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Landlords Lament

Angry Rental Property Owners Gird for Battle in Minneapolis

by Jon Tevlin

   

Charlie Disney sits on the front porch of his modest home across the street from Whittier Park in south Minneapolis, taking phone calls and planning the revolt of the angry landlords. His hour-long soliloquy on the woes of owning rental property is interrupted every few minutes by another call, by another pissed colleague wanting to sign on as a plaintiff in file #4-95-361 of the U.S. District Court. ‘This is going to be big,’ Disney says after one phone call. ‘Everyone wants in. We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars here lost by landlords. Needless condemnations. Bankruptcies. I mean ... big.’

Disney is a soft, serious man in khaki shorts, pink golf shirt and a Kangaroo hat. His porch has become command central for the lawsuit, filed June 7, which accuses the city and its housing inspectors of arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement of city housing codes, a practice that he says has financially penalized otherwise honorable landlords, driving some out of business, others to the brink of suicide. Nine landlords are listed as plaintiffs in the case, but Disney says many more - ‘hundreds’ - may eventually come forward, each plunking down $55 for attorney’s fees and a possible share of a settlement.

The suit comes just as Minneapolis City Council members once again discuss strengthening a 4-year-old ordinance that supposedly made it easier to revoke a landlord’s licenses. But since that ordinance was passed, only two licenses have been taken on the basis of tenant behavior, and one of those was overturned in court last year.

Council President Jackie Cherryhomes proposed stricter landlord controls this year, but intense lobbying by opponents has caused council members to soften the changes in committee. Cherryhomes wanted landlords to be responsible for the behavior of both tenants and visitors to their properties, whether they knew about illegal activities or not. In committee, the language has been tempered; landlords will not be responsible for actions of nonresidents, and they will only be punished if they ‘knowingly’ rent to people who commit crimes on their properties.

People like Disney see the law as part of a conspiracy by ‘the liberals’ to dump shopworn programs and unsolved social problems into the laps of landlords but others, including some City Council members and many people who live near problem properties, have a hard time feeling sorry for landlords. ‘There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t deal with a problem property,’ says Cherryhomes. ‘We need a way to deal with landlords who just don’t cooperate. I don’t see this as any big deal, but I think landlords saw it as an opportunity to renegotiate the ordinance that makes them responsible for behavior on their properties; that’s not going to happen. They don’t have support on the Council.’

Don Greeley, crime prevention specialist with Community Crime Prevention, says ‘those landlords who are managing their properties successfully don’t have much problem with this.’ Greeley says he recently watched as tenants evicted from one building on Portland Avenue for drug dealing and prostitution moved to another building on the same block. ‘That landlord was told these people had been nothing but trouble, but he rented to them anyway. That’s why we need this ordinance.’

As Disney sips ice water on his porch, Joe Soucheray’s talk-radio program blares in the background. Disney is trying desperately to soft-peddle his language. ‘When you print this, I hope you can phrase it, “We believe “... or “The plaintiffs think..” ‘, he says. ‘Something non-sensational’. He doesn’t use the words ‘landlord’ because ‘it’s too close to slumlord. We prefer “rental-property owners” ‘ he says.

But Disney’s anger, and his politics, frequently bubble to the surface. ‘The city has been abusing landlords for seven, eight years,’ she says. ‘They've attacked us and driven us out of business. Now they’re blaming criminal violence on property owners, which is absurd. The liberals have created they welfare state. They don’t know that to do with it, and now they’re pushing the problems on landlords. The city has the stated goals of eliminating private housing and turning everything into socialized housing. Did you know that? And who is the worst landlord? The city of Minneapolis.

According to Disney and the other plaintiffs, the city, via neighborhood groups and housing inspectors, has targeted landlords with problem tenants. To appease constituents, they’ve unfairly fined landlords, revoked licenses and condemned buildings - as many as 2,000 Disney says - where there has been evidence of criminal behavior, or just loud parties. Furthermore, the suit alleges, the city rarely, if ever, fines or punishes tenants for similar behavior, even those behaviors which are listed as violations in the city code. On top of that, he says, the city also has created a $268,000 fund to go after landlords who discriminate against tenants.

‘So, we’ve got a situation where we get sued if we refuse to rent to someone. And if we do rent, and they are bad tenants or criminals, we get punished,’ Disney says. ‘You call 911 and tell them you’ve got drug dealers in your apartment, and they write it down. The police never come. Then one day they use those calls to prove your building is a nuisance. And who pays? Charlie Disney pays, that’s who.’
The biggest whiner you’ll ever see is the white male landlord,’ says Kirk Ill, director of the Minnesota Tenants’ Union. ‘They are the biggest “victims” in the world.’

Hill has helped tenants deal with bad landlords for 18 years. He sees people wrongly evicted, deprived of their damage deposits, and blackballed. He says Disney’s estimate of 15,000 bad tenants in the city is ‘ridiculous’. He calls the people who filed the suit, ‘a rogues gallery of some of the sleaziest landlords in the Twin cities,’ some of whom,’ he adds, ‘have stumbled upon some truth.’

Though he finds the lawsuit against the city preposterous, Hill has plugged his nose and backed the group’s opposition to the rental licensing reforms that would make it easier to pull a landlords’ license. ‘This whole things is such a contradictory morass it’s not surprising there are curious conjunctions,’ he says. ‘The city is trying to use housing as a crime-fighting tool, and that’s not right.’ Tougher rules on landlords will mean tougher screening of tenants, quicker evictions and racist rental policies, he says. ‘It also targets the inner city arbitrarily, and will lead to more homelessness. the city insists this be done, but they’re not accepting the outcome - which could mean 10,000 people in this city who can’t rent. Who is responsible for those people?’

Tenth Ward Council Member Lisa McDonald has worked to temper the language of this law, and has met with landlords to quell their fears. She thinks the existing nuisance ordinance may cover the same terrain as the proposed ordinance. at the same time, she rejects the idea that the city has gone after landlords unfairly. ‘Is there a wholesale effort by inspections to pick on landlords? No. but I think right now we have a culture shift between new, younger inspectors and the old guard inspectors on how to handle problem properties,’ she says. ‘I think the new mode is to ask, “How can we help them be better landlords?’, instead of trying to catch them for violations and hit them with a fine.

Meanwhile, the angry landlords press on from the unlikely venue of Disney’s porch. Disney is an unusual man to lead the charge. He grew up in Edina;, was a stockbroker for Dain Bosworth and now owns six small properties. He chooses to live in the inner city, ‘even though my friends in Edina think I’m crazy.’

He sits on his porch, answering calls and making copies of the suit for landlords who stop by. As always, he’s looking for ‘quality people’ to rent his apartments. ‘I want nice people, with good values,’ he says. ‘With all these people moving in from Chicago and Detroit, they’re getting harder to find.’ “


Twin Cities Reader, June 21-27,
1995

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