City pledges rapid housing inspections

A memorial service for the three University students killed in Saturday’s house fire is tentatively scheduled for Friday afternoon.

Molly Moker

City and fire department officials will compile a “hit list” of University-area rental units, Minneapolis fire Chief Rocco Forte and city officials announced Monday.

“The regulatory service is working with the fire department on putting a program together where we can identify the rental units around the University of Minnesota,” said John Bergquist, director of Minneapolis operations and regulatory services.

Forte said property inspections will begin within two weeks, and he hopes they will be completed in 30 to 60 days.

Following a Saturday morning fire at 827 15th Ave. S.E. – which killed University students Elizabeth Wencl, 20; Amanda Speckien, 19; and Brian Heiden, 19 – Forte said speeding up inspections was top priority.

A University memorial service for the students is tentatively scheduled for Friday afternoon.

Authorities have ruled out arson as the fire’s cause and believe the fire began on the building’s front porch, the only entryway, The Associated Press reported late Monday.

City officials were unsure whether the duplex had ever been inspected, but Pat Brink, a spokesman for property owner Eischens Management, said he was unaware of any inspection.

Bergquist said inspections were hampered on many properties because renters would not allow them in, forcing officials to obtain administrative search warrants.

With fire department officials performing the inspections, Bergquist said, the process will be quicker. He said the areas will be divided into districts, with one person responsible for inspecting each district.

On Sunday, Minneapolis City Council member Paul Zerby, who represents University neighborhoods, said he and neighborhood organizations have been pushing for tougher inspections and hopes the event will prompt city officials to take serious action.

“Sometimes a tragedy like this really spurs us Ö to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Zerby said.

Greg Simbeck, neighborhood coordinator at the Southeast Como Improvement Association, said issues involving rental properties and code violations “seem to be getting worse.”

“We’re aware of some landlords in the area that have had numerous code violations,” Simbeck said.

Although he would not name specific landlords, he said the organization would push the city to consider revoking rental licenses from some.

“We’ve pressed the city in some of these instances,” Simbeck said. “Should (the landlords) be holding rental licenses if they can’t keep up their properties?”

Eischens Management owns more than 100 properties, mostly near the University campus, Brink said. The Minnesota Daily reported in May that since 1996, there have been more than 667 citations for 36 Eischens properties.

Brink said he is unaware of criminal violations on any Eischens property.

“We believe we do a good job of keeping up the property,” Brink said. “If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have people living there.”

University Student Legal Services legal assistant Barb Boysen said although Eischens is the most prominent name on complaints she handles, the only complaint on record for the duplex was “failure to mow the lawn.”

Bergquist said Eischens Management houses will be inspected.

“Eischens Management properties will undoubtedly be on our list,” he said.

However, he said, Eischens did not make a “25 worst landlords” list compiled by the city.

Main targets

Bergquist said over-occupancy – one of the city’s biggest concerns in rental properties – was not an issue at the duplex.

“To keep rent down, students could go and get a few friends to share the room and bring in an extra bed,” Bergquist said. “That’s one of the things we’re now going to be looking at very carefully when we go out.”

Former tenant Aaron Hage questioned the capability of the duplex to house seven residents.

Hage, who moved out of the duplex Aug. 31, said seven people would have been crowded.

“Three people living there was comfortable, five was OK Ö I could see it being tough for six,” Hage said.

He added that the halls were no more than 3 feet wide, and only one person could walk through at a time.

Hage also said there was only a front exit in the duplex, and he said when residents moved in, the smoke detectors were not working. He said Eischens fixed them but was not sure if all of them were functioning when he moved out.

Bergquist said in order for the duplex to comply with regulations, it needed to have working smoke detectors, but he said the duplex was not required to have a rear exit.

Other questions

Richard Heiden, Brian Heiden’s father, said there were problems with a gas leak when his son moved in Sept. 1.

Rolf Lund of Minnegasco said the utility responded to a complaint at the duplex Sept. 1.

Lund said a gas technician determined there was a leak in the water heater, which needed to be replaced or repaired. The technician then “red-tagged” it, turned off the gas for the house and told the tenants they needed to take care of it before turning their gas back on.

Minnegasco never heard back from the residents, he said. Any licensed plumber could turn the gas back on.

Brink said he heard of the complaint, but thought Minnegasco had handled the entire situation.

Hage said tenants also had problems with the water heater, which he said “erupted” in the summer. He said Eischens replaced the old water heater with a new unit but had to come again to fix other problems related to the water heater.

Brink said when the tenants moved into the duplex, the management went through the residence with new tenants and said “there may or may not have been problems.”

He also said tenants made no complaints while they lived at the duplex.

Lisa McDougal, who witnessed the fire at the duplex, said there was an explosion during the fire.

“I heard a ‘woosh’ ” as the house exploded,” McDougal said Sunday. “It sounded like a gas leak.”

Bergquist said investigators looking at rental properties will also look for possible storage of flammable liquids or combustibles.

University reaction

On Sunday, University President Bob Bruininks said the institution will act to protect students from dangerous off-campus housing.

Kim Araya, a spokeswoman for Housing and Residential Life, said her office is working with University Legal Services and the Office of the General Counsel to implement a system that would revoke the privileges of landlords with excessive complaints or code violations.

Currently, the University makes a list available to students of any properties licensed and approved by the city.

“If landlords are found to be cited frequently, or if they’re a frequent cause of student complaints, I frankly don’t think they should be listed,” Bruininks said.

Richard Jacobi, a member of the Como improvement association, said University cooperation would help the neighborhood associations force the city to crack down on code violations.

“The process of pressuring the city might make a big jump if the University got really involved,” Jacobi said.

Zerby also said new on-campus, apartment-style University residences, such as Riverbend Commons, could help prevent students from living in subpar off-campus residences.

Bergquist said it is up to the students to make sure they are living in safe buildings.

“We want to know where there are problems that students know about. We will get in there, and we will fix them,” Bergquist said. “In spite of the disaster that has happened, this is an opportunity to let students and any renter know that we have an interest in getting in and making these structures safe.”

– Koran Addo and Beth Hornby contributed to this report.