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Star Tribune Article Stirs Discussion of Housing and Crime Responsibilities

   

"Leona Crandle, 44, pointed to a splintered hole where she said a bullet fired from outdoors pierced the kitchen wall of her upstairs apartment at 2503 Irving Ave. N. in Minneapolis. Downstairs, a 10-inch-wide, 8-foot-long gap separated the floor from the wall on the porch. The pilot light had gone out, and natural gas was leaking from the stove. "It's horrible," said Crandle's daughter, Ebony Flowers, 19, who also lived there. "We don't have another place to go. Last week they were gone anyway, evicted by their landlord, Howie Gangestad, who said they owed $2,500 in rent. "She left the place in a shambles," he said. He already had evicted other tenants responsible for a stream of police calls. Just who is at fault may be open to debate. But the city of Minneapolis has a new enforcement task force devoted to targeting the worst houses and apartments. And the triplex that Gangestad owns has been put at the top of the list of problem housing." (Star Tribune, Sept. 9, 2004)

A front-page article which appeared in the Star Tribune on September 9th has sparked a discussion of who bears the responsibility for dealing with the city’s crime problem. The city says that landlords do. Recycling a theory popular ten years ago that poorly maintained houses cause crime, the city has formed an “enforcement task force devoted to targeting the worst houses and apartments”.

This task force, headed by former city inspector Ricardo Cervantes, includes a representative of the City Coordinator’s office (who will spend 50% of his/ her time on this project), a full-time Inspector II, a full-time representative of the Minneapolis police department, and an assistant city attorney (spending 25% to 50% of his/ her time). Additionally, the task force will draw upon unspecified services from the Minneapolis Fire Department, Business Licensing, Construction Inspection Services, Animal Control, Utility Billing, Zoning Enforcement, and the Hennepin County Attorney’s office.

At this time, a principal target of the task-force effort, according to the Star Tribune article, is Howard (“Howie”) Gangestad, owner of a triplex at 2503 Irving Avenue North and more than 30 other properties on the north side. Evidence of landlord neglect, it said, was a bullet hole fired from the outside which pierced the kitchen wall, a “10-inch-wide, 8-foot, long gap” separating the floor from the wall on the front porch, and the fact that the pilot light had gone out on a stove in the kitchen.

Gangestad denied that he had fired the shot which had created the bullet hole or even knew about it before reading the morning paper. In the article, he claimed that the complaining tenant owed $2,500 in back rent and had “left the place in a shambles.”

Troy Schoenberg, a Minneapolis police officer, reported that there had been 281 police calls related to the building since 1999, 55 of them this year. In the past 18 months, 18 different people have lived at 2503 Irving Avenue North who, between them, had been arrested 141 times, “42 of them in drug-related activity.” Gangestad responded that he had already evicted these tenants. However, the police do not want citizens to waste their services.

At issue seems to be the fact that, unlike some other landlords, Howie Gangestad accepts tenants with imperfect records. He points out that Mary Jo Copeland (or her representative) frequently calls him to ask if he will give housing to her clients. Copeland’s charitable deeds were cited - quite rightly - by George W. Bush in his acceptance speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention. Gangestad’s deeds, accommodating her requests, have been cited mainly by the Minneapolis “ Problem Property” Task Force.

At a meeting of Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee, Wednesday evening, September 8th, Gangestad showed his fellow landlords a letter from the city which informed him that he would have to pay a $200 fine for tolerating disconnected smoke detectors. Gangestad claimed that tenants had repeatedly disconnected these devices and, as fast as he learned of this, he reconnected them. “What more could I do?” he asked. The city also cited Gangestad for ripped screens which might have been torn by drug dealers seeking entrance to the triplex.

It does not take a task force to develop coordinated strategies to punish landlords. About three years ago, the city’s Inspections Department decided to schedule all thirty-some of Gangestad’s properties for “rental-license inspections” in the space of several weeks. This would require Gangestad quickly to assemble a large crew of maintenance workers and to incur the combined expense of bringing all his properties up to city code at the same time, thus forcing him into non-compliance. With the help of an attorney, the resourceful landlord managed to survive this attack.

The bigger issue is not Gangestad’s expertise as a landlord but the question of whether buildings cause crime. JoAnn Velde, deputy director of Housing Inspections, told the Star Tribune reporter that the city “does not condemn buildings because the police tell them to.” This is the proper position, both legally and morally.

However, a task force which combines police and inspections personnel (not to mention the part-time Assistant City Attorney) seems to belie that statement. It resurrects dubious practices from the past.

A related question is whether, if a landlord’s properties appear to be poorly maintained, this reflects negligence on the landlord’s part or the landlord’s inability to keep pace with destructive tenants. If tenants (their guests, or outsiders) have caused the damage, then the landlord is, in a sense, a victim of the situation and not its perpetrator.

And finally there is the question of where tenants (or their relatives or guests) who commit crimes or destroy property ought to live. To a greater extent than elsewhere, humane Minnesotans prefer to parole convicted criminals rather than incarcerate them. Translated: These people ought not live in prisons. “Reponsible landlords” reject them through a screening process. Public housing follows a similar philosophy: only the cream of the tenant crop will do for them as well. Where, then, are the housing undesirables supposed to live?

The City of Minneapolis does not have a ready answer to that question. Therefore, the last resort for many who have no other place to turn for housing is Howie Gangestad. He takes many for whom there is no other room at the inn. A committee of public servants will be meeting in the months ahead to decide Howie’s fate.

 

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