this type of person? What social-service resources are available to steer these people away from crime into more productive pursuits.

That is what I would like to talk about with you, Mr. Samuels. I’d ask you to abandon your demagogic rhetoric about “problem properties” and seriously, thoughtfully consider what constructive alternatives to the present situation might be devised and promoted by Minneapolis city government to deal with its continuing crime problem.


William McGaughey

cc: Don Samuels

Note: Don Samuels did agree to meet with McGaughey and another person in his office although he failed to act on any proposals discussed at that meeting.

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