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Not so fast, Mr. Dawkins

Is there anything the city of Duluth can do to force seriously negligent landlords to fix up their problem properties?

Not much, say city officials and housing activists, who for years have complained that while ordinances allow building inspectors to haul property owners into court, endless continuances and cheap fines offer little incentive for landlords to fix anything.

Yet a slate of obscure state laws written in the 1980s and ‘90s offers far tougher remedies, including one allowing the city itself standing as a litigant in civil cases against slumlords.

In town last week to explain this was Andy Dawkins, a one-time St. Paul mayoral candidate and former state representative who knows more than anyone else about the laws, because he wrote them. He also put them to work as St. Paul’s chief of Neighborhood Housing and Property Improvement for three years under Mayor Randy Kelly until January, when both men left office.

“I was in the position to enforce the laws I wrote. How many people ever get the chance to do that?” Dawkins said Wednesday on a whirlwind visit to Duluth to meet with groups including the mayor, the City Council president, housing, police and fire officials and community activists, and members of the News Tribune’s editorial page staff.

The way it works is instead of tenants having to take their landlords to court for code violations, the city can file a civil case on behalf of itself. “the city doesn’t represent the tenants. (It) represents the city’s interest,” Dawkins said of a law dubbed the Tenant Remedies Act. “A judge can appoint an administrator to take the property away from the owner temporarily to get the job done, and take the assessments out of property taxes.”

His other previously unused laws allow for expedited evictions of problem tenants and the shutdown of nuisance properties, such as drug and prostitution dens.

It’s not free; a fund is needed to provide money to get the repairs done before the assessments are collected. In St. Paul, the first city to try out the laws (Minneapolis has recently followed), it was $200,000. A similar amount would be needed in Duluth, but not to worry, Dawkins said. he’s identified possible statewide funders and local resources also may be available.

Dawkins called the St. Paul program a success, saying of “several hundred” cases, 31 went to court and 10 were settled via third parties. More important, the program sent shivers down the spines of other slumlords who fixed their properties, fearing the threat of action. “Voluntary compliance shot way up,” he said.

His Duluth audiences were ecstatic. Housing activists began dreaming of rat-free properties and city counselors mulled over wording of a resolution to jump-start the program.

But there were a few things Dawkins didn’t completely disclose. He told only a few of his listeners about the existence of three federal RICO lawsuits, filed by disgruntled landlords against Dawkins, former Mayor Kelly and other St. Paul officials, accusing them of racketeering by targeting certain properties. And if leadership by example means anything, Dawkins also failed to tell his Duluth audiences anything about his own problem property - a St. Paul bungalow used as a law office cited repeatedly for code violations before his 2002 appointment, complete with a washing machine and toilet on the lawn.

“That’s just what Andy was talking about (regarding other property owners),” longtime housing activist and St. Louis County Commissioners Steve O’Neil said after learning of Dawkins’ personal woes.

Reached in St. Paul over the weekend, Dawkins acknowledged owning the bungalow with another lawyer. “I’m an absentee owner,” he said. “I’m not on the property. Indeed, the homeless people had kind of taken over our backyard and even ran a hose from a spigot so they could take a shower. The other lawyers said ‘You want me practicing law or want me with a shotgun warding off people?’”

He also confirmed the violations. “Yes, there had to be a notice sent - it never got to me, I wasn’t aware of it. Somebody drops their junk vehicle, washing machine, toilet, you don’t get to it for a couple of days.”
That’s exactly the sort of claims landlords in the suit and others are making in accusing Dawkins and his staff of overzealous enforcement.

“You don’t hold (the landlord) responsible for a tenant that throws garbage on the ground,” said Jim Swartwood, publisher of a Twin Cities landlords’ publication, the Watchdog. Swartwood accuses Dawkins of retaliating against him with code violations after he wrote unflattering articles.

Dawkins dismisses Swartwood as “a slumlord” (Swartwood says he’s not) and the lawsuits as “frivolous”, saying a judge will likely dispose of them as baseless in a summary judgment hearing. Yet, 22 months after the first one was filed, in May 2004, that has yet to happen.

A lightning rod for controversy, Andy Dawkins isn’t the story in Duluth, and officials and activists here say they still see merit in the Tenant Remedies Act. Duluth’s slum housing is legendary, and something must be done about it.

But it would be wise to wait until the RICO suits against St. Paul have been decided before adopting the program here. Duluth needs effective action to repair problem properties, not costly litigation.

From DuluthNewsTribune.com March 6, 2006 "Our View: Before acting on slumlord law, Duluth needs St. Paul verdict - Official touting tougher enforcement had problem property of his own"

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