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Report on use of the Chapter 249 list by an undercover agent

An “undercover agent” attended a meeting of the Housing Task Force of Harrison Neighborhood Association on Saturday, December 16, 1995, at 1930A Glenwood Avenue.

The discussion centered around properties on the “Chapter 249 list.” There were nine properties on the list. These are residential buildings which city inspectors have condemned. The buildings are boarded up. They must be vacant for a minimum of six months. A woman at the meeting who was asked about them commented that in most cases the owners walk away from their investments because of back taxes.

Marcia Glancy, Harrison Neighborhood Association staff person, walked through some of these properties in the company of people from Project for Pride in Living (PPL) and Habitat for Humanity. Presumably, the reason was to assess the underlying value of the properties to see if these housing nonprofits wanted them.

A property at 426 Morgan Avenue, not yet on the list, had recently been condemned. The building was fairly new. The owner was in prison and therefore unable to maintain the building. He had allowed relatives to stay in the house and they had called the city inspector about minor code violations - inoperable smoke detectors, etc. Since the owner was in prison, he would not be able to complete the work orders. Inspector John Davies had condemned the building after these people moved out. This was considered a desirable acquisition.

The mood at the meeting was one of acquisitiveness - for instance, comments about yard size and whether the nonpofits would allow community gardens if they acquired the property.

Someone at the meeting commented that they ought to contact “Suzie”. She knew how to get properties on the Chapter 249 list. She was on the phone with an inspector every other day - knew the ropes.

Someone at the meeting had misgivings about this approach to improving the neighborhood housing stock due to possible abuse of power. Someone else assured her that there was no desire to abuse power.

The agenda for this group’s meeting on December 9 included this item:

“4. Report on ‘walk thru’ and findings - Mark
a/ requested PPL, Habitat for Humanity (HFH), NRRC, and TWO OR MORE to do scope of work on 518 Morgan and 2041 3rd Avenue.”

A retired city housing inspector, Andrew Ellis, gave additional insights into the process:

Chapter 249 refers to a section on nuisance conditions in the state statutes. People are pushing Inspections to condemn buildings under this statute. Such buildings need to be vacant and boarded up.

Interestingly, it says in the statute that a nuisance condition should bother a considerable number of people. That requirement has never been tested. We have a right to know if the alleged nuisance has, in fact, bothered many people.

Yes, the Chapter 249 section is being abused. There is no consistency or understanding of legal interpretation. Inspections doesn’t have a definition of what is “open to trespass”. Each inspector has his own definition. Therefore, almost every situation can be deemed “open to trespass”.

City inspectors want to condemn buildings. First, they condemn the properties. Then they set unreasonably high standards for getting the properties back in operation. If the owners fail to meet the standards, the clock starts to tick. After a certain time, they knock the buildings down.

Why is this happening? First, the neighborhood groups are full of people jealous of property owners, especially the owners of rental property. Second, the government profits from tearing down buildings. They replace run-down housing with new units of higher value that bring higher property taxes. The building trades go along with this because it means more work for them. Investors love it - properties to be acquired for bargain prices and resold at a big profit. Of course, these people have connections to City Hall.

Building contractors thrive on this approach. Knowing the system, they know what to bid. They all bid high. The low bidder still makes huge profits. These contractors are too suby on government work to work for anyone else. Pretty soon, Minneapolis will consist mostly of single family homes. That’s OK if they do it as in Richfield - negotiate to buy out the rental property owner. Here they don’t.

An important aspect is the landlord’s right to know who made the complaint that triggered an inspection. His opinion is that the section of city code governing landlord-tenant relations (Section 504.23) states clearly that all information is public information, including the name of the complainant. It is Inspection’s policy, however, not to reveal the name of complainants.

Landlords should be informed of all complaints about maintenance of their properties. This happens in only 1 percent of the cases. In Milwaukee, the procedure is for a letter to go to the owner of a property that Inspections has received such and such a complaint. The owner has 20 days to repair the deficiency. In Minneapolis, they are discussing adoption of this procedure for interior conditions only (and that part, too, has recently been killed.)

Most complaints to Inspections pertain to exterior conditions - uncut grass, loose rubbish, etc. Such conditions are the bread and butter of neighborhood complaints. Even more significantly, the Inspections department derives substantial income from citing landlords for code violations pertaining to exterior conditions - illegally, too.

The city makes money by sending contractors to clean up conditions around a property and then billing the landlord. The landlord might pay $150 for ten minutes’ work. Included in this is a fee for the time spent by inspectors at the property. If city policy were not to send the inspector to check complaints on exterior conditions but merely send a letter, the city would lose this revenue. Therefore, the Milwaukee Plan cannot be applied to external conditions without financial repercussions.

In many cases, this is illegal because city code holds tenants, not landlords, responsible for placing garbage in containers and even cutting weeds. But the city prefers to hold the landlord responsible. The contractors, knowing the system, bid low enough to get the city contract. Then they pad the bill by reporting excessive time on the job.

The City Council likes Inspections because the inspectors respond promptly to concerns of Council members. Inspections are a key tool in keeping the neighborhood groups happy.

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