Three-Time Losers

The television cameras were rolling last Wednesday when Tina Foley held a victory party on the front lawn of her apartment building at 1818 Park Ave. She'd spent the last two months fighting to stay there. On hand to help her celebrate were friends, area children, and landlords from the Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee, who presented Foley with a $100 gift certificate to Target. Noticeably absent from the party were the people who'd been her neighbors in the complex: Unlike Foley, who refused to obey her notice to vacate until the landlord relented, most faded quietly from sight.

Foley's triumph is rare, but so are the circumstances surrounding her case. Her building was the site of a high-profile murder, the April killing of 77-year old Ann Prazniak. As a single, pregnant, white mother of five she rates high on the empathy scale, and she's been savvy enough to use the media attention that followed Prazniak's death to her advantage. For many others, the scenario that almost cost Foley her apartment plays out unnoticed, unremarked, and with increasing frequency.

According to statistics compiled by Minneapolis's Community Crime Prevention/SAFE unit, the number of nuisance letters the city has handed out to landlords--notices which often result in the wholesale eviction of a building's tenants--has more than tripled over the last three years; through May of this year, 145 such notices had been sent, compared to 93 in all of 1995. And given the city's increasing reliance on nuisance laws to assuage crime fears, critics warn that these numbers will continue to rise. "Since 1990, we've seen the criminalization of rental housing," says Kirk Hill of the Minnesota Tenants Union. "The city treats tenants as fitting the profiles of criminals, rental properties as housing criminal elements, and landlords as profiting from criminal behavior."

According to Minneapolis's 1991 nuisance ordinance, a residential rental property is allowed no more than three violations in a two-year period. Such violations can include gambling, prostitution and "related acts," sale or possession of drugs, "noisy assemblies," weapons violations, the "unlawful sale of alcoholic beverages," and disorderly conduct. Whether the alleged offender is a tenant, a guest, or someone who simply happens to be passing through the yard is of no consequence; neither does it matter whether an offense results in an arrest or a conviction. The law simply requires that a CCP/SAFE officer write up a report.

In the case of 1818 Park, owner Korey Bannerman had accrued two violations in the year preceding Prazniak's death; a third would have allowed the city to revoke his rental license. On April 1, Bannerman sold the building to Michael and Jennifer Fox. Immediately following the purchase, says Jennifer Fox, the couple was contacted by Minneapolis officials who wanted to discuss the building's "problems" and any plans they had to deal with them. At a meeting attended by Sixth Ward City Council member Jim Niland and Shun Tillman, the area's CCP/SAFE supervisor, the new owners say they were told that the best way to get the building under control was to throw everyone out.

"Since we couldn't tell the bad tenants from the good ones," Fox recalls, "they recommended that we clear the building." While she contends that she and her husband initially balked at the prospect, the April 15 discovery of Prazniak's body, followed by a call from the mayor's office urging them to take action in this "crisis situation," helped to change their minds. On April 17, residents of the building's 19 units were notified that they had to move out.

Faced with the loss of her three-bedroom, $525-a-month apartment, Foley mobilized some of her fellow tenants to march on City Hall. Shortly after their protest, Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton met with six families in Foley's apartment.

At the meeting, which was closed to the press, Foley maintains the mayor promised that the city would stand by the families. "She told us that she'd help us find safe living conditions," says Foley. "But the city hasn't done a damn thing."

Not true, counters Colleen Moriarty, the mayor's chief of staff. "We referred them to the county and to other agencies like Lutheran Social Services, and we made some financial assistance available." While the amounts varied according to need, says Moriarty, Foley and the others were eligible to receive a week's stay at a hotel, damage deposits, the first month's rent, or a combination thereof. "Rounded out, the families got $1,500 towards relocation costs," she says.

However, Moriarty concedes, the city isn't the one that coughed up the cash. "The money came from the Minneapolis Foundation," she explains. All the city intended to do, she adds, was to "act as brokers."

Which is more than officials have ever done before, says Hill. "This kind of deal has never been offered to tenants in privately owned buildings," he says. "And it's nothing more than a political move on the part of [Sayles Belton] to look as though the city is concerned." For a more typical case, says Hill, look at what happened to the tenants at 1826 Chicago Avenue.  

The three-story brick building, which sits two blocks from 1818 Park, is one of the few left in Phillips that has multiple-bedroom apartments. Twelve of the 15 units have three bedrooms, and the majority of the tenants are large, low-income families. The complex belongs to Abul-Hajj Enterprises, which owns another 29 properties in Minneapolis, most of them in distressed areas. According to a lawsuit since filed by Abul-Hajj and some of its tenants against the city, the company hasn't had any "extraordinary" problems at any of its buildings until last year, when 1826 Chicago racked up three violations.

The first strike came on April 17, when police allegedly found a bag of crack on a tenant. Co-owner Ned Abul-Hajj asked the cops whether he should evict the offender, according to the lawsuit, but they told him not to and said no further action was required. Nine months later, a cop spotted a visitor in the building with a bag of what he believed to be crack. No drugs were found, but the man had a gun on him. The third strike came another month later, when two people tried to break into the building. Neither of them were tenants, but one of the men had a gun. Shortly thereafter, the city began proceedings to revoke Hajj's license.

The ordinance is like a runaway train, says Dan McGrath, an attorney representing Abul-Hajj. Property owners, he notes, cannot challenge violation reports until they get the third one--and by that time, it's usually too late. "When an owner comes to me with a second notice, I tell them to immediately sell the building," says McGrath. Landlords can appeal the loss of a license to the city's Rental License Appeal Board, composed of neighborhood residents appointed by the city. But McGrath says that "to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever prevailed in challenging the licensing board."

Some tenants from 1826 Chicago are hoping they will be the first. When Abul-Hajj got its third violation, the company and the residents asked a Hennepin County District Court judge for an injunction stopping the city from pulling Abul-Hajj's license. That suit was dropped when the building was sold in early June. But some of the tenants have retained another attorney and are considering challenging the nuisance ordinance's constitutionality in court.

Michel Krug, the first attorney on the case, says city officials "thought they were giving due process" when they first set up the ordinance. "The problem is that the people passing judgment [on licenses] are highly influenced by police. There's no right to be heard on the part of tenants. It's highly Kafkaesque."

Brian Buchay, chair of the license appeal board, acknowledges that tenants are rarely involved in the license-revocation process. But landlords, he says, do have ways of protecting themselves: As soon as they get their first violation report, he says, they need to contact CCP/SAFE. "It forces them to screen [applicants] and have a plan for policing their tenants," Bushay says. "Any landlord that doesn't try to control access or screen tenants--they are the ones that lose their license."

Bushay acknowledges that law-abiding tenants "probably" lose their homes under the ordinance from time to time, but he says that's par for the course. "I live on the near north side, and a bad building has much more of an effect on the neighborhood than just the tenants," he says. "You may have good tenants in the building, but the bad reputation could screw up the lives of neighbors for blocks."

Once a building loses its license, reputation is often the least of tenants' worries. With the Twin Cities rental-property vacancy rate hovering near 1.7 percent, apartments--especially affordable ones--have become hard to find, and for tenants who rely on government assistance the market is even tighter. Under the 1995 Hollman decree, the city agreed to demolish 604 units of public housing, and increasing numbers of landlords are declining to renew their Section 8 contracts with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Add the fact that the Minneapolis Community Development Agency tears down 200 boarded-up houses--often former rental properties--each year, says Hill, and it's hardly surprising that tenants are loath to move, no matter how abysmal the conditions.

Hill, who worked closely with several of the tenants at 1818 Park, says he doesn't know where any of them ended up. Five of the families accepted the Minneapolis Foundation's offer of a week's hotel stay and some financial assistance; the remaining tenants, who didn't participate in Foley's protest, were never offered the subsidy. The only one of that group who has not yet left the premises is Tom Graham, who recently caused a minor commotion at the building when he pushed a painter off a ladder. (Graham says he thought someone was trying to break into his apartment; no charges were filed.)  

Graham, a 51-year-old who says he has a long history of alcohol abuse, suffered a grand mal seizure and a stroke four years ago. Since then, says his niece Lori Graham, he's been subsisting on Social Security disability checks and trying to keep the world at bay. "He's very reclusive," she says. "I work for Ramsey County, and the only way I've been able to keep track of him is through the welfare computer system."

Graham, who has been acting as her uncle's advocate, says the only assistance he's received from the city was a phone number of "some guy with Senior Resources." Her biggest worry, she adds, is that her uncle will just pack up and leave. "He lived on the streets before his stroke, and if he gets frustrated enough, he may just take off." If that happens, says Graham, she fears she may never see him again. "He can't take care of himself. It'll kill him."

For the time being, Tom Graham says he's staying put, but not out of defiance: He doesn't realize he's expected to move. "Somebody put some fliers under my door," he says, pointing to the front of the tiny apartment furnished with a mattress, a big easy chair, a couch, and a TV. "I waited a bit, opened the door, looked around, but no one was there." He looks up from the cigarette he's rolling. "None of it makes sense to me."

(by Mary Ellen Egan and Kelly Wittman)

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