City to inspect U area housing

by Charley Bruce

Housing inspections coming up in February could mean trouble for University renters.

Minneapolis will begin a focused inspection February in the neighborhoods surrounding the University.

Minneapolis Director of Regulatory Services Rocco Forte said interior inspections will begin around the University on Feb. 1, and exterior inspections will begin April 15. The process will take 18 months to complete.

“We’re focusing more of our inspectors in a shorter period of time to go through this, not unlike what we did in north Minneapolis last year,” he said.

Interior inspectors will look for safety violations like missing smoke detectors, overcrowding and any electrical issues, Forte said, as well as structural problems like porches or stairs in bad repair.

On the exterior, the department is looking for the grounds to be clean, up to city standards, Forte said.

He said landlords have time to fix violations, but the city will issue fines if they don’t.

Eviction possibilities

Second Ward City Councilman Cam Gordon said he hopes the inspections focus on the safety of tenants and give enough time to repair houses, avoiding evictions.

Forte said tenants would only be forced out if there was a threat to their safety.

“Outside of a safety issue we’ve usually been able to find a compromise to get the violations fixed and keep the people in,” he said.

Student Legal Services staff attorney Bill Dane said evictions don’t happen very often.

“It’s not going to be the rule, but the exception,” he said.

Gordon said an inspection sweep in 2003 had the unintended effect of evicting about 75 students.

Tim Weaver, a physics and economics junior, said he had to leave his Marcy-Holmes rental property after a routine city inspection in 2006.

He and his roommates rented the place as a five-bedroom house. However, the city inspected the house and said the bedrooms in the basement were too small.

The home was in disrepair, Weaver said. Chunks of the wall would fall if a door was slammed, there weren’t working smoke detectors and the fire extinguishers were empty.

“There wasn’t a surface you could lay a ball on where it would sit,” he said.

The owners had 30 days to make the proper repairs, Weaver said.

The repairs hadn’t begun two weeks after the inspections, so he and his roommates went to Student Legal Services and wrote a letter to end the lease, he said.

Weaver said he has no grudges against the city, but the inspections don’t stop bad property-owners, like his former landlord, from operating like that.

“In the end, inspections seem pretty meaningless,” he said.

Dodging authorities

Differing occupancy regulations between zoning and housing and maintenance codes, which regulate housing occupancy, need to be clearer, said Gordon, who serves on the city’s zoning and planning committee.

Minneapolis housing code regulates occupancy based on square footage, but the zoning code regulates how many unrelated people can live together.

The zoning code for much of the Como neighborhood is “low-density,” meaning that only three unrelated people can live in a given house – no matter how large the house.

“There are buildings (in Como) that have five bedrooms and because of their zoning, not because of the health and safety part of the code, no more than three unrelated people can live there.” Gordon said.

He said he wants the codes to allow people to live in empty bedrooms and not have to sneak around the code.

Dane said that during the 2003 housing-inspection sweep inspectors found a lot of over-occupancy.

“Much of that over-occupancy found wasn’t driven by students sneaking in extra roommates, (but) rather landlords setting up arrangements where too many people rented the property,” he said.

Gordon said there is a potential for students to get kicked out for violating code.

Evan Heier, an environmental science and policy management senior, said his duplex in Como will soon be inspected.

His duplex, which houses four people, has to look like only three live there, he said.

Heier said his landlord will hide his mattress to make his room look like an office during the inspection.

He said he is getting a discount on that month’s rent for the trouble.

“It’s awfully annoying that I have to move my bed, but, at the same time, there’s no way I could afford to live here if (rent) was only split three ways rather than four,” he said.

Heier said it is worth the trouble because the quality is better than housing he’s lived in before.

Student housing’s impact on the neighborhood

Single-family homes show a trend of changing to rental housing, Gordon said.

From 1990 to 2000, there was approximately a 7 percent increase in rental housing in the Como neighborhood, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There was about a 24 percent increase during that same period in the Prospect Park East River Road neighborhood.

“It certainly has put some pressure on some areas,” Gordon said.

James De Sota, the Southeast Como Improvement Association’s neighborhood coordinator, said some landlords take a single-family house and turn it into a boarding house with up to eight people living there.

This creates crowded parking and doesn’t always end up being cost-effective, because landlords still charge high prices per room, De Sota said

“It’s not necessarily a safe way for students to be living,” he said.