All Shook Down
It's about 6:30 a.m. on a hot July morning when Harold Middleton starts looking for involuntary customers. Middleton doesn't use that term, "involuntary customers." It comes from the business plan devised by his bosses at the Minneapolis Department of Regulatory Services and it describes violators of the city's housing code. These days, that typically means residents of the North Side, where Middleton and his co-workers have been swarming the streets.
After a quick smoke in the big, empty parking lot at the Bean Scene, a coffee shop on West Broadway and Penn avenues, Middleton settles into the air-conditioned comfort of his office—a city-issued Chevy Malibu. He reaches into the big plastic bin in the back seat and extracts a thick stack of files. He then sorts the papers by address and affixes them to his clipboard.
Today, Middleton explains, he is doing re-inspections—checking properties that have already been cited for violations that range from such minor offenses as flaking garage paint and missing storm windows to big-ticket stuff like worn-out roofs and crumbling driveways. If Middleton finds that a problem hasn't been adequately addressed, the property owner faces the prospect of a $100 re-inspection fee and a $200 "administrative citation." In case of uncorrected environmental violations—inoperable vehicles, tall grass, rubbish in the yard—Middleton will make a note in the file and a contractor will be summoned. The next communication from the city will come in the form of a bill.
On this morning, Middleton is starting out in Jordan, one of the North Side's poorest neighborhoods. Middleton used to live in Jordan and has worked the North Side for most of the past seven years. He says he hasn't noticed the housing stock declining in recent years. If anything, he ventures, conditions have improved because of new buyers who have moved into the neighborhood and spruced up long-neglected properties. That fact notwithstanding, the sweep that Middleton represents is unprecedented in both scope and pace. Under the so-called "North Initiative," the exterior of every property in the city's Third, Fourth, and Fifth wards will be inspected by the end of October.
It is a daunting task: There are approximately 23,000 parcels in the three wards, which are mainly located on the North Side, but also include parts of Northeast and downtown. Since the program kicked off in mid-May, inspectors like Middleton have been pulled from other duties to focus exclusively on the sweep. And they've been busy. By the end of July, the inspectors had already paid a visit to some 20,628 properties and issued a staggering 20,378 citations. Along the way, they've served notice to the owners that they face escalating fines if they don't correct the problems promptly—a policy that could net a few million dollars for the city's general fund.
Once his day's paperwork is in order, Middleton throws the Malibu into gear and rumbles down the alley. Overall, Middleton estimates, compliance rates have hovered around 50 percent at the properties he has re-inspected. Some of the property owners who received multiple citations have only half-satisfied their work orders.
Middleton quickly spots an example. "We had a big motor home here that was not properly licensed," he says as we rumble down an alley. "It's gone now. But they still didn't get the painting done on the trim of the dwelling." So Middleton steps out of his car, snaps a picture of the offending house with a city-issued digital camera, and scribbles the JPEG number on his clipboard. In the event the property owner contests the citation before a hearing officer, Middleton explains, the digital pictures will be used as evidence.
Dressed in a loose-fitting, untucked AFSCME T-shirt and blue jeans, Middleton doesn't look the part of the stickler or the zealous enforcer of city code. He's low-key and personable and takes no apparent pleasure in issuing citations. Still, he accepts the city's stated rationale that the crackdown is a benefit to the North Side. "I guess the whole idea is to get people to take pride in their property, keep the properties looking good," he offers.
In the view of the initiative's biggest boosters, among them mayor R.T. Rybak and Fifth Ward councilman Don Samuels, the sweeps aren't just about maintaining the housing stock. They argue that tougher standards on property can help restore social order and, in so doing, stem the rising tide of crime that is now swamping the North Side.
Middleton does not make such grand arguments. He is mindful that enforcement can come at a steep cost, especially for poor homeowners. The soaring foreclosure rate on the North Side is already the highest in the city. Middleton sees evidence of that every day as he makes his rounds: emptied-out homes with lawns that look like wheat fields. He knows additional financial burdens—in the form of a new roof or paint job or personal crisis—can push low-income homeowners beyond their limits.
"You got a lot of people here living on the edge," he says. "I get calls where people tell me, 'I don't have the property anymore. It belongs to the bank now.' And sometimes people know they're going to lose it, so they just walk away."
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.
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?"
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."
W hether the inspection sweeps will be a boon or a curse to the residents of the North Side is a subject of legitimate debate. But there is little doubt about another matter: The city stands to reap a windfall for its troubles. Consider the math. As of August 2, inspectors were averaging one citation for each property inspected. (This doesn't mean that every North Side property received a citation; many properties received multiple citations while others received none). In the two-and-a-half months since the sweeps began, according to the city, 8,533 of the 20,378 violations have been corrected. Because a first citation is the equivalent of a traffic warning, the city doesn't stand to collect any revenue from those citations. However, that leaves some 11,845 open cases. If just 5,000 of those violations aren't resolved within the allocated time period (which can run from 3 to 60 days), the city will be able to charge property owners with both a re-inspection fee ($100) and an administrative fine ($200).
Put another way, those 5,000 citations would produce about $1.5 million. Under a scenario in which compliance at the time of re-inspection remains at 50 percent—the rate inspector Middleton observed in the Jordan neighborhood—that total would rise to about $3 million.
Deputy Director of Inspections JoAnn Velde says she doubts the city will be issuing nearly that many fines. She notes that volunteer organizations have been helping out some low-income homeowners with repairs and that low-interest loans are available to others. She acknowledges, however, that the 2004 ordinance that created the administrative fine for housing violations also has made it quicker, easier, and more lucrative for the city to collect. In the past, Velde says, violators were sent to court, where their cases were a low priority, sometimes taking up to two months to be heard.
"It's been a very effective enforcement tool," Velde says of the new protocol. "A lot of cities have gone to administrative fines because the criminal process was a revolving door and the fines were usually pretty low. For some property owners, [paying fines] had just become a cost of doing business."
There are other advantages to the new approach. One provision doubles the fine each time a re-inspection reveals that a property has not been brought into compliance, maxing out at $2,000. Additionally, when housing code violations went to court, the city only collected 75 percent of the fine. Using administrative citation, the city can keep it all. And even if the property goes into foreclosure, the city will take its due by appending the bill to the property tax.
In the context of the $1.3 billion Minneapolis city budget, of course, $1.5 million—or even $3 million—is a trifle. Still, it is emblematic of how much more aggressive the city has become about non-tax revenue collection in recent years. The Department of Regulatory Services' five-year business plan refers to the adoption of an "activity based costing financial model" as a top priority.
As department head Rocco Forte puts it, "We're looking at wherever we're spending a lot of time, so we can collect money." One recent example: the city's annual permitting fees for vacant and boarded buildings, which will climb from $400 a year to $2,000. According to Director of Inspections Henry Reimer, there are currently about 300 buildings in the program, meaning the city stands to boost its annual take from roughly $120,000 a year to about $600,000.
Residential rental license fees will also go up next month, from $39 for the first unit to $50 for the first unit. That will effectively shift more of the overall financial burden away from the owners of large apartment complexes to the owners of two- and four-unit buildings. Reimer defends the change on the grounds that smaller rental buildings tend to consume a disproportionate share of city resources.
According to last year's city budget, revenues from fines and forfeitures increased from $7.7 million in 2002 to $10.6 million in 2005. During the same period, license and permit revenues jumped from $21.3 million to $25.8 million. (According to the city's 2006 General Fund Financial Plan, revenues from fines and forfeitures were expected to be 22 percent greater than the budgeted 2005 figure; by percentage, that makees the hike the highest of the eight revenue categories listed in the plan.)
Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Police Department has ramped up traffic enforcement. In 2004, the MPD doubled its traffic unit from 11 to 24 officers. And in 2005, the department introduced its Stop on Red program, installing cameras at 12 busy intersections and issuing tickets to the registered owner of any vehicle found to run a red light. Before a Hennepin County judge ruled that the photo cop violated state law in March (a decision the city is currently appealing), the one officer overseeing the photo cop issued some 26,000 tickets. That was more than a regular traffic cop could write in a lifetime, MPD spokesman Greg Reinhardt conceded at the time. It also added approximately $1 million to the city coffers.
Interim police chief Tim Dolan now plans to add another 10 officers to the traffic division next year. Reinhardt, who says he cannot provide comparative data sets on the revenue produced by the ticket writing over the years, maintains that none of this amounts to a money grab.
"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.
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."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.
- Sketchy Toby Keith's I Love This Bar and Grill empire crumbles
Sat., Oct. 17, 12:00am
Sun., Oct. 18, 12:00pm
Fri., Oct. 23, 7:00pm
Sat., Oct. 24, 7:00pm
- Anti-abortion investigators' shocking revelation: U does research
- Top 5 Hate Mails of the Week: 'I can't believe Shitty Pages...'