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?

"You can't possibly write enough tickets to buy your way out of the budget deficit," he says. "The reason we do traffic enforcement is to keep the city streets safe and to modify driving habits."

Perhaps. But it's worth noting that while the MPD is looking at effectively tripling its traffic-enforcement unit, it has entirely eliminated the hit-and-run division. Is it purely coincidental that hit-and-run produces no revenue while ticket-writing traffic officers generate plenty?

Collier White doesn't have many theories about why the city has suddenly become so stringent about code enforcement. But it has given him occasion to ponder the wisdom of his decision to buy a home on the North Side. A 32-year-old independent filmmaker who pays his bills driving and dispatching taxicabs, White purchased his home in the Hawthorne neighborhood last year for $160,000.

Dan Picasso

His timing, he says now, could have been better. He bought at the top of the market and he relied on an adjustable rate mortgage. Still, as a single man unhampered by debt or dependants, White figured he ought to get as much house as he could. After looking around the south side and finding little to his liking, he settled on a handsome but battered American Foursquare located on the 2600 block of Bryant Avenue.

"Initially, I didn't want to come to the North Side. I'd heard all the horror stories," White recounts. "But once I started looking at the houses, I realized there were all these neglected houses up here that could be great with some work."

Typically, White says, he puts in 60 hours a week at his job. Between that and his filmmaking ventures, he hasn't made as much progress on his "to-do" list as he'd hoped. That said, he figures he's spent between $4,000 and $5,000 on improvements in the past year. In fact, White was in the midst of repairing a rotting column on his front porch when the citation from the housing inspector came in early June. There was no mention of the porch. But it was a tall order nonetheless: Paint your house, paint your garage, replace all your rotting soffit and fascia boards, and pour some more crushed rock in your driveway. (The latter citation, it turns out, is one of the more common ones. Under city code, a crushed rock driveway is supposed to have a uniform depth of four inches.)

After reviewing the letter, White decided to call the inspector for more specific instruction. Did she want him to paint the whole garage, or just prime and paint the wood left exposed by a recent repair job? It took four days for White to reach the inspector.

"She told me, 'We made so many citations, I can't remember your house. But everything has to be done professionally,'" White recalls. "That was frustrating. I mean, it's important enough to cite me, but not important enough to maintain a record of what needs to be done?"

Ultimately, White painted the garage himself but decided to hire contractors for the work on the main house—both the painting and the carpentry. That's better than a DIY-gone-wrong fall from a ladder, he figured. "As long as I don't break a leg or get ill, I guess I'll find a way," he says hopefully. Still, he estimates the work will run him around $6,000, which he'll have to put on a credit card.

Irked by his experience, White fired off a letter of complaint letter to council member Samuels. Samuels responded with a note suggesting that White apply for a loan from his neighborhood organization. He also reiterated his points about the North Side being underserved by the inspections department. At first, White thought Samuels's response was "well-considered and reasoned." But as he thought about it further, he changed his mind. The rhetoric reminded White of the arguments made in defense of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind policy, which penalizes poor school districts for failing to meet standards while providing little in the way of additional funding to remedy the problem.

"It's exactly the same mentality," White says. "Five years ago, there was money available from the neighborhood for this sort of stuff. Now there are no resources, but there are fines. It's just crap."

White wasn't able to satisfy the city's August 1 compliance deadline. In the hopes he will be spared the fines and re-inspection fees, he applied for an extension on July 24. As of August 7, he had not heard whether the extension had been granted.

Meanwhile, in the Harrison neighborhood, Jean Coste and Joy Harris-Jones received some unexpected relief. It didn't come from the city, but from a Christian youth group called Urban Servants. The Urban Servants painted Coste's garage by the deadline. Because of the hot weather, though, they weren't able to finish the work on Harris-Jones' house by August 1.

Fortunately for Harris-Jones, she managed to get an extension after presenting evidence of her progress. "If it wasn't for these kids," she adds, "I'd be up shit's creek without a paddle."

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