Getting housing fixes tough

Brady Averill

FThis is part two of a three-part series that explores the livability and safety issues in rental properties in the Marcy-Holmes and Southeast Como neighborhoods. Despite more thorough inspections, increased safety awareness and stiffer penalties when landlords don’t comply with city codes, these issues still remain.

1rozen meals taste good for only so long.

After months of eating out or dining by microwave, Megan Steidl’s taste buds grew tired of Lean Cuisine.

She was ready for the new stove her landlord had promised in the lease.

That stove, along with new flooring, cabinets and a countertop, finally arrived – though it was in October. Her lease stated the amenities would be “done over summer.”

Nevertheless, the advertising senior said she was “a lot happier once those renovations got done.”

Steidl lives in the Southeast Como neighborhood, where many turn-of-the-century homes could use face-lifts. And while some landlords upgrade properties, others don’t. Some tenants interviewed for this story said it’s hard enough to reach their landlords, let alone get the refrigerator or window fixed.

Steidl’s landlord, Jim Eischens, said he makes sure nothing is mechanically wrong in the properties he owns before considering aesthetic improvements.

A multi-unit apartment building at 414 Seventh Ave. S.E. is two apartments away from being completely remodeled. Some of the apartments have new appliances, flooring, cabinets and woodwork.

“There’s always remodeling going on. Every day there’s some place being remodeled,” he said.

Eischens, who is well-known in the University Student Legal Service office, said improvements prevent significant maintenance issues in the future and draw better tenants.

Despite Eischens’ remodeling efforts, his business, Twin Cities Realty, received a 2.2 out of 5 – with 5 being the most satisfied – when University students were asked to rate their unit in a 2005 Minnesota Student Association survey.

University alumna Angela Medinger said she liked her Dinkytown home enough that she stayed there for three years.

Things sometimes broke, and she said her landlord often responded with a quick, temporary fix. When light fixtures fell off the ceiling, repairmen used wood to hold them up, she said. One time the toilet leaked badly enough that it damaged the kitchen ceiling below. Medinger said the ceiling was not replaced.

“It was just usable again,” she said. “That’s basically how it was.”

When family members and friends visited, she said they couldn’t believe the conditions of the home.

Although Medinger said her landlord, John Miles of The Miles Group, usually responded quickly to complaints, nothing was ever prevented when it came to maintaining the property.

“I think a lot of (tenants) wait until it gets really bad or really unlivable,” she said. “I don’t think we ever called to get our management company to do something preventative.”

There was a fire at her old place, 1117 Eighth St. S.E., in February. Miles, who manages that property, did not return several calls for comment.

Landlord Tim Harmsen of Dinkytown Properties, who owns several rental properties around campus, declined to comment on investing in and maintaining properties.

Many of the houses in the Marcy-Holmes and Southeast Como neighborhoods are old, said Janine Atchison, an assistant supervisor in the Minneapolis inspections division. Some are on their second, third or fourth roof, she said. And they’re not perfect.

“As long as they meet the minimum (code), we’re OK,” she said.

Shawn Nelson, a former chairman of the Minnesota Remodelors Council of the Twin Cities, said that in his experience landlords typically don’t remodel properties.

More often landlords will give homes face-lifts or keep them at the status quo.

In Nelson’s opinion, landlords do what they have to in order to maximize income without overhauling houses.

Renters generally don’t see new walls, remodeled kitchens and additions.

“You’re not going to see that much in the rental market,” he said.

Allison Thiesing, who owns two rental properties with her husband, Tim Thiesing, said they have spent about $15,000 on their properties.

“We look at it as a long-term investment, not just putting on Band-Aids,” she said.

In Indiana there is a landlord who significantly invests in his rentals.

Landlord Mark Kramer figures he’s spent more than $3 million buying properties and an additional $3.5 million fixing them up during the past 15 years.

Kramer owns about 60 properties in South Bend, Ind., and rents to hundreds of University of Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s College and Holy Cross College students. He said he spends the money because he knows he’ll see the return.

“If you give somebody a nice place to live, they’re going to treat it nicely. If you give them a horrible place to live, that’s how they’re going to treat it,” he said.

The homes, many of which are old Victorian-style homes, need work like properties near the University. Kramer said he does everything to bring the homes “into this century.” That could mean anything from remodeling kitchens and bathrooms to replacing the floor- to rewiring the entire place.

He’s a businessman who looks at the long-term value of spending the cash now.

“It’s worth the money that I spend for the money that I get,” he said.