Bringing Down the House

Taxpayers spent $65,000 to demolish the old Victorian at 1816 15th Ave. S. A buyer wanted to invest at least that much to fix it up. Make sense? You bet, says the Minneapolis Community Development Agency.

Whatever the total number of MCDA houses, advocates charge, the agency doesn't seem eager to find buyers for them. Few MCDA houses are included in the Multiple Listing Service, a catalog of all available properties in Twin Cities. There are no information sheets--a standard of the real estate industry--to show what a house has to offer, and what work may need to be done. Hardly any MCDA houses are fitted with the combination-lock boxes realtors use to show a house without making an appointment with the seller; gaining access to a building, Zala and other agents say, requires tenacity and myriad phone calls.

The agency's rehab standards also help scare off potential buyers. According to a report compiled in 1997 at the University of Minnesota's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, the MCDA "assumes, for instance, that a house that lies unheated through a Minnesota winter requires new interior plaster. Generally, the MCDA has a low tolerance for uncertainty in the state of repair of a house, which tends to produce relatively expensive rehabilitation estimates." Finally, realtors complain, the MCDA requires buyers to wade through a sea of paperwork that can delay a closing by months, even years.

Zala is quick to say that she has some sympathy for the agency's staff: "If I were Edie Oates, I'd throw up my hands," she says. "We're willing to offer some partnering." Eichaker, who works with Coldwell Banker Burnet in the agency's Minneapolis Lakes office, says he has volunteered to give the MCDA lock boxes for its houses, and to hand out a list of agency properties to interested realtors.

Michael Dvorak

But it's not that easy, Oates and Pettiford say. A step as simple as installing combination locks can create massive headaches for the city, Pettiford explains. "Some of the properties have hazards--a floor about ready to give way, basement stairs that have been removed. I've had houses where I've had to have an area cordoned off because there's a giant hole in the floor. I don't want to put [buyers] at risk and put the city at risk. If someone goes off the edge into the basement, the liability goes back to the public."

More fundamentally, adds Oates, neighborhood activists--and even realtors like Zala and Eichaker--may be a little starry-eyed about the agency's properties. "I can take buyer after buyer through some of these houses. These people like the idea, [but] they agonize about whether all the work can be done--often it's just too much. That's because 99.9 percent of the time, houses sit vacant long before they become available to a public entity. Many of them have significant problems."

Ultimately, Oates and her MCDA colleagues say, buyers often can get "more house" in new construction. The agency contracts with several developers to build homes on lots where it has demolished older structures; since 1995 it has put up 236 single-family homes citywide, mostly through the Greater Minneapolis Metropolitan Housing Corporation (GMMHC). "When GMMHC builds a house on an MCDA lot, it's carpeted, has a two-car garage, is energy-efficient," says Pettiford. "It's high-quality, and yet, if you compare it with rehab, we can produce it for a substantially lower cost." Pettiford says the MCDA's typical rehab subsidy is $45,000 for a single-family home and $75,000 for a duplex; by contrast, a new GMMHC house receives about $30,000 in public assistance. Demolition costs add another $8,000 to $10,000 to the price tag.

Pettiford says the agency does its best to get input from residents before choosing to demolish a house. "We move forward with recommendations when there is agreement from neighbors," he explains. "When there is a difference in opinion, we go to our board." (The MCDA Board of Commissioners consists of all 13 members of the Minneapolis City Council.) But, he says, the agency isn't accountable just to preservationists: "Most of us believe that safe, decent, affordable housing is our priority. If George Washington slept in some house, we might spend the money to preserve it. But if we're saving it just because it's old, that's the wrong reason. In my list of priorities, saving old houses is down toward the bottom."


Sue Anderson discovered as much when she volunteered to help look for a house for her new pastor at Salem Evangelical Free Church. The pastor's wife, Nora Elifson, wanted an old house, the kind of Midwestern beauty she remembered from growing up in Chicago. She didn't like what realtors had to offer, so Anderson--an account manager for Seward-based Tiro Industries, and a Phillips homeowner--took her on a tour of the neighborhood.

As the pair scoured the streets, both were startled at the number of what seemed to be solid structures with boards for windows. They were even more surprised when they contacted the Phillips housing committee and learned that many of the structures were owned by the city and slated for demolition.

Elifson eventually bought a house from a private seller and began refurbishing it with Anderson's help. Between patching plaster and pulling out old wires, the two women kept up their walks, growing more anxious as they went: "Sometimes," says Anderson, "it seemed like every time we turned around, there was that house cruncher, ready to pull down another gorgeous, gorgeous old house." The buildings didn't always look like much from the outside, Anderson says, but her experience as a rehabber told her that they were treasure troves of woodwork, buffets, ceramic tile, and other reminders of Minneapolis's fin-de-siècle boom years.

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