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Forced out

Irresponsible landlords and shortsighted politicians are creating a new class of homeless

by David Schimke

 

Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretchin’ ‘round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin’ in their cars in the Southwest
No home no job no peace no rest.

“The Ghost of Tom Joad”
by Bruce Springsteen

On May 24, 1995, Helen Denise Hughes became an icon. One minute she was a 24-year-old mother running out to an ice cream truck to buy treats, the next she lay dying on the sidewalk in front of “slumlord” Robert Zeman’s crime-infested apartment building at 1030 Morgan Ave. N. in Minneapolis - the victim of a drive-by shooting. The media dragged out their blood-stained bar graphs. Community leaders shook with righteous indignation. Minneapolis May Sharon Sayles Belton, along with a cadre of public officials, hit the streets to beg their constituents to end lawlessness. This murder, they said, exemplified all that was wrong with the inner-city and the criminal property owners who were helping turn it into a war zone.

In one of the tragedy’s most memorable moments, Sayles Belton wrapped her arms around Mary Russell, Hughes’ grieving mother, and wept. With one gesture, the mayor appeared sensitive without looking weak; street-smart but unapologetically institutional. Hughes’ tears were Sayles Belton’s tears and Sayles Belton’s sorrow was the city’s shame. The flash bulbs burned.

William McGaughey, a landlord in the Harrison neighborhood, remembers being shaken by the news and is still enraged by Sayles’ Belton’s gesture. Just weeks before last summer’s shooting, Hughes was staying with family and friends in McGaughey’s apartment building at 1708 Glenwood Ave. “She was just trying to get her feet under her,” McGaughey recalls. “ I remember the first time I met her. She had a bouquet of flowers, and I drove her to south Minneapolis so she could deliver them. She was a nice woman.”

But McGaughey had his own problems. A local neighborhood group, concerned with what they perceived to be a “criminal element” cavorting in and around McGaughey’s building, was working in concert with the Minneapolis police and City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes to close it down. Because of the pressure, McGaughey says he asked Hughes to leave; not because she was a bad tenant, but because her family, with whom she was staying, was the subject of neighborhood scrutiny. Hughes packed her bags, moved her three children to Morgan, and met her maker.

“Helen was just trying to do the best she could, but I had to turn her down because I couldn’t afford what was going on in terms of pressure from the neighborhood and the city,” McGaughey says. “So she ended up with Zeman, who, y’know, is kind of a landlord of the last resort. [The situation is] just so two-faced. They city wants us to close our doors to people, then they turn around and hug the same people they’ve thrown out onto the street. That’s not compassion, that’s hypocrisy.”

McGaughey is part of a new class of inner-city outcasts: disenfranchised, small-property owners (or, in ‘90s-speak, “angry white men”). Their mission is to expose the “liberal” establishment’s weak-kneed and ill-aimed attempts to clean up “problem properties” as an exercise in scapegoating. They’ve never met a landlord they didn’t like, and ultimately see as the root of the city’s housing dilemma “lazy welfare cases” flocking in from such “tougher” states as Illinois.

On the other side of the ideological fence, tenant advocates argue that the city, by targeting run-down buildings in neighborhoods under siege, is violating the Constitution, running roughshod over renters and using ostensibly neutral city offices for law enforcement. Between the lines, down-and-out tenants looking for a second chance or their first break are being victimized by irresponsible absentee landlords, and pigeonholed by short-sighted politicians. Anti-crime rhetoric, born on the right and usurped by the DFL, has turned into an all-out assault. And people like Helen Hughes are caught in the crossfire, at the mercy of city policy, a landlord’s discretion and a violent world.

Since June 1995, beat reporters searching for Gingrichian quotes about the local “system” have spent time on Charlie Disney’s porch across the street from Whittier Park in south Minneapolis. A 54-year-old Edina boy and stockbroker turned self-proclaimed inner-city advocate, Disney embodies the utilitarian bent of modern-day politics, demanding expanded police powers while simultaneously pooh-poohing the need for government involvement in private enterprise. He owns six small duplexes in some of the toughest neighborhoods in town (“I have black tenants, Asian tenants. I have Indian tenants I’ve tried to turn around. I’m not a racist.”) He’s sick of irresponsible tenants. (“This system is being overwhelmed by free-loaders who don’t deserve it.”) And he’s tired of taking heat from The Man.

“There’s crime in the streets, so we can’t keep good tenants. At some point, unless I want to lose my property, I have to lower my standards,” Disney says. “Then I get punished if I rent to someone who doesn’t understand personal responsibility. So what happens? I have to close my building and the rest of the good, poor tenants get thrown out on the street. It’s a real human tragedy.”

Despite the lip service Disney gives to “the good tenants we love”, in his worldview, the “human tragedy” victims he cites dozens of times an hour are small-property owners; the little guys like McGaughey whose heads are being beaten against the same crumbling walls they helped build.

Once a month, Disney presides over a meeting and call to arms for the Minneapolis Property Owners Action Committee (one city Council member jokingly compares the proceedings to an Amway Convention). For hours at a time, the property owners share their pain by comparing horror stories, discussing strategy and updating each other on the status of their civil lawsuit, filed against the city of Minneapolis and the Housing Inspection Division of the Department of Regulatory services. It is the beating heart of their grassroots movement.

The suit, filed last June, alleges that rental-property owners have been unfairly targeted under licensing and housing-code policies, strengthened last spring when the City Council voted to augment a rental-licensing ordinance passed in 1991. The laws attempt to hold small landlords more accountable for drug dealing and other criminal activity on their premises.

“We’re not trained to be policemen. We don’t have a badge or a gun,” Disney says, “Yet when the mayor or City Council talks about crime, they talk about ‘problem properties.’ Not problem tenants. What does that mean? The bricks and mortar are criminal? It’s ridiculous.”

Nine plaintiffs are listed on the suit, but dozens more support its spirit. Brad Rickertsen,a former landlord who involved himself with Disney’s committee because “he can no longer be targeted as a property owner,” says the Housing Inspection Department, under the guidance of supervisor Michael Osmonson, is just a blunt political tool for Sayles Belton. “She can’t answer for inner-city crime because her party helped crete it. So they have to find a politically correct scapegoat,” he says.

Disney and company allege that the inspections department, in order to wage the mayor’s left-wing war against capitalism, twists the letter of the 1991 licensing agreement - allowing the department to “arbitrarily and capriciously determine which properties on which to perform a rental-license inspection.” They also say, “that often, inspectors will use a rental-license inspection to punish an owner nonoccupant or force an owner nonoccupant out of business.”

In other words, if there’s enough 911 activity at an owner’s building, or a neighborhood group doesn’t like the way a caretaker mows the grass, the city police, in tandem with health and housing inspectors, will work together to, at the very least, make the landlord’s life a living hell.

McGaughey ways that after his property on Glenwood was targeted by an overzealous neighborhood group, he was forced to shut down the building, which, coincidentally, meant dozens of good tenants were left on the street.

The (housing) commissioners have full discretion to decide what constitutes a building unfit for human habitation,” McGaughey says. “They used that power to shut me down, when the real complaints were about crime and vandalism the police couldn’t substantiate. [Jackie] Cherryhomes demanded that I evict everyone from the building or it wouldn’t work. And I couldn’t do that. The city was forcing me to send everyone into the street, good or bad. That’s been their attitude all along. Just take drastic action without identifying the problem.”

Underneath the property owner’s rabblerousing rhetoric and dramatized examples, there’s the acidic air of conspiratorial paranoia. In fact, after spending time with Disney, you wouldn’t be surprised if he said a housing inspector- or a bad tenant - killed Kennedy. He casually throws around unproven allegations of graft in the mayor’s office. The committee even has its own whistle blower: Andrew Ellis, a landlord who, after working for the Housing Inspections Department for 27 years, alleges the whole organization is in purposeful, corruptible chaos. (His specifics are sketchy, except to say it’s “the liberal bias in the department that wants to bring about the fall of the landlord.” His documentation of personal harassment, however, is exhaustive.

Still, at the root of the landlords’ caged logic is an unintentional, undeniable truth. When the city uses the housing-inspections department to fight crime or to punish marginal landlords, they run the risk of condemning innocent, well-behaved tenants to the street, even when most don’t have the resources or connections to find a safety net.

“I don’t have an answer to what happens to these folks,” Council President Cherryhomes admits. “But clearly, that needs to be part of the equation.”

Luckily, it’s unusually warm this February morning. Twenty-nine-year-old Pamela Patterson is on stealth mission, moving her three children out of a previously condemned apartment at 1401 N.E. Third St. She’s been living in the Minneapolis building illegally off and on for two weeks, but if she stays any longer the sheriff’s department will move her out. So while two beefy, low-rent movers lug an overstuffed, under-covered couch down the stairs, Patterson looks for something small to hand her 6-year-old son, who keeps tugging at her pant leg and asking what he can do to help. In Disney’s black-and-white world and the city’s “equa ---

“No landlord mistreats their property or purposely neglects their tenants,” Disney will say over and over again, complaining that the city takes better care of its disenfranchised than its hard-working “citizens”. But don’t tell that to Patterson or her neighbors. They’re frantically looking for a place because, simply put, their landlord didn’t pay the rent.

“On New Year’s Eve, me and my kids were all stretched out and half dead, because of carbon monoxide fumes coming from a space heater and a water tank,” Patterson says. “The city came in the day after and condemned the top two apartments. So I went to a shelter, with the impression that Arlene Korbel [the landlord] would fix the problem.”

But Edina law firm Shapiro & Nordmeyer already was in the process of securing the apartment building for the deed holder because Korbel had stopped paying the mortgage. The tenants in the lower apartments would have until February 15 to secure another place to live, but Patterson and her upstairs neighbor were on their own. The Housing Inspections Department had condemned the second level and wouldn’t reverse the order until the landlord made good on required repairs.

While the building’s caretakers, Paul Peterson and his wife Jodi, frantically appealed for an extension from either the lawyers or the city, Patterson’ family spent their nights at Mary Jo Copeland’s Sharing and Caring Hands homeless shelter. But that got old fast. Despite fears of arrests, the weary family moved back into the condemned apartment at 1401. Patterson had paid rent and was still waiting for her damage deposit, so they thought it was only right. During the bitter, subzero days of late January, Patterson says, she ran the stove two hours at a time to keep them from freezing.

“My kids say, ‘Mom, everything’s gonna be OK.’ But they don’t know about all the places we’ve been denied. They don’t know how much mental and physical stress this has put on their mom,” Patterson says, the stress of the situation welling up in her bright, energetic eyes. “I’m so tired of these useless landlords. And I’m so tired of dealing with the city. They’ve done nothing. I’ve tried to get into the projects, but they aren’t letting anyone in. They tell me to look for a job, but I can’t look, because I don’t know if my kids are going to have a place to sleep tomorrow. It’s just stress, stress, stress.”

“I hate to hear about situations like this,” Cherryhomes says when told of Patterson’s predicament. “My office takes a lot of calls from people and finds them a place to live. Clearly, if the landlord kept paying their bills, these people would have a place to live. It’s really sad, but the city isn’t really the trigger mechanism.”

True. But according to caretaker Peterson, the inspectors’ office wasn’t much help. Instead of directing the tenants at 1401 to the appropriate social services, Peterson says, the inspector took it upon himself to play police officer.

“[The housing inspector] went off on me. He came out here and put up the signs for condemnation upstairs and told me if things were’t taken care of he was going to condemn the whole damn building,’ Peterson, a 26-year-old father and cabbie says. “What I want to know, is what was I supposed to do about it.”

Peterson says the city has policies in place to get rid of bad landlords and problem properties, but it’s not suited to adequately handle those disenfranchised in the process. So, if you have the time and money, you can do what countless others do everyday on the eighth floor of the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis: Wait in line to sue your landlord.

But not everyone has time to oil the squeaky wheels of justice for a $474 damage deposit. Patterson needs Korbel to live up to her legal commitments today, while the van’s all packed up with no place to go.

“If the Korbels would just give me my deposit back, I could get back on my feet,” Patterson says, adjusting her beret and choking back another wave of tears. “I’d have somewhere to go.”

Kirk Hill and Charlie Disney might have been separated at birth and raised by radically different step-parents. They’s both inexplicably driven, oft-quoted, stubbornly, single-minded pack rats on a mission to shake up the establishment. But while Disney tunes to Joe Soucheray and pines for Minnesota’s Contract With America, Hill struggles to fight the power from a makeshift office decorated with sun-stained Jesse Jackson posters.

For 18 years, Hill - who runs the Minnesota Tenants Union from a card table turned desk beneath a hand-painted sign on the corner of Lake and Bloomington in south Minneapolis - has been giving advice to renters, especially those on the wrong side of landlords who play games with damage deposits, try to evict tenants and openly discriminate. But since the licensing agreement named in Disney’s suit was passed in 1991, Hill has often found himself on the same side as his time-tested foe.

“Ir used to be that the main wolf was a landlord or a slumlord,” Hill says. “But now you have a much more formidable beast: City Hall.”

“It’s been a steadily growing phenomena during the ‘90s and in the last year, it’s exploded,” he says. “There’s been a penetration of the inspections department by the police and the police’s mentality. So no inspectors feel they can act as cops toward tenants and landlords. They’ve been given the high sign to run roughshod over everything and everyone.”

Ideologically, though, Disney and Hill will never see eye-to-eye. Which is why they may never marshall forces against their common nemesis. Hill says Disney’s group is too quick to bash tenants and welcome in such “notoriously negligent” landlords as Floyd Ruggles and Steve Meldahl (both are named as plaintiffs in the landlord’s suit against the city). Disney, on the other hand, explicitly mistrusts Hill’s liberal leanings. “”Y’know what they say about him,” Disney says, raising a knowing eyebrow. “They say he’s a socialist.” (Hill says he may well be, but with “a small ‘s’.)

Meanwhile, the city continues to hone a system that allows community groups, police officials and housing inspectors to respond to problem properties. The most visible initiative, the 1994 merger of the Minneapolis Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) and Community and Resource Exchange, or C.A.R.E., coordinates city and county agencies to help neighborhood watchdogs “harass the shit out of a building,” in the words of Council Member Steve Minn.

“ I see it as kind of analogous to Vietnam, where they burned a village to get to the guerrillas,” says Larry McDonough, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis. “If you think you have a drug violation in the building - or suspect it - then take that person down legally. If you don’t have the evidence, then you should be careful what other routes you pursue.”

When the Harrison Neighborhood group, led by safety-and crime-issues organizer Marcia Glancy, finally closed down McGaughey it was for cockroaches. But the impetus for the action, she proudly admits, were the 290 police calls that had been logged at his building.

“That property perpetrated a great deal of crime and uncomfortableness and a crack-alley-like atmosphere on Glenwood Avenue,” Glancy says. “And it didn’t get turned around until it was condemned and everyone was kicked out. So I can’t say everyone there was bad, but who wants to live with a bunch of crack dealers?”

Except for crack addicts? Probably no one. But given the choice between being thrown in the streets on a 24-hour notice or letting the police do their job, most of McGaughey’s tenants would’ve preferred to keep a roof over their heads. If only because eviction is eviction, whether you or your neighbor were to blame.

“People are left high and dry,” McDonough says. “If they’ve been evicted and there’s a court record, it’s very easy for a landlord to tap into that record - rightly or wrongly. My sense is that landlords won’t rent to someone if an unlawful detainer has been filed, whether they lost or not. However, when I give legal advice to people fighting evictions, I have an obligation to tell them by fighting the case and even winning it they may be creating another kind of bad record that will follow them around.”

Landlords say they’re damned to be the devil. If they do as the city asks and stringently screen tenants, they’ve accused of callous discrimination. If they loosen standards, neighborhood groups will find a way in. Especially in Minneapolis, where the licensing agreement gives the city freedom to inspect any property at any time. (Before 1991, unless a tenant or a landlord had lodged a specific complaint, an inspector could arbitrarily choose a property for inspection, but he or she could be turned away by an unsuspecting resident. But now, since every building is subject to licensing violations, inspectors can target properties at their discretion.)

Hill says the manipulation of city ordinances has made renters a kind of second-class citizen. Among countless other activists, Joan Pearson, executive director of the St. Paul Tenants Union, and Scott Bullock, an attorney at the Institute for Justice in Washington D.C., agree. The home, whether leased or owned, is still a castle. And the Fourth Amendment demands cause be established for a search.

If they have clear evidence that there is any criminal activity on the block, they should call the police,” Pearson says. “I’m thoroughly opposed to this idea that, if we can’t find the drugs we’ll find some code violations and achieve the same purpose. Don’t force other means to force the person out just because they’re suspect or someone has a problem with their lifestyle. Because then their due-process rights have been denied.”

But Minneapolitans, like the rest of the nation, aren’t concerned about rights. They’re concerned about crime. At least that’s what the polls say. So Sayles Belton made a point to unquestionably praise the NRP earlier this month in her State of the City address, even though it would have supported the ousting of drive-by shooting victim Helen Hughes, a tactic that eventually led to her death. Council members such as Cherryhomes, who McGaughey calls the small landlord’s worst enemy, give “social programs” lip service while expanding police powers. And just lobbyists as Jack Horner of the Minnesota Multi-Housing Association - a coalition of corporate landlords who are fleeing the city core for the suburbs - support strict licensing because it will slow “the deterioration of our communities.”

“The question that legal aid and the tenant unions are asking is whether or not we’re creating a class of homeless people,” says Horner, who doesn’t have much sympathy for tenants. “Well, one legitimate answer is that they’ve written their own ticket. Maybe they move in with family and friends or in some cases go back from where they came. You have to get to work, take a little responsibility for your life.”

Martha is one tenant who has always taken care of business, though now she finds it hasn’t done a bit of good. Martha doesn’t want you to know here real name. She’s 85 years old, single and scared. So the last thing she wants to do is advertise her vulnerability.

For the last 20 years she’s lived in the same substandard Minneapolis apartment, covering the paint-chipped walls and warped wood floors with a lifetime of memorabilia: an antique coffee table, an upright piano, a small-scale pump organ, photo albums and thousands of magazines and newspapers. In a two-bedroom apartment big enough for a small family, she’s dug out just enough room to maneuver her 5-foot frame from room to room. Legally blind, she knows where to find everything she needs: especially in the kitchen, where she loves to cook.

But Martha hasn’t eaten for days. She sleeps for a couple of hours at a time, then finds herself pacing about - rubbing her temples with clenched fists. In 10 days the sheriff’s department will nail shut her front door because a negligent landlord led city housing inspectors to condemn her apartment. Ten days. It would take a young, able-bodied person at least that long to pack her things. Even if she had the time, Martha can’t possibly look for another place.

“What am I going to do?” she sobs. “Oh, what am I going to do? I’m too old to move. I should be getting ready to die, not getting ready to move. I have nowhere to go.”

Though the building’s problems are fixable and the infrastructure - even in the dead of winter - is livable, there will be no extensions. Like it or not, one way or another, Martha will have to leave. Enigma or example? Kirk Hill says she’s the rule. She has no family or friends. She has no safety net. And she definitely can’’t “go back from where she came.”

“They’re going to come in here in the next couple days, and they’re going to find me lying here dead,” she says, stamping at the ground and pulling at her hair. “I‘m going to light a match and burn this building down, with me in it. I’m dead. Do you hear what I’m saying? I’m dead.”

 

Twin Cities Reader, Feb. 28, 1996 - March 5, 1996, cover story

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