Sweeps ensure off-campus housing is safe

The inspections were prompted by the deaths of three students last year.

Ching Lo

For new University students, a drive down 15th Avenue near Bierman Athletic Building doesn’t recall the same images that haunt students who were on campus last year.

They won’t remember the flowers and photos that scattered the sidewalk in front of a charred house, a memorial to the University students who died there. They won’t remember the shell of a duplex that incited the city to conduct broad housing inspections around campus.

One year after three University students died in a Marcy-Holmes neighborhood house fire, the pain remains for the victims’ families and friends. But city officials claim that their response to the fire – housing inspection sweeps and stricter enforcement – has made area homes safer for students.

“Nothing touches people or moves them more than the untimely death of young people,” said Minneapolis City Council Member Paul Zerby, 2nd Ward, who represents areas surrounding the Minneapolis campus. “It just doesn’t seem right, and nothing ever changes that, but it did call attention to the issues of safety, and a lot of attention was brought to those issues.”

A fire and a wake-up call

On Sept. 20, 2003, second-year University students Elizabeth Wencl, 20; Amanda Speckien, 19; and Brian Heiden,19, died in a fire in their duplex at 827 15th Ave. S.E.

Two other residents and a visitor escaped from the duplex.

Although the exact cause of the fire is still unknown, city officials initiated a safety sweep in the Marcy-Holmes and Como neighborhoods to ensure student housing was safe.

As of May 3, city officials had inspected more than 900 buildings in the neighborhood, resulting in close to 4,000 violations. Of the 900 houses that under went inspections, there were approximately 300 that didn’t have any violations, said JoAnn Velde, the city’s deputy director of housing inspections.

“The initiatives were very effective,” Velde said. “University Legal Services had almost a 90 percent drop of cases after sweeps.”

Among the top violations were broken smoke detectors, over-occupancy and plumbing problems, according to a safety sweep update report prepared by Housing Inspections Services.

The smoke detector ordinance was also revised as a result of the inspections. Now, smoke detectors have to be near bedrooms and on every level of a building. They must also have a silencing switch, which prevents renters from disconnecting the appliance when it beeps because of smoke from cooking or steam from showers.

The rental-licensing ordinance was revised to allow the city to revoke licenses from owners who repeatedly violate rental-licensing standards, Zerby said.

Velde said most owners cooperated with the city’s inspections.

“We sent out notices and they complied,” she said. “Hopefully, the inspections will be long-lasting.”

Kara Houlihan, a University junior, said she feels safer after the city’s increased housing inspections.

“It was nice to see that my landlord took the time to make sure that it wouldn’t happen to his tenants,” she said.

Houlihan said she did not personally know the students who died, but she knew who they were because they lived together in Bailey Hall. She has not been able to get the fire out of her mind, she said.

“It’s scary to think again that it happened,” she said.

Greg Simbeck, neighborhood coordinator for the

Southeast Como Improvement Association, said he thinks the inspections have made area houses safer.

“We will always remember the residents we lost in our community,” he said. “Again, nothing is worth the lives of lost ones.”

New tenants

Today, University junior Lindsey O’Hara lives at the repaired duplex with three other roommates. She said she has not signed a lease with the landlord yet. She is still waiting for repairs to be completed.

She said she initially had no idea what happened in the house when she rented it. But after signing a prelease earlier in the year, O’Hara said landlord Jim Eischens told her and roommate Brian Nejedlo about the fire.

“He said he didn’t want us to make a decision to live there without knowing about the fire,” she said.

O’Hara, who moved into the house on Sept. 1, said that thinking about the fire doesn’t bother her, and she didn’t know the students who lived there.

It only bothers her if it’s brought up, she said.

“People always say stuff to us, especially when we’re outside. Like, ‘Do you hear the kids screaming?’ ” she said.

Repair frustration

O’Hara said she was supposed to move into the house July 1, but it was not completely repaired. Although everything looks fairly new today, many things still need to be fixed, she said.

Eischens Management, the company that owned the property, has joined with Twin Cities Housing and Realty, owned by Jim Price.

Patrick Eischens, who owned Eischens Management with his brother Jim, said Price is in charge of managing all the properties, while he and his brother take care of the maintenance.

Patrick Eischens said their business has not suffered after last year’s tragedy, and that he feels his properties are safe for students to live in.

O’Hara said she will call their landlords to fix things, but sometimes they do not show up.

She said the landlords gave her a list of rules to follow, such as not allowing a grill on the deck, but she still feels they’re not really worried about safety.

“I think he’s trying to be sensitive and help somewhat, but he’s just not concerned,” she said. “I don’t know if the inspections were effective,” she said.

Jim Eischens did not return repeated phone calls for comment.

O’Hara said she’s not sure if she’ll stay in the house. There are holes in the bathroom ceiling and other parts of the house for ventilation. The landlords said they would close them after inspection, but it still hasn’t been done, she said.

University actions

Inspection sweeps have had a positive effect on student-living situations, said Barb Boysen, University Student Legal Service legal assistant.

Boysen said of the cases her offices dealt with, all students cited for over-occupancy or other housing violations ended up in better living situations.

“There’s definitely been an improvement, certainly in the remedy available to student renters who have encountered problems,” she said.

Boysen also said the University adopted a listing policy which prohibits landlords with chronic violations from listing on the University’s off-campus housing Web site. The policy went into effect this summer.

“Now, the University isn’t promoting properties that are notable in bad condition,” Boysen said.

Students have been more cautious before signing leases, she said.

University Student Legal Service will review students’ leases for free before they sign them, and many students have taken advantage of the service, Boysen said.

“Students recognize this is a legal transaction, and they need to take some precautions,” she said.

Remembering

Friends, neighbors and family will remember the students today at Van Cleve Park, which is one block away from where the fire happened.

Margaret Speckien, the mother of Amanda Speckien, said it’s not easy to be in that area of town.

“We’re going to be there together and support each other,” she said.

Margaret Speckien also said the city and the University have “stepped up to the plate” to ensure that housing around campus is safe, even though she doesn’t believe the fire was the landlord’s fault.

“It was just an accident,” she said. “There was nothing wrong with the house that caused the fire.”

Rich Heiden, the father of Brian Heiden, said that although it is not the University’s responsibility to keep track of off-campus housing, the inspections were helpful.

“If it helps prevent one more fire, it’s well worth it,” he said.

Rich Heiden said he feels like the fire just happened yesterday.

“We miss (Brian) terribly and we wish he were here,” he said. “You try to go on as best as you can, but he is always in our minds.”

Molly Moker was a co-writer.