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?

Of course, Middleton avers, none of that is his business. His job is to follow department policy—and that policy calls for him to enforce the rules, curb to alley, with no exceptions.

But the eagerness with which Minneapolis is now pursing code enforcement on the North Side does raise a question: Is that chipped paint on the garage on Knox Avenue contributing to North Side crime—or just the municipal coffers?

Joy Harris-Jones has lived in north Minneapolis her whole life, mostly on the 500 block of Newton Avenue. At 65, she's seen a lot change over that period. These days, her neighborhood—which extends from Penn to Lyndale avenues and Olson Memorial Highway to Cedar Lake Road—is known as Harrison. When she was a kid, everyone called it "Finn-town" in reference to the Finnish immigrants who'd settled here. "I might be the last full-blooded Finn left and I ain't leaving," Harris-Jones cracks in reference to the shifting demographics of her neighborhood.

Dan Picasso

One thing has remained constant in Harrison: It still draws a lot of working-class immigrants looking for a toehold in a strange land, with most of the recent influx coming from the Hmong and Somali populations. Harris-Jones bought her current home in 1972, a modest one-and-a-half-story stucco built in 1927. Harris-Jones, who gets by on Social Security and a small pension, says she maintains it as best she can. It's her house, after all. "I'm going to live in this house and I'm going to die in this house and I'm going to be buried in the house," she says with a laugh. "And then I'm going to haunt the next person to live here."

In her decades in Harrison, Harris-Jones has had scant trouble with the city inspectors. About 10 years ago, she received her only citation: a painting order. She complied and, after taking photographs to court, managed to avoid a fine. Like a lot of people who own older homes, she's regularly been hit by unexpected expenses. In the past five years, she has shelled out for a new roof and a new cement walk. After burglars drove a tandem truck into her backyard and unloaded many of the contents of her house, she also had a new chain-link fence installed.

In June, Harris-Jones received a citation from Regulatory Services that nearly sent her into a panic. According to the order, her home was in need of fresh paint on all the trim. That was a daunting task, considering that she has 26 windows. In addition, she was instructed to paint the garage and replace the crumbling asphalt driveway. She says she knew she needed to do some painting. The driveway order puzzled her; it had been in lousy shape for decades and never aroused the city's ire before. But it was the August 1 deadline that really stuck in her craw.

Harris-Jones, who has both asthma and diabetes, knew she couldn't do any of that work herself. Nor, she says, could her husband, Michael, who last year quit his job as a custodian at Block E because of physical disabilities. Since his unemployment benefits ran out in April, the household finances have become tighter. So when Harris-Jones started tallying what the work would cost to contract out, she nearly gave up hope. A while back, she had gotten an estimate of $3,200 to replace her asphalt driveway. Such a sum was out of reach, which is why she decided to cover the bare patches with plywood. "That was the only thing we could afford," she says.

Harris-Jones was hardly the only homeowner in her neighborhood rattled by the city's get-tough approach. Just down the block, Jean Coste, a retired widow, received an order instructing her to paint her garage by August 1.

"I admit it's in bad shape. If my husband was still alive, we would have gotten it painted," Coste says. But like Harris-Jones, the 68-year-old Coste was in no shape to do the work herself and, like Harris-Jones, doesn't have much in the way of disposable income. Coste, who made sandwiches at Peter's Grill for 20 years, says she lives just above the poverty line. But it was the tight deadline—coupled with the prospect of punitive fines—that bothered her most.

"It's ridiculous," Coste says. "This city just wants to penalize those who can least afford it." Like many of her neighbors, Coste is also puzzled by the timing of the sweeps. "Things are looking better around here than they have in a long time," she says. "So why now?"

J. Kevin Flagg started getting calls from area residents practically from the day the inspectors hit the alley. Flagg, who works as a housing coordinator with the Harrison Neighborhood Association, figures he received 12 to 15 calls the first week alone. Mainly, he heard from people who worried that they wouldn't be able to pay for the repairs.

"You have to look at the people who live in Harrison," Flagg says. "The average household income—not personal income, household income—is $26,000 a year. We're talking about people working minimum-wage jobs. I know poverty is no excuse for not taking pride in where you live. But some things take precedence over other things. You prioritize. Are you going to pay the light and water bills or are you going to paint the garage?"

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