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?

As Mayor R.T. Rybak tells it, the impetus for the North Side sweeps is a simple one: "We're sending a message that we will not accept lower standards in north Minneapolis than in any other part of town." In his second-term inaugural address, Rybak talked about the importance of "closing the gap" on the North Side. Disparities in public safety, education, employment, and housing, he says, have persisted too long and "problem properties" are an important part of the equation.

"After that speech, I called all the department heads and said, 'You're all doing a lot of work and you're going to have to do a lot more," Rybak says. In late winter, the mayor recalls, he attended a neighborhood meeting in Jordan in which residents, frustrated by rising crime, suggested stricter code enforcement as one strategy to turn things around.

Assistant City Coordinator Rocco Forte, who was also at the meeting, echoes the mayor's account. "We listened to neighborhood perceptions of what was happening on the North Side and one of the issues they brought up was that they didn't think the inspections department was being aggressive enough," Forte says.

Previously, Forte explains, inspections on the North Side were mainly complaint-driven. After the meeting in Jordan, Forte settled on a new and unprecedented approach: a curb-to-alley sweep of the entire Third, Fourth, and Fifth wards. He also made another significant policy change: Extensions on work orders, which used to be granted at the discretion of individual inspectors, would henceforth be routed to his desk. "I thought we were way too liberal on that," Forte says. "Most inspectors gave extension after extension, so in some cases the problems never got resolved."

Since the sweeps began, Forte estimates he's given fewer than 100 extensions. Typically, he says, he only hands them out when a property owner can demonstrate that they've made significant progress, hired a contractor, or applied for a loan to fund the improvements. (Deputy Director of Inspections JoAnn Velde, meanwhile, pegs the number of extensions at closer to 200.)

Like Rybak, council member Samuels, who represents much of the North Side and is a robust supporter of the sweeps, acknowledges that the city's punctilious approach is a hardship for some residents. But he says the North Side has long been "underserved" by housing inspectors. He contends the lack of vigilance from inspectors has contributed to a downward cycle in which homeowners, dismayed by the "ambient blight," have sold their properties to landlords who don't care whom they rent to. That dynamic, Samuels says, has fueled North Side crime.

As Samuels sees it, stricter enforcement is a painful but necessary remedy. "Properties need to be well maintained. If that requires a lot of investment, then owners are going to need higher quality tenants."

But do the relatively mundane code violations described by Joy Harris-Jones, Jean Coste, and so many other North Siders really contribute to criminality? Even among those who whole-heartedly support the initiative, skepticism runs high.

"I'm really happy the city is finally taking an interest in an area where there hasn't been much energy or time devoted," says Mary Johnson, who lives on the 200 block of Morgan Avenue. Since late winter, Johnson and her neighbors have been upset about a rundown duplex that they suspect has become a haven for criminal activity. Johnson says she has called the police on numerous occasions, to little effect. Usually, people scatter before the cops appear. She has also called inspectors in hopes that the rental license will be revoked. To her disappointment, that hasn't happened.

Yet despite her vocal support for the inspections sweep, Johnson doesn't believe the thousands of housing citations now being issued will do much to abate neighborhood crime. "It's more of a feelings issue," she says, "You can say, 'Oh, this feels like a nice street.' You know, I don't want to be on a street that feels bad. But I don't think criminals discriminate like that."

Kevin Flagg, of the Harrison Neighborhood Association, shares Johnson's skepticism. "In talking about this, Don Samuels has been espousing the broken windows theory a lot. I want to see the connection but I don't," Flagg says. The reference here is to criminologist James Q. Wilson's popular and much-disputed theory that the persistence of minor blight such as broken windows and litter fuels more serious crime and, by extension, a crackdown on minor blight can reduce crime. Flagg counts himself among the skeptics of that line of reasoning. "The real issues here are jobs and education," he says, "but we keep putting Band-Aids on. Let's talk about how to get people out of vicious cycles."

Peter Teachout, a Hawthorne resident who received orders to repair the steps and replace the roof at his home, bristles at the notion that the cosmetic defects at his fixer-upper are contributing to the woes of the city. "Don't get me wrong, I want the city to revitalize. I want people to keep up their homes," he says. But he's irked at how the hard and fast the city is coming down on residents.

When he called the city inspections department to plead for an extension on work that he figures could cost him in excess of $6,000, he says, he had a hard time getting a response. When he finally reached a supervisor, the conversation left him in a sour mood. Teachout recalls, "I said, 'What if I can't find the extra money?' Her first comment was that people who own property should be expected to take care of their homes. You know, I'm fine with that. But I think there's this undercurrent where housing inspectors think they're fighting crime."

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