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Response to the city's renewed bureaucratic offensive

November 12, 2006

Letters to the Editor
NorthNews

Dear Editor:

The city’s “Problem Property Unit”, described at great length in your November 1st paper, represents the politicization of the inspections process and the self-righteous attempt of well-paid bureaucrats to present themselves as “doing something” about the city’s problems when they are mainly inflicting pain on low- and middle-income city residents. It is also an attempt to divert attention from the city’s own failure to control street crime.

At this time, many city residents, especially on the north side, are experiencing much financial and personal trauma. We have skyrocketing property taxes and inspections sweeps combined with sustained levels of intolerable crime which make people feel unsafe in their neighborhoods. Landlords in crime-ridden neighborhoods find it quite difficult to attract decent tenants, so they sit vacant and lose money. Admittedly, some people bought real estate at the height of the housing boom. Now, with rising interest rates, they face foreclosure and homelessness.

It’s in this environment that city bureaucrats, earning perhaps $60,000 to $80,000 a year in comfortable jobs, are trying to pass themselves off as problem solvers by lording it over the distressed residents of Minneapolis, most earning a fraction of what the bureaucrats are paid. They demonize certain individuals as slumlords, absentee landlords, or whatever. You get a glimpse of what is happening in this incident from your article: “Some landlords have just given up. One came up to one of our block club leaders waving a white hanky. He said: ‘I give up. Find a buyer for this place.”

In this context, we have the well-paid Mr. Deegan, head of the Problem Properties Unit, tell of a property owner near 13th Avenue and Marshall who “spent a ton of money on the units. He got rid of his tenants. I tell these landlords, ‘You make your living off of this. You need to spend some money.” No doubt chuckling to himself, Deegan said “it sometimes feels like some property owners go ‘dragging, kicking, and scratching’ all the way. ‘We get to the point where we say, “Push it, and you will suffer significant financial loss.”’”

In an apparent bid for our sympathy, Deegan adds, “Its unbelievable, the work we have to go through to take somebody’s license away.” He complains of the many hours of staff time that it took to go after a certain property owner who owned five buildings, which, of course, in practical terms means paychecks for bureaucrats such as himself.

From a property owner’s standpoint, let me say that if I had a choice between walking down a street towards a thug likely to roll me and take my wallet and having to deal with an arrogant city bureaucrat, I’d take my chances with the thug.

Who is asking for this? Apart from certain neighborhood busybodies who perpetually complain to inspections (sometimes hoping to ruin their neighbors and pick up property on the cheap), I don’t think the general sentiment in this city is that the city’s housing stock is unsafe and needs repair. This is something that the City Council and perhaps the mayor have drummed up. They are dealing with crime according to the “broken window” theory, which, of course, means that someone else needs to be the crime solver, not themselves.

The City of Minneapolis has a poor record in addressing violent crime. I don’t necessarily mean this as criticism of the Minneapolis Police Department or Chief Dolan. It is rather the fault of the city’s elected officials who, not only cut police staffing at a critical time, but also failed to provide leadership on crime. Apart from direction of police resources, someone needed to lead an effort to coordinate crime control between the city police, prosecutors, judges, correction officials, and other agencies. This was not done. Also, someone needed to increase resources and programs to keep young people from becoming criminals. This also was not done.

Minneapolis residents are asking - pleading with - city officials to solve the problem of violent crime. That is clearly their responsibility and they are given resources to get the job done. But instead of going after criminals, city officials go after “problem properties”. The “Problem Property Unit” is the bureaucratic gem they wish now to unveil. Blame buildings for crime - that’s the ticket, they think.

Mayor Rybak should know better. When he ran for office for the first time, he often pointed out that his step father, Chuck Mesken, was a landlord in a tough neighborhood and that he understood the problems of rental-property owners from discussions held around the dinner table. Rybak also sought out the political support of a landlord group to which I belonged, Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee, and asked us to prepare written proposals for better relations between landlords and the city. And now his city administration has given us this.

I fear that bad times have returned - more dishonest, rapacious city government combined with continuing or even intensified self-righteousness. The City Council has timed this property-punishing initiative for right after the 2005 elections. So it’s time to resurrect a group created to combat problem city government, which had considered the Rybak regime to be reformers, and once again go after the rascal politicians.

The archives of Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee are up on the web at http://www.landlordpolitics.com. Of particular interest would be the section titled “horror stories”. This consists of more than a dozen case histories illustrating how ill-intentioned city officials can take property away from city residents without paying for it. Is that in your future?

Sincerely,


William McGaughey

 

The above letter prompted two replies which were printed in the next issue of NorthNews. Neither of the two letter writers cared for its point of view. William McGaughey then wrote the following letter in response:

January 21, 2007

Letters to the Editor
NorthNews

Dear Editor:

I wish to respond to two letters in your last issue which I assume were responding to a letter which I had written and published in the previous issue.

Beverly Roberts, who is a block club leader in north Minneapolis, encourages Council Member Don Samuels to “help our community get rid of these horrible, unlivable, ghetto units owned by ‘absentee landlords’. She wants to “thank you so very much for ... turning a deaf ear to the cries and pleas of these landlords who have raped our community for far too long ... You will get my vote and support every time.”

I’m sure Don Samuels will get her vote. Hate sells and certain individuals are especially susceptible to this kind of message.

I would ask this letter writer how landlords have “raped our community”, so to speak? Beyond the inflammatory, prejudicial language, there is the question of what specific situations she is referring to. Did the landlord neglect building maintenance? We do have a Housing Inspections unit which tags property owners for such things. Did the landlord fail to screen tenants properly and let known criminals into their buildings? When and where did this happen?

I have written leaders of Minneapolis city government urging the police to send landlords copies of the police report when persons living in their buildings are arrested for significant crimes and suggest ways that the situation can be remedied. So far, there has been no reply. City officials are evidently not interested in beginning such a dialogue aimed at real solutions to problems of crime involving rental properties. They have choruses of block club people who fulminate on cue.

The other letter writer, Jerry Johnson of north Minneapolis, seems to view me as a particular culprit. He writes: “I’m amazed at how often people are so defensive when they are asked to maintain the appearance of their property. My thought is that perhaps this individual himself got cited or tagged for neglected or unmaintained property. The elected officials and the city are not the evil-doers who are picking on you, Sir. Perhaps it’s your neighbors who are fed up with the appearance of your home.”

I do own property but it is not neglected and it is properly maintained. If my neighbors are fed up with the appearance of my property, none of them have told me so.

Then the letter writer goes on to say that “if this gentleman is going to cry baby-diapers and try to convince me that the majority of rental property (landlords) only invest in these properties because it gives these landlords a warm and fuzzy feeling to help people in need ... wrong. They are not concerned about the neighborhood needs...”

“Crying baby-diapers” is a new one for me. I thought my letter was raising some serious policy issues about city government. Some landlords, more than others, run their businesses in a caring way and carry tenants in need. It is never appropriate to paint the picture of an entire group of people with a single brush stroke.

Finally, Mr. Johnson writes: “I’m assuming that this gentleman does attend all neighborhood functions and block parties and gets involved with neighborhood concerns (a little sarcasm here). I’m willing to bet he doesn’t.”

Well, I am an area representative of my own neighborhood association and do attend most of the meetings. But suppose I didn’t. We have a representative form of government in which our elected officials make most of the decisions for us. It is our civic duty to become informed about the activities of government so that we can cast an intelligent vote for public officials at election time. It is not our duty in a representative democracy to belong to block clubs. Those who like this sort of thing can do so according to their degree of preference.

I have, however, by my own volition belonged to a city-wide group of landlords, founded by Charlie Disney, which holds regular public meetings on city-related issues which are videotaped and shown on public-access television. We’ve had many City Council members - Barb Johnson, Don Samuels, Paul Ostrow, among others - as our guests in the past. The city’s mayor, R.T. Rybak, attended our meetings three times when he was running for mayor the first time, and once when he was running for reelection.

This group has tackled a variety of issues related to housing and crime and prepared many written proposals for city officials to consider. Interested persons can view its archives on line at http://www.landlordpolitics.com. My letter to NorthNews which prompted the two letters in the Jan. 10th issue can be read at landlordpolitics.com/deegan.html.

Sincerely,

William McGaughey

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