Land sale processes could change

City council members want to speed up the process of acquiring vacant city land.

by Nick Wicker

There are hundreds of vacant lots and houses in Minneapolis — a result of what some city officials say is a restrictive approval process for land sales.

The application process includes multiple steps for approval, all of which must be granted before a transaction is finalized. Now, city officials are considering changes to the land sales process in an attempt to move more residents into vacant city lots.

Ward 5 City Councilman Blong Yang said the current rules, which require a lengthy set of applications and approvals, favor big development  firms, while the “little guy” — or neighborhood resident — can’t traverse the paperwork and legal documents.

“We just move pretty slow, and we need to be better about it,” Yang said. “We need to cut a lot of the red tape and make it easier for people.”

Though Yang said he’s unsure how he wants to change the process, he and Council President Barbara Johnson have discussed its need for modification.

Elfric Porte, residential and real estate development manager with the city’s Community Planning & Economic Development department, said he is looking for ways to make the buying process more accessible. He said there are pre-existing laws that make it challenging for easing the process for buying.

For interested buyers to purchase a house or lot from the city, neighborhood organizations, the City Council, and Mayor Betsy Hodges’ office must approve the sales application, Porte said.

Each of the steps for approval takes between 10 and 45 days, Porte said, and in total, a purchase can take up to 100 days to complete.

Yang said many prospective buyers are overwhelmed by the system’s complexity.

Porte said one solution for improving the time-consuming, multiple-review process is by combining the approval process so that all three
stakeholders consider the purchase  simultaneously, cutting the transaction time in half.

Yang said the need for improving the process stems from the city’s number of vacant houses and lots — especially in north Minneapolis. By not being occupied, the spaces can be targets for burglaries and squatting and increases their likelihood of being rundown.

Though the vacancy problem is felt citywide, low-income neighborhoods are affected the most, Yang said.

The application process aside, Porte said residents’ income levels affect the buying process.

“When the market was better, people were using that process,” he said.

Yang said the city should be more open to lowering the costs associated with purchasing vacant spaces.

In a recent City Council decision, a property on Queen Avenue North was sold for $8,000 — a substantial markdown from the city’s original asking price of $40,000.

Yang said in most land sales transactions, the city will take on financial losses to fill the homes with residents.

Ward 3 City Councilman Jacob Frey, who represents the University of Minnesota and surrounding neighborhoods, said he would support modifying the process if the changes to protocol considered the needs of specific areas.

The areas he represents, he said, haven’t faced the same problems as others. Frey’s ward includes downtown Minneapolis, which continues to be the fastest-developing part of the city.

He said when the city prepares to sell land in the downtown area, officials send a notice to developers nationwide, to which they respond with plans and estimated prices.

In the downtown area, development is competitive and the regulatory steps don’t cause issues similar to those occurring in north Minneapolis, Frey said.

Still, some city officials say the problem of vacancy in Minneapolis stems, in part, from the complex application process and should be changed.

“We have to really figure out what we are going to do to dispose of all these empty and boarded homes that the city owns,” Yang said.