Mpls. to start new sweeps

by Neil Munshi

Starting Jan. 1, city inspectors will begin a five-year sweep of all Minneapolis rental properties, including those in neighborhoods around campus.

Minneapolis Regulatory Services and the Fire Department will inspect all 68,000 rental units in 16,700 rental properties.

Officials said the new plan took shape after inspectors swept through area homes in the aftermath of a Marcy-Holmes house fire that killed three University students in September 2003.

Rocco Forte, assistant city coordinator of Emergency Preparedness and Regulatory Services, said the sweeps were a huge success, and housing complaints have decreased 90 percent in homes where inspections were done last year.

The department’s first priority is safety and all aspects of livability – from police complaints, to overcrowding, to animal control.

City Council Member Paul Zerby, Ward 2, who represents the Minneapolis campus and surrounding areas, encouraged the city to do more to avoid another incident like the 2003 fire, Forte said.

“He challenged us to work together to come up with a better way of inspecting than we were,” Forte said.

Zerby praised the work of inspectors in the wake of the fire.

“They managed to Ö accomplish a great deal,” he said. “We thought at the time that it might provide a model for going forward; it was very instrumental in this happening.”

Forte said the initiative is a three-part plan with inspectors divided between city inspectors, a special Problem Properties Unit and firefighters who will help inspect rental licensing for properties of four units or more.

The new sweep will involve 80 percent, or as many as 27, of the city’s housing inspectors, who will work daily on all Minneapolis rental properties, Forte said.

They will try to tackle 20 percent of rental properties each year, Forte said, using quarterly progress reports to gauge their success.

The Problem Properties Unit, started by Housing Inspections District Manager Ricardo Cervantes, will bring the worst city rental properties up to code, Forte said.

“Our main charge is to identify the worst properties in the city, make sure they meet our criteria,” Cervantes said.

Through aggressive enforcement, they will also meet with owners to develop action plans to improve ailing buildings, he said. By making long-term plans, officials said, they will try to keep properties from relapsing back into problem housing.

Forte said a previous 10-year plan was enacted in 1991 but fell apart because resources were stretched too thin and it became apparent that it would take 17 years to complete a full city inspection.

New inspectors

Already trained to inspect properties of four units or more, city firefighters will now help do housing inspections in the new sweeps.

Minneapolis Fire Marshal Dave Dewall said he has trained approximately 100 fire captains and battalion chiefs to help complete the five-year plan.

Because firefighters are already in buildings for fire-prevention efforts, it makes sense that they be trained to do rental licensing, Forte said.

The move also “takes away from duplication of effort from our other inspectors,” he said.

By transferring $800,000 of Regulatory Services money to the Fire Department, Forte said, the city was able to train the new inspectors.

Firefighters will handle 700 of the biggest properties in the city each year, he said.

Neighborhoods react

Marcy-Holmes neighborhood landlord Joe Stokes said he only sees positives coming out of the new sweeps.

“In a situation like the University area and surrounding neighborhoods, there’s always the possibility for less-than-quality property management,” he said.

Inspections make landlords more accountable, Stokes said.

“I just think it’s unconscionable to not take care of your properties, because you’re taking care of people’s lives,” he said.

Katie Fournier, chairwoman of the Safety and Livability Committee for the Southeast Como Improvement Association, said she has lived in the area since 1967 and the city has tried to remedy housing problems before.

Despite all the measures officials have completed in the past, “they never seemed to have enough staff to do the full job,” she said.

She said five years seems like a long time for inspections.

“Landlords pay a yearly fee for their licenses, and as I understand it, it’s supposed to cover some of the cost of doing inspections – I’m guessing it isn’t enough to provide the staff to do the job faster,” Fournier said.

Anthropology senior Kyle Deroo said he’s had both good and bad landlords, and it’s mostly luck of the draw. He said the sweeps are needed but thinks area students will have to pay for any mandatory improvements inspectors demand.

“Landlords are going to have to improve things, and they still want to make top dollar, so they’ll charge students,” Deroo said. “And we’ll end up paying for it.”

Before he moved in, Deroo said, the top level of his current house burned down in an electrical fire and was completely renovated. He said the brand-new improvements are nice, and the rent increase was worthwhile.