Three-Time Losers

Does Minneapolis's war on "bad buildings" throw tenants out on the street? Yes, officials say--and that's just tough.

The television cameras were rolling last Wednesday when Tina Foley held a victory party on the front lawn of her apartment building at 1818 Park Ave. She'd spent the last two months fighting to stay there. On hand to help her celebrate were friends, area children, and landlords from the Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee, who presented Foley with a $100 gift certificate to Target. Noticeably absent from the party were the people who'd been her neighbors in the complex: Unlike Foley, who refused to obey her notice to vacate until the landlord relented, most faded quietly from sight.

Foley's triumph is rare, but so are the circumstances surrounding her case. Her building was the site of a high-profile murder, the April killing of 77-year old Ann Prazniak. As a single, pregnant, white mother of five she rates high on the empathy scale, and she's been savvy enough to use the media attention that followed Prazniak's death to her advantage. For many others, the scenario that almost cost Foley her apartment plays out unnoticed, unremarked, and with increasing frequency.

According to statistics compiled by Minneapolis's Community Crime Prevention/SAFE unit, the number of nuisance letters the city has handed out to landlords--notices which often result in the wholesale eviction of a building's tenants--has more than tripled over the last three years; through May of this year, 145 such notices had been sent, compared to 93 in all of 1995. And given the city's increasing reliance on nuisance laws to assuage crime fears, critics warn that these numbers will continue to rise. "Since 1990, we've seen the criminalization of rental housing," says Kirk Hill of the Minnesota Tenants Union. "The city treats tenants as fitting the profiles of criminals, rental properties as housing criminal elements, and landlords as profiting from criminal behavior."

According to Minneapolis's 1991 nuisance ordinance, a residential rental property is allowed no more than three violations in a two-year period. Such violations can include gambling, prostitution and "related acts," sale or possession of drugs, "noisy assemblies," weapons violations, the "unlawful sale of alcoholic beverages," and disorderly conduct. Whether the alleged offender is a tenant, a guest, or someone who simply happens to be passing through the yard is of no consequence; neither does it matter whether an offense results in an arrest or a conviction. The law simply requires that a CCP/SAFE officer write up a report.

In the case of 1818 Park, owner Korey Bannerman had accrued two violations in the year preceding Prazniak's death; a third would have allowed the city to revoke his rental license. On April 1, Bannerman sold the building to Michael and Jennifer Fox. Immediately following the purchase, says Jennifer Fox, the couple was contacted by Minneapolis officials who wanted to discuss the building's "problems" and any plans they had to deal with them. At a meeting attended by Sixth Ward City Council member Jim Niland and Shun Tillman, the area's CCP/SAFE supervisor, the new owners say they were told that the best way to get the building under control was to throw everyone out.

"Since we couldn't tell the bad tenants from the good ones," Fox recalls, "they recommended that we clear the building." While she contends that she and her husband initially balked at the prospect, the April 15 discovery of Prazniak's body, followed by a call from the mayor's office urging them to take action in this "crisis situation," helped to change their minds. On April 17, residents of the building's 19 units were notified that they had to move out.

Faced with the loss of her three-bedroom, $525-a-month apartment, Foley mobilized some of her fellow tenants to march on City Hall. Shortly after their protest, Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton met with six families in Foley's apartment.

At the meeting, which was closed to the press, Foley maintains the mayor promised that the city would stand by the families. "She told us that she'd help us find safe living conditions," says Foley. "But the city hasn't done a damn thing."

Not true, counters Colleen Moriarty, the mayor's chief of staff. "We referred them to the county and to other agencies like Lutheran Social Services, and we made some financial assistance available." While the amounts varied according to need, says Moriarty, Foley and the others were eligible to receive a week's stay at a hotel, damage deposits, the first month's rent, or a combination thereof. "Rounded out, the families got $1,500 towards relocation costs," she says.

However, Moriarty concedes, the city isn't the one that coughed up the cash. "The money came from the Minneapolis Foundation," she explains. All the city intended to do, she adds, was to "act as brokers."

Which is more than officials have ever done before, says Hill. "This kind of deal has never been offered to tenants in privately owned buildings," he says. "And it's nothing more than a political move on the part of [Sayles Belton] to look as though the city is concerned." For a more typical case, says Hill, look at what happened to the tenants at 1826 Chicago Avenue.

The three-story brick building, which sits two blocks from 1818 Park, is one of the few left in Phillips that has multiple-bedroom apartments. Twelve of the 15 units have three bedrooms, and the majority of the tenants are large, low-income families. The complex belongs to Abul-Hajj Enterprises, which owns another 29 properties in Minneapolis, most of them in distressed areas. According to a lawsuit since filed by Abul-Hajj and some of its tenants against the city, the company hasn't had any "extraordinary" problems at any of its buildings until last year, when 1826 Chicago racked up three violations.

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