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But, says Green, a great house can turn into an ordinary house very quickly--especially under the government's watch. "I have to warn people who might buy a HUD house that anything might be carried out before closing, and that HUD doesn't care. If you go in and the buffet's been stolen, that's too bad. If there are appliances, don't count on them being there."
HUD's Sailors estimates that at any given time, her agency owns between 200 and 250 houses in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul; protecting them all, she says, is simply impossible. "Architectural theft happens, and it's very frustrating for the neighbors and for us. But we've looked at variety of alternatives--electronic security is just too expensive. And you can't afford to hire people to sit guard."
Sailors says HUD has no data on how often items are stolen from its houses. The cases, she says, are hard to pursue unless someone is caught red-handed: "Typically, if we have a property and it's clear that there's been stuff removed, we have no way to know whether the previous owner did it or if someone broke in. Even if we had a report from a neighbor, it's very difficult to track and not worth any law-enforcement time, so nothing happens. If the police have to deal with crimes against people and then they get a call that someone is carrying out a buffet, you can't criticize the fact that the buffet isn't the highest priority."
Nor does it take a particularly sophisticated burglar to break into a HUD house. HUD issues only one type of lock for all of its buildings, and the key hasn't changed in at least ten years. Sailors says it would be "a nightmare and impossible to estimate" how many people have HUD keys; the agency has a list of 1,400 approved brokerages in Minnesota, and many of them have multiple agents.
"We say in our training of agents that some people shouldn't buy HUD homes," Sailors concludes. "If they're buying it because they like that stained-glass window--well, it could get stolen. There's no way to prevent damage when the property is sitting there vacant."
One of the biggest buyers of HUD homes is the Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA). Spokeswoman Dawn Hagen says the MCDA takes over the buildings to try to sell them to owner-occupants using local and state funding. She explains that the agency ensures that its houses are heated and the lawns are maintained, but that it can't guarantee any protection beyond that. "We have 500 vacant and boarded properties in the city," she explains. "Sometimes it can be a year or two before we can do something with the property."
Hagen says her agency, like HUD, does not track theft from its houses. But Cherre Palenius, project coordinator for an MCDA rehab program called Home Ownership Works, estimates that between five and ten percent of the properties she deals with are hit by architectural thieves. Palenius says the houses in her program--less than ten percent of the MCDA's total--are visited regularly by MCDA staffers to discourage theft, and alarms have been installed in most of them. "I know that HUD gets hit a lot and they do not have alarms in their houses," she says. "We buy houses from them sometimes that already have the buffets and things missing."
Watching century-old buildings being stripped under municipal or federal ownership is infuriating, says architect Roscoe. "Some of these older houses are very tough old critters. It's remarkable how they are built to survive, have gone through a number of families--if walls could talk, they would tell of joys through the years. It's unfortunate that when the government buys them, it often signals the end of their life."
What bothered Miller most about the Scott Johnson case, he says, was that no one seemed to care--even after he and his neighbors offered specific leads, documentation, and evidence. Marjory Holly, for example, gave this account of her efforts in a March 29, 1992, letter to then-Third Precinct inspector Steve Strehlow: "The police were by myself, my daughter, and probably a neighbor or two when we spotted the eight-foot overmantel being loaded onto a large moving van. But the two officers from the Third Precinct left chuckling shortly after arriving, when one of the men stripping the house referred to me as a mentally unstable old woman! The officers ordered my husband and daughter inside--'mind your own business'--even though we were standing upon our own property, and I was to 'shut up.'"
Current Third Precinct inspector Brad Johnson says he doesn't remember the incident, which occurred before his tenure. But he says burglaries of vacant houses often are not investigated because there's too little information to go on. "Property-crimes detectives are only assigned to cases where there's at least a phone call or some sort of follow-up to be done," Johnson explains. "If a neighbor was to see a suspicious truck in the driveway, that would be assigned. If all of a sudden a couple of windows are missing, chances are it won't be assigned."
Sgt. Clint Tucker, an 11-year veteran of the Third Precinct's property-crimes unit and a self-described local-history buff, says in most cases where police do make an arrest in a vacant house, the suspect is after metal. "The guys we catch started out ripping out radiators for copper plumbing. They'll take anything--the aluminum from around storm windows, you name it. I've heard of guys who've stolen brand-new aluminum scaffolding, brought it to a salvage yard, and sold it all."