The Prisoners of Second Avenue
It was Tuesday, October 6. Early, around 7 or so. Riding a flashy squad and a gray inspections car, Robin Utto and her trusty sidekicks--Police Officer Ron Reier and Assistant Field Inspector Woody Dickson--were headed east into the morning sun, ready to roust scofflaws wherever they might hide. Their first stop was a house owned by Adel Gardner and Michael Reilly, in the 3200 block of Second Avenue South, facing the 35W sound-barrier wall.
"We heard a really loud pounding on the door--bang, bang, bang--and then there they all were, standing in the front entry," recounts the petite Gardner, who greeted the trio in the remodeler's uniform of paint-spattered clothes. "The policeman said, 'It was open.' But they hadn't even waited for us to answer, they just walked right in. It was scary, especially for the kids.
"Then Robin Utto said, 'Do you live here?' And I said, trying to evade the question a bit: 'You can see that we're almost done. We have kids. All we do is work on our home.'"
But the law was in no mood for mercy. "Utto said, 'No argument, no exceptions. You cannot work on this house except from 8 to 5.' If you are here tomorrow before 8 a.m., you'll be arrested."
Utto and her escorts left a bewildered Gardner behind and drove a few blocks to the corner of 31st Street and Third Avenue to the 1886 Queen Anne where Don Lampert had been living for several months. The same sequence of events ensued--knocks, questions, pleas for mercy. Lampert--tall and thin, his outfit accessorized with some plaster dust sprinkled across the forehead--says he asked, "'What if I want to just stop in? To check the heat or plumbing? Or feed the cat?' And the cop answered me, 'This is fair warning. If we catch you in the house after 5 or before 8, we can arrest you.' They pointed toward the police car--there was a guy sitting in the back--and they said, 'We should be taking you in, too. Do you want to get some stuff?'"
Then, says Lampert, Utto looked at her watch: "It must have been near 8, because she told me that now I could be in the house." The squad and its gray shadow drove off, while Lampert, like Gardner a few blocks away, set to finishing the day's work and packing an overnight bag. By 5 that evening, both homeowners had dutifully left their houses--though not without consternation. How would they ever finish their massive renovation projects if they couldn't work after their day jobs? Gardner and her partner Michael Reilly, who between them have three children ages 1, 4, and 16, also worried how to explain their sudden move to the kids.
The story of the two morning busts spread quickly through the tight-knit community of urban-pioneer homeowners in the Central neighborhood. Housing inspectors, area residents are quick to acknowledge, have a tough job: Like tax auditors, they enforce codes that will require people to spend money and go through hassles. Utto's name generally elicits praise for a competent, if tough, city official. But the October 6 stops, says longtime resident Keith Miller, infuriated even Utto's supporters: "This incident has upset some of the neighbors, destroyed the trust with Inspections. You don't just walk into a house. How dare you?"
Fielding that question at City Hall has been Connie Fournier, the deputy director of the Inspections Department. (City Pages' phone calls to Utto were returned by a co-worker and directed to Fournier.) Fournier says housing inspectors frequently ask police officers to back them up for trips to buildings that are supposed to be empty. But rarely, she says, do they find homeowners in them. And, she notes, "these people will admit that they knew that they were living in these houses illegally."
Indeed they do. Neither Gardner nor Lampert deny having known that buildings which were once boarded up and condemned--like the turn-of-the-century structures they are renovating--must by law be brought to full housing code compliance before being occupied. But like other owners of fixer-uppers throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul, they say they could never have undertaken their projects while making two mortgage payments or paying rent on another place.
David Piehl, head of the housing committee for the Central Neighborhood Improvement Association (CNIA), estimates that, at any given time, 12 to 15 homeowners in the Central neighborhood are working on houses that are "technically not occupiable." Says Piehl, "It almost goes without saying that people are going to move in before they get the certificate of code compliance. It's such a drawn-out and extensive process that it's really impossible financially for the homeowners to wait for the final compliance."
A walk through Lampert's house confirms the massive nature of the restoration projects, as well as the potential payoff. A floor of maple and cherry peeks out from beneath thick layers of vinyl adhesive in the dining room. Upstairs, sunlight streams through one of the house's original stained-glass windows, ornamented with green and gold tulips. These windows, explains Lampert, were reassembled from pieces that were lying on the floor among mountains of trash and bad plaster when the house was purchased.
Down the street, Gardner and Reilly have been doggedly working at their turn-of-the-century two-story since June. "It's been work day, night, every weekend, every single day, work on this house so that we could live in it," Reilly says. Had they not been able to live in the rooms they've so far made habitable, the couple would never have seen the kids, she adds.
Several years ago, stories similar to Gardner's and Lampert's prompted state Sen. Linda Berglin and state representatives Karen Clark and Linda Wejcman to hold public meetings in their neighborhoods. At the time, the city of Minneapolis assured the legislators that it could address the problem without state action by changing its Boarded and Condemned ordinance; the revisions would allow buildings to be occupied after they'd met safety rules (on things like electrical wiring, heating, and plumbing), but before all the cosmetic work (painting, plastering and the like) was completed.
As it turned out, writing that language into city law took more than three years; the ordinance change finally passed October 2, four days before the Utto raids, and was signed by mayor Sharon Sayles Belton October 8. Fournier acknowledges that, for as much as a year before that, the city had been handing out "temporary certificates of occupancy" to a few homeowners. But word of that option had not trickled down through the ranks to all the inspectors in her department, she says.
Fournier stops short of directly criticizing Utto and Dickson. But when asked whether she supports their actions, she sharply counters: "Whatever did I say that gave you that impression?" In the aftermath of the mix-up, Fournier has met with the Central Neighborhood Improvement Association (CNIA) to establish what she says will be a citywide partnership between neighborhood groups and the Inspections Division, and to spread the word about the code revisions.
In those meetings, Fournier also cleared up another question: There is, she says, no rule that remodelers must restrict their tinkering to the hours between 8 and 5. "I regret that that statement was made and grasped out of the air," she says. "We are going to be working with these homeowners to absolutely work outside those hours."
The sleepier Twin City is generally a little more mellow about its warnings, says Charles Votel, chief inspector for property code enforcement for the city of St. Paul. Illegal owner-occupants, if found, will typically get a notice, he says, "or we call and say, 'What's goin' on?' We don't want to go and tell a family to get out. But if we catch them in the house, say, at night, watching TV, drinking beer, kids out back barbecuing, then we know they're living there, and we issue tickets." St. Paul does not yet issue temporary certificates of occupancy, says Votel, but is watching Minneapolis's experience to see whether it should follow suit.
For now, the story has a reasonably happy ending. After six nights away from their house, Adel Gardner and Michael Reilly received a temporary certificate of code compliance last Tuesday. Lampert and co-owner Don Abdon are expecting the city's official blessing later this week.
But they can be certain that their progress will be monitored. Gardner says that became clear to her the morning after she and Reilly were ordered out of their house: Their 16-year-old, she says, realized that he had forgotten his class project and stopped to retrieve it, just past 8 a.m. As he walked up to the house, he noticed a familiar car by the curb. Utto was sitting there, waiting, watching.
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