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Meeting to Discuss the Inspections Sweep in Harrison neighborhood

On Friday, September 1, 2006, residents of the Harrison neighborhood met with Minneapolis city council member Don Samuels, inspections chief Rocco Forte, assistant inspections director Joanne Velde, and others, to discuss the inspections sweep that has taken place in the last several months in north Minneapolis and was written up recently in City Pages. The meeting was acrimonious and appeared to produce little change in city policy.

Many residents of the Harrison neighborhood, second poorest in the city, said they simply could not afford to do the required repairs except with outside assistance. One woman, who had a small child, told of working on a high ladder under the hot summer sun, trying meanwhile to supervise her child. Another reported that a neighbor who could not afford the repairs was planning to sell her home at a fire-sale price to escape the unbearable obligation. There was discussion of possible plummeting property values which would allow outside investors to profit from this move.

Some testified that they could not get loans in the short time that the city allowed for the work. Others said that contractors were hard to find on short notice. Yet, when council member Samuels was asked to extend the allowed time for completing work orders under the sweep to 90 days, he merely smiled and said nothing.

Much of the discussion concerned inspection’s reported reluctance to grant extensions. Mr. Forte at first denied that there was a policy not to grant extensions. When testimony indicated otherwise, he suggested that ill-informed assistants were responsible for the misinformation. Later, evidence was presented that Forte himself had set such a policy. His “tough guy” demeanor at the meeting seemed to confirm that hypothesis. Forte suggested that several social-service agencies might assist residents without the resources to complete the inspection orders. Harrison’s housing specialist noted that funds from such sources were now largely depleted.

Forte indignantly denied that the city was trying to generate revenue from the inspections sweep. Yet, the twenty-two orders which I recently received from the Fire Prevention Bureau (for which I had twenty-eight days to complete) state: “Failure to comply with a lawful written order is a misdemeanor punishable with up to a $1,000 fine and/or 90 days in jail, for each violation. Failure to comply with these orders by the original due date may result in a re-inspection fee of $100 for each additional inspection. You may also face legal action.” In the past, phone calls to Velde or Forte have gone unanswered. The inspections department has hired a man named Greg to deal with the public if people have problems with the sweep.

The city plans soon to start “sweeping” south Minneapolis with its team of inspectors. Mr. Samuels claims that the sweep was not capricious but was the result of conversations which he had with members of the Hawthorne Neighborhood Association who were concerned with the quality of homes in the neighborhood. (The executive director of the neighborhood group in Hawthorne denied that its residents were in favor of the "sweep") . It is expected, however, that the level of financial pain will not be as severe in south Minneapolis as in Harrison and other places north.

Unlike their alleged counterparts in Hawthorne, none of the Harrison residents seemed to be in favor of the inspections sweep. Instead, they asked the city to do something about the continuing crime problem. (Samuels said to call his office if people had concerns about crime.) A piece of poignant testimony came from an African immigrant, perhaps from Somalia, who saw a resemblance between Minneapolis government’s intrusion into the private lives of city residents and the oppressive environment created by the authoritarian socialist government in the land from which he fled.

Harrison presented the city officials with a list of requests; but it seemed that none of them would be adopted.

Commentary:

Many so-called “experts” favor the “broken-window theory” on causes of crime which was articulated by James Q. Wilson, a Harvard professor. Others think this is bunk. Do broken windows and peeling paint create an environment or mood for shooting someone with a coveted jersey? Common sense would say they do not.

Apart from the crime aspect, I think that the inspections sweep can be questioned on several grounds:

First, even if the goal of holding all residences in the city up to a high standard of repair is legitimate, this particular sweep gives city residents inadequate time to complete the repairs. Many residents were given sixty days to complete the work; my work orders gave me 30 days to complete 22 orders. Why does the city have the right to come in and demand that I drop everything else to take care of every conceivable maintenance issue related to my home immediately? This is disrespectful of Minneapolis residents.

If everything must be brought up to code at once, what’s wrong with giving people a reasonable time - say, ninety days - to do the work? The work would eventually be done and the city should be happy. But the city is unwilling to do this. Apparently, it wants the fines that will be imposed if the work is not finished on time. This is a disguised tax hike.

Second, the fines are excessive. They seem intended to frighten city residents and beat them into submission. Again, this attitude is disrespectful of city residents. These residents are not criminals. Why threaten them with penalties disproportionate to the offense? The work orders which I received state: “Failure to comply with a lawful written order is a misdemeanor punishable with up to a $1,000 fine and/or 90 days in jail, for each offense. Failure to comply with these orders by the original due date may result in a re-inspection fee of $100 for each additional inspection. You may also face legal action.”

The fact is that, while the city is descending on innocent but negligent property owners “like a ton of bricks”, its criminal-justice system lets off persons who repeatedly engage in criminals acts with a slap on the wrist. Maybe they have no pockets to pick.

The inescapable conclusion is that this particular city government is a predator after people’s money which is less interested in fulfilling its own responsibilities. This city administration insists on holding property owners (both landlords and homeowners) to high standards of performance in maintaining their properties while it refuses to set standards for what city residents can expect in terms of police work. Its “broken window” approach to fighting crime is blame-shifting. Someone else - property owners - are expected to solve the problem while the city does little.

Finally, we need to discuss the “social compact” that underlies city government’s power to inspect homes and other buildings within the city. If such inspections were intended to avert obvious health and safety problems, they might be seen as legitimate. However, inspections violations go much farther than this. City government has set itself up as a judge of building quality, of the cosmetic as well as substantive issues related to those buildings. Are city residents demanding that the city do this kind of work? If so, let’s have a referendum on the matter. Let’s have a real, substantive discussion of what is the purpose of inspections and what “standards” it can set.

For my part, I think lower standards should be tolerated if the property owner lacks the financial means to meet high city standards for building conditions that pose no danger to others. Even if the property owner is personally slovenly or negligent in, say, repairing torn screens or keeping the grass mowed and the weeds cut, that should be no big deal. There should be room for such persons in particular neighborhoods - not in Kenwood, perhaps, but in neighborhoods such as my own - especially if the big problems remain unaddressed.

So long as there is an epidemic of violent crime in Minneapolis, city government should not be overly concerned with the small offenses against public sensibility. Not every property owner is a neat freak; some of them are human.

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