Property Rights and the Political Spoils System

How would you like it if City Council members in Minneapolis had the power to post a placard on your front door ordering you out of your house, pay little or nothing for your property, and then turn it over for $1.00 to a church-related nonprofit organization which proposed to raze the building and construct a senior-citizen apartment? That would be awful, wouldn’t it be?

Well, suppose that the same thing happened to another person, your neighbor down the street? Not quite so awful. Further suppose that it was not the person’s home but some rental-property that he owned? Suppose that “neighbors” were complaining that the building was crime-infested and that the owner, a landlord, appeared simply not to care. In that case, the property confiscation might not seem bad at all but, perhaps, downright justifiable.

How might a City Council member “take” private property? FBI tapes show that Basim Sabri, a real-estate developer in south Minneapolis, proposed to Council member Brian Herron that, for $10,000, he threaten the owner of a Taco Bell franchise on Lake Street with condemnation by the Inspections department. This owner would then, presumably, accept Sabri’s low-ball offer to buy the property. This action was illegal because a bribe was involved.

But what of similar situations, not involving bribery, where City Council members requested that Inspections pepper a property with work orders or condemn the property so that someone else could acquire it without paying the full price? This is what might have happened to me, with a nine-unit apartment building, six years ago. But I do not know; all was done in secrecy.

Speaking of senior-citizen apartments, I know of a situation in which one such outfit, associated with the Lutheran church, offered to “buy” a crime-ridden apartment from its rightful owner but stalled when asked to name a price. Meanwhile, the same organization was orchestrating a letter-writing campaign by the seniors to the Hennepin County Attorney to complain of the building’s crime. The “offer” - a suggestion that the property owner should donate the building to this fine organization - came in the County Attorney’s office during negotiations over how the state nuisance law might close down the building to end the crime.

I know also of another situation where supporters of a church-related nonprofit - this time, Roman Catholic, aided by a former mayor - held a protest demonstration outside an elderly man’s apartment building around the time that his wife died. It was a noisy one, backed up by an Inspections attack. The inspector told the owner privately that there was nothing wrong with the building’s condition; the problem was with the organization down the street which wanted to acquire his property so its facility to house seniors could be expanded.

The city can send Inspectors to a property whenever it wants for whatever reason. One would hope that the inspectors would be looking for conditions in the building related to the community’s health and safety, but that may not be the case. The Housing Maintenance code gives city inspectors broad discretion to determine minimum standards. In some cases, owners are held to the higher standards required of new building construction. Each inspector is essentially on his or her own. In a legal document obtained by Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee, the city refused to acknowledge any responsibility to train or supervise its own housing inspectors.

Ill-trained, free-thinking inspectors, without an agenda, could be tolerated. What makes the present situation intolerable is the combination of loose code standards and a City Council bent on acquiring property in unethical but creative ways. When politicians take properties from a vilified group of people - “absentee landlords” or “slumlords” - and gives to a stereotypically virtuous group - mainstream churches and “neighborhood” associations - then the public is willing to tolerate a certain violation of legal rights, especially property rights, to achieve the intended objectives.

To restore fairness and legality, I would argue that we need to throw the spotlight of full public disclosure upon the inspections process where City Council members are involved. Inspections needs to keep a log of all complaints received from city officials and make this information available to the public upon request. We also need to end the practice of allowing MCDA to acquire tax-forfeited properties from the County, which, in turn, “sells” this property to favored developers and nonprofits for $1.00 or $2.00 as directed by City Council members.

This is the new face of the political spoils system as practiced in Minneapolis today. To restore investor confidence and stimulate the city’s housing market, such practices need to be stopped by the city administration that assumes office in 2002.

Articles written about housing            Back to: MAIN PAGE