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What’s this group all about?

(whatsabout)

Many members of Metro Property Rights Action Committee are owners and managers of small-scale rental housing in poorer sections of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. We also have an affinity with the owners of other inner-city businesses such as convenience stores and bars. Common to all our businesses is the presence of violent crime and the fact that city government is not able to deal with this problem effectively.

Worse yet, city governments in Minneapolis and St. Paul have developed a strategy of fighting crime by going after the businesses where criminals congregate. In the case of rental-property owners, city officials argue that some landlords fail to screen their tenants adequately. Interested only in money , these landlords admit criminals to their buildings and thus create problems for the neighborhood, the argument says.

City officials, aided by members of block clubs and neighborhood associations, focus their attention on so-called “problem properties” - buildings frequented by criminals. The idea is to shut down those buildings so that crime goes away. The way to do this is to have city inspectors find code violations in the buildings. Either the building owner fixes the problem in the allowed time or the owner is fined. In some cases, the building is closed through condemnation and all its occupants have to move. Following that, the neighborhood celebrates a victory over crime at that location.

There are many variations on the same theme. Typically, crime problems are addressed through housing inspections. Businesses such as convenience stores can be closed by going after the buildings where the businesses are located. Neighborhood bars can be closed by revoking the liquor license. The politicians have many "tools" to please their constituencies.

Behind such measures may be a desire by politically well connected persons or groups to acquire property on the cheap. If the owner incurs a heavy financial burden to comply with city-imposed work orders, he or she may decide to walk away from the investment or, perhaps, sell out at a low price. In other words, there is money to be made by someone if city officials act in a certain way. First you demonize the property owner, then you ruin him financially - that’s the way to fight crime in a city such as Minneapolis or St. Paul.

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If you’re a small business owner without deep pockets to absorb such hits from city government, you may be at wit’s end when you learn that city inspectors are coming after you. A typical response is to try to reason with the inspectors and city officials. But they’ve done this dozens of times to people better than you. Though at times polite, they really want to pick your pockets. In the case of city council members, the act of throwing property owners to the wolves endears them with the members of block clubs and neighborhood associations and other political activists who are their core constituency. So the approach of pleading for the city to be reasonable in your case has its limits.

The next step, then, is to try to convince the general public that an injustice has been done. If it has been done to you, people will assume that you are telling only your side of the story. City officials would probably not be punishing someone without cause. Even if you’re part of a group of property owners alleging city misconduct, you will be seen as a bunch of "whiners". Property owners are, by definition, persons of privilege and not victims. Landlords are detested in all cultures. So this approach, too, is unlikely to succeed.

Unless the injustice has happened to you personally or to someone with whom you are personally close, you will probably pay little attention to a property owner’s complaint. Your eyes will glaze over as the complainer goes into detail. The tendency is to give city officials the benefit of the doubt, especially when the commercial media report events from their perspective. And the Star Tribune seldom publishes anything favorable about landlords.

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In short, the property owner is screwed when something like this happens. You can’t fight city hall, says the adage. In the case of Minneapolis (later, Metro) Property Rights Action Committee, however, that was not the end of the story. This group did successfully fight city hall. The landlords learned from experience what worked and what did not. We are laying out the written record on this website so that others in similar situations can see what to do.

The Property Rights group began with a class-action lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis. A favorable judgment in a lawsuit would force the city to change the way it deals with rental-property owners. Maybe it would; maybe not. In any event, a judge threw the lawsuit out of court. Reputedly, courts give elected officials broad discretion in its inspections policies. Remember, most judges have personal or partisan ties to the politicians.

The lesson here is that forcing an issue through the courts may not be the most effective way to change public policy. Litigation is a rich man’s game (unless you can get Legal Aid to help you; and they almost never help landlords.) The most likely result will be that a group will spend a ton of money on attorney’s fees and still not achieve the desired result. If you win in district court, the city will likely appeal. It has a large staff of taxpayer-financed attorneys to deal with people like you. The hired attorney - who often is close to people at City Hall - is generally the winner.

Another often recommended approach is to go to the state capitol to try to enact laws to curb the abuse. The Property Rights group found that it has neither the resources nor the expertise to mount an effective lobbying campaign with the state legislature. You really need to have a paid lobbyist to do this on your behalf. Another effective approach would be to make campaign contributions to the legislators. With money a limiting factor, this again did not make sense in our case. We were "little league" players when it came to influencing legislation at the state capitol.

Our remaining option was to try to influence public opinion. So, that’s what we did. We had meetings, first, every other week and, then, once a month which were gripe sessions about city government. A breakthrough came when we videotaped our meetings and showed the tapes on cable television. Later still, a member started a free-circulation newspaper to report the news from our perspective.

In addition to meetings, we had action events. We picketed government buildings or other sites of topical interest, such as homes that the city was proposing to tear down. We spoke out at public meetings that were reported in the newspaper. We made our presence known in various ways including, once, disrupting a meeting of the Minneapolis city council on the eve of a statewide election so that it was unable to conduct its business but dared not call in the police to have us arrested.

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The basic model is this: First a landlord experiences an injustice at the hands of city government. Next this person comes to a meeting of Metro Property Rights Action Committee and tells others what has happened. The testimony is then videotaped and shown on cable television. Personal testimony is extremely powerful. If this is done enough times, word seeps out to the public what city government is doing. The process is slow but effective. Then, as the final link in the chain, the public remembers that certain city officials have done wrong and votes them out of office in the next municipal election.

To simply it even further, the process resembles the operation of the lungs: Breathe in and then breathe out. The Property Rights group first locates people who have grievances against the city and persuades them to tell their story. Then, the story is heard by the people at the meeting as well as by audiences of the videotaped shows on cable television. We gather information and then distribute it. Ours is an organization that concentrates and focuses information about wrongdoing in city government. The phase of exhaling the information is associated with the communications media that we ourselves own and operate.

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In the late 1990s, when Charlie Disney was the group’s leader, we had a large and enthusiastic base of members. Disney himself was constantly on the phone with members and others interested in landlord issues. As a result, we had good attendance at the meetings - typically, 40 to 70 people - and interesting speakers.

Then Charlie resigned for health reasons and another person, Eve White, became the group’s leader. She and a few others kept the group going for another five years. But the organization gradually lost its focus. The guest speakers were increasingly politicians rather than landlords victimized by city policies. Attendance at the meetings dwindled. There was a rift between those doing the cable-television show and editors of the free-circulation newspaper. The group effectively disbanded in November 2005 when it could not raise the money to produce the television show and secure a time slot on the regional channel.

Bill McGaughey revived the group on a smaller scale in June 2006. The editor of the Watchdog newspaper, Jim Swartwood, became a co-host at the meetings. Starting several months later, the meetings were again videotaped and shown on cable television. In this case, however, they were shown only on the Minneapolis public-access station, MTN, which does not charge for airing videotapes, and not on the metro channel, which does charge. Additionally, we had two websites, http://www.watchdog-news.com and http://www.landlordpolitics.com.

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The challenge now is to improve our operation both with respect to locating speakers who will express interesting, pertinent information and to developing media of communications to disseminate and amplify the image of what we are saying and doing. If we had more dues-paying members, we might consider recovering a time slot on the regional cable-television station. But there are also new media which have developed during the past ten years: podcasting, low-power radio broadcasts, streaming online, social networking. The core group of landlords, who tend to be middle-aged if not older, are generally ignorant of those technologies. (To get a flavor of what's out there, click here.)

Generally the objective would be for us, old dogs, to try to learn some “new tricks”, and then to build up our membership, encouraging each to contribute in his or her area of expertise to send out a well-informed message through a variety of media. Our mission remains the influencing of public opinion and, in turn, perhaps, the replacement of hostile city officials with persons susceptible to our argument. In other words, we’re in the “sunshine” business - giving the public the information that they need to ensure honest government.

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