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City inspectors try to change law giving them exemption to Minnesota Supreme Court ruling

A landmark case decided by the Minnesota Supreme Court involving the city of Morris forbade city governments to impose more rigorous housing codes than what is required in the state building code. Several city governments, including St. Paul and Minneapolis, have attempted to undo part of that ruling through new legislation.

On Monday, May 9, 2009, the House Labor and Consumer Protection Division committee chaired by Rep. Jim Davnie of Minneapolis held a public hearing on H.F. 2362 which provides “preemption exemption ... in certain cases and (an) advisory committee.” The legislation was sponsored by Rep. Tim Mahoney, himself a former St. Paul fire inspector.

The bill provides an exemption to the Morris ruling for Minneapolis city governments for the next year (until August 1, 2010). Additionally, it would create an advisory committee to review municipal ordinances that would report to the Minnesota Legislature.

Lead-off witnesses in support of the bill were top representatives of the St. Paul and Minneapolis inspections department and an assistant St. Paul city attorney. Jack Horner, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Multi-Housing Association, was a lead-off witness speaking against the bill. It was opposed both by the rental-housing industry and by realtors.

After the testimony in legalese had concluded, it was time to rumble. Bill McGaughey, a Minneapolis landlord, pointed out the danger of concentrating legislative and executive power in a single set of hands, where City Council members (legislators) adopt a hands-on approach to housing inspections by directing the inspectors (executive branch) to do something. Usually it was to impose burdens on a building to force out tenants who were considered undesirable by the police or neighborhood groups.

In St. Paul, McGaughey pointed out, city government controls a $25 million development fund which gives city officials a perverse incentive to acquire properties on the cheap by heavy-handed inspections. He referred to a case of attempted extortion by a St. Paul inspections supervisor in which the owner of a house had been ordered to sell the house for $40,000 to an associate of this supervisor or he would see to it that the building was demolished (which it later was). He mentioned that four St. Paul landlords had filed housing-racketeering cases against the city which are currently on appeal in federal courts.

Following this testimony, the Watchdog publisher, Jim Swartwood, offered testimony concerning the case of a woman who had recently bought a house in St. Paul but was prevented by the city from making repairs and soliciting tenants. Swartwood himself discovered that the city of St. Paul had posted a building as vacant (and therefore requiring a code-compliance inspection) because he had evicted a tenant the previous week. (The tenants’ belongings were still in the house.) St. Paul landlords, be forewarned that ordinary tenant turnover means that St. Paul city inspectors will force entrance into your property.

After these statements, three St. Paul landlords testified in a similar vein including activist Les Lucht. All told of abusive actions undertaken by St. Paul housing inspectors. One witness told of inspectors adding new work orders as they revisited the property to inspect work on the previous set of orders. This went on month after month.

Nevertheless the committee members on a voice vote approved the proposal and sent it on to the next committee. It is unclear, however, whether the bill will be enacted this session because the legislature is running out of time..

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