All Shook Down

In the name of restoring order on the North Side, Minneapolis housing inspectors are issuing citations at a record pace. But is that flaking paint on Jean Coste's garage contributing to North Side crime—or just the city coffers?

It's about 6:30 a.m. on a hot July morning when Harold Middleton starts looking for involuntary customers. Middleton doesn't use that term, "involuntary customers." It comes from the business plan devised by his bosses at the Minneapolis Department of Regulatory Services and it describes violators of the city's housing code. These days, that typically means residents of the North Side, where Middleton and his co-workers have been swarming the streets.

After a quick smoke in the big, empty parking lot at the Bean Scene, a coffee shop on West Broadway and Penn avenues, Middleton settles into the air-conditioned comfort of his office—a city-issued Chevy Malibu. He reaches into the big plastic bin in the back seat and extracts a thick stack of files. He then sorts the papers by address and affixes them to his clipboard.

Today, Middleton explains, he is doing re-inspections—checking properties that have already been cited for violations that range from such minor offenses as flaking garage paint and missing storm windows to big-ticket stuff like worn-out roofs and crumbling driveways. If Middleton finds that a problem hasn't been adequately addressed, the property owner faces the prospect of a $100 re-inspection fee and a $200 "administrative citation." In case of uncorrected environmental violations—inoperable vehicles, tall grass, rubbish in the yard—Middleton will make a note in the file and a contractor will be summoned. The next communication from the city will come in the form of a bill.

Dan Picasso

On this morning, Middleton is starting out in Jordan, one of the North Side's poorest neighborhoods. Middleton used to live in Jordan and has worked the North Side for most of the past seven years. He says he hasn't noticed the housing stock declining in recent years. If anything, he ventures, conditions have improved because of new buyers who have moved into the neighborhood and spruced up long-neglected properties. That fact notwithstanding, the sweep that Middleton represents is unprecedented in both scope and pace. Under the so-called "North Initiative," the exterior of every property in the city's Third, Fourth, and Fifth wards will be inspected by the end of October.

It is a daunting task: There are approximately 23,000 parcels in the three wards, which are mainly located on the North Side, but also include parts of Northeast and downtown. Since the program kicked off in mid-May, inspectors like Middleton have been pulled from other duties to focus exclusively on the sweep. And they've been busy. By the end of July, the inspectors had already paid a visit to some 20,628 properties and issued a staggering 20,378 citations. Along the way, they've served notice to the owners that they face escalating fines if they don't correct the problems promptly—a policy that could net a few million dollars for the city's general fund.

Once his day's paperwork is in order, Middleton throws the Malibu into gear and rumbles down the alley. Overall, Middleton estimates, compliance rates have hovered around 50 percent at the properties he has re-inspected. Some of the property owners who received multiple citations have only half-satisfied their work orders.

Middleton quickly spots an example. "We had a big motor home here that was not properly licensed," he says as we rumble down an alley. "It's gone now. But they still didn't get the painting done on the trim of the dwelling." So Middleton steps out of his car, snaps a picture of the offending house with a city-issued digital camera, and scribbles the JPEG number on his clipboard. In the event the property owner contests the citation before a hearing officer, Middleton explains, the digital pictures will be used as evidence.

Dressed in a loose-fitting, untucked AFSCME T-shirt and blue jeans, Middleton doesn't look the part of the stickler or the zealous enforcer of city code. He's low-key and personable and takes no apparent pleasure in issuing citations. Still, he accepts the city's stated rationale that the crackdown is a benefit to the North Side. "I guess the whole idea is to get people to take pride in their property, keep the properties looking good," he offers.

In the view of the initiative's biggest boosters, among them mayor R.T. Rybak and Fifth Ward councilman Don Samuels, the sweeps aren't just about maintaining the housing stock. They argue that tougher standards on property can help restore social order and, in so doing, stem the rising tide of crime that is now swamping the North Side.

Middleton does not make such grand arguments. He is mindful that enforcement can come at a steep cost, especially for poor homeowners. The soaring foreclosure rate on the North Side is already the highest in the city. Middleton sees evidence of that every day as he makes his rounds: emptied-out homes with lawns that look like wheat fields. He knows additional financial burdens—in the form of a new roof or paint job or personal crisis—can push low-income homeowners beyond their limits.

"You got a lot of people here living on the edge," he says. "I get calls where people tell me, 'I don't have the property anymore. It belongs to the bank now.' And sometimes people know they're going to lose it, so they just walk away."

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