If these walls could talk …

Brady Averill

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1ick Vanderheyden stays out of his basement closet.

Old, crushed boxes are piled up to the ceiling. A crutch lies on top of the stack. There’s an old vent in the closet somewhere. The space houses so much junk that the circuit breaker is barely reachable.

The closet is the perfect hiding place for critters, Vanderheyden said.

“There might be hazards in my house; there might be mice,” he said. “I don’t really know.”

An inspector found eight violations at 1090 16th Ave. S.E. in early November. Violations included a need for repairs to the garage, patio, floors, plumbing, ceilings, windows, the storm door and smoke detectors.

Vanderheyden’s home isn’t unique. In fact, interviews and data reveal some rental property conditions are worse.

A Daily analysis of inspections data shows other rental properties in the Marcy-Holmes and Como neighborhoods have similar problems: floors that need to be replaced, smoke detectors that need to be installed, faucets and toilets that leak and electrical wiring that requires professional work.

Despite Minneapolis’ efforts to inspect more rental properties and to enforce new penalties for landlords who don’t comply with codes, inspectors continue to cite landlords around the University for not meeting the city’s housing standards.

And some of the same violations that popped up during a 2003-2004 safety sweep – when inspectors looked for safety issues in hundreds of Marcy-Holmes and Como properties after three University students died in a house fire – remained in the top tier of violations between February 2004 and November 2005.

In the Daily’s analysis of this data, findings include:

Certain landlords are cited repeatedly for violations.

In at least one instance, inspectors found problems in one unit, but didn’t inspect the adjoining unit, owned by the same landlord, where other issues existed.

Plumbing, smoke detector and electrical issues were top violations found during the 2003-2004 safety sweep and are among the top 20 problems since then.

Plumbing violations are the most frequently cited problems found inside homes since the safety sweep with 107 violations. Smoke detectors are a close second with 102 violations.

Minneapolis housing inspector Sarah Maxwell finds a lot of smoke detector violations – especially in basements – which she thinks are caused by a lack of education, she said during a supervised February ride-along.

JoAnn Velde, deputy director of Minneapolis housing inspection services, attributed the violations to inspectors getting into homes and finding problems.

“It could be because we’re doing a thorough license inspection,” she said.

Fire Marshal Dave Dewall, who leads the Minneapolis Fire Department in its multi-unit rental property inspections, said inspectors continue to see the same violations because of “human nature.”

Inspections alone won’t change human behavior, but education will, he said.

Tenants are part of that education. Landlords can’t always know if problems exist in properties unless tenants inform them.

In the past few years the fire department and housing inspection services have added new ways to enforce the city’s housing codes.

The fire department and the housing inspections division plan to perform rental license inspections in every rental property by 2010. This is part of its five-year plan that started in January 2005. In the 17 years before the plan, inspectors had not been inside every property in the city. Instead they focused on “problem properties.”

The City Council passed new ordinances in 2004, including tougher recourse for landlords who repeatedly violate the city’s rental property maintenance code.

Still, tenants, advocates and neighborhood leaders question whether the city is doing enough to crack down on poorly maintained, and sometimes unsafe, housing. Many say landlord behavior has not changed enough in the past few years.

Same old story

The neighborhoods around campus are notorious for old, rundown homes. Tours of the Marcy-Holmes and Como neighborhoods show porches falling apart, slanted foundations and broken windows.

The “slummy” lifestyle is a romantic notion for college students, said Ardes Johnson, who has been a Dinkytown resident for 15 years.

Many college students said they want the freedom of off-campus living, but they also want safe, livable homes to go to after a long day of classes and work.

University alumnus Michael Huntley wanted a comfortable home. He didn’t find that living at 1701 Como Ave. S.E., where the city turned off the water at least five times between fall 2003 and fall 2004. At their landlord’s request, Huntley said, he and his roommates paid the property owner instead of the city directly.

Huntley remembers from day one always wearing shoes in his home because the carpet was dirty and, in some spots, smelled like urine, he said.

And when he left the duplex for good, he said he never received his damage deposit. He since has sued his former landlord Doug Doty and settled in housing conciliation court.

Between March 2002 and September 2005, inspectors found 42 violations at 1701 Como Ave. S.E. and 1703 Como Ave. S.E., which is part of the duplex. The violations ranged from broken windows to water-damaged surfaces to missing smoke detectors.

Inspectors found plumbing and smoke detector violations during the safety sweep. They again found those two problems, among others, during a fall inspection at 1703 Como Ave. S.E.

The 2003-2004 safety sweep and rental license inspections are supposed to make rental properties like the duplex safer.

That hasn’t stopped the same violations from popping up at the duplex, data and interviews with current and former tenants show. Doty did not return several calls for comment and when reached at his home, he declined to comment.

“He’s one of the more prominent names in our office, too,” said Barb Boysen, a legal assistant in University Student Legal Service. “Probably out of proportion to what you would expect for the number of properties he owns around here.”

Taking issue

Housing advocates and landlords are skeptical of the rental license inspections that have occurred at various Minneapolis rental properties.

Spencer Blaw, a housing advocate who sits on the Minnesota Tenants Union board, called the five-year plan “bullshit.”

“It’s just not going to happen,” he said.

Blaw said the city has promised more inspections in the past.

“It’s nothing new,” he said.

University Concerned Landlord Association president Jason Klohs said he supports the license inspections. He criticizes the process, however.

Klohs, who owns nine rental properties, said he wanted to be involved before rental license inspections occurred at some of his rental properties this winter. Although landlords are notified, inspectors get approval from tenants and set appointments with them.

Early notification could help landlords address issues sooner rather than later, he said.

Inspectors performed a license inspection at Vanderheyden’s home this fall. But as of March 9, he still saw issues in his home.

The bathroom faucet leaks. Although these issues aren’t considered violations, doorknobs are located only on the interior side of the front and back doors. The garage can’t be used for storage. A station wagon with 1992 license plates sits in the garage among old gas cans, boxes and other miscellanea.

Mike Murphy of RP Management, a company that manages hundreds of rental properties around the Twin Cities, said the garage isn’t for tenants’ use.

But Vanderheyden said he’d like to get resolved what he said are problems in the house. Ultimately he will not complain to his landlord. As a student, he said he doesn’t have the time.

‘Serious situation’

Vanderheyden’s experience doesn’t compare to what some University students endured while living at 719 13th Ave. S.E. earlier this year

After finding six gas leaks in early March, CenterPoint Energy red-tagged and turned off the home’s boiler. A red tag indicates the appliance has to be shut off because it creates unsafe conditions. The boiler previously had been yellow-tagged, which indicates a potential problem down the road.

“The red tag is a serious situation,” Velde said.

City inspectors ruled the home uninhabitable and sent a letter of intent to condemn the house to Nicholas Puzak, owner of Cardinal Properties. In addition to ordering him to fix the boiler, an inspector asked that he provide a smoke detector in the basement and missing covers in the breaker box. The inspector also requested painting the garage and home’s exterior, and repairing the porch.

The tenants have since moved. Puzak said he has since bought a new furnace and fixed a gas valve on the boiler.

“This was a serious, serious threat to health and safety,” said Boysen, who is working on a case to help the former tenants recoup their March rent and damage deposit.

Puzak, whose only single-family property is at 719 13th Ave., said he responded when CenterPoint initially yellow-tagged the boiler.

“If it was a real emergency, they would have red-tagged it immediately,” he said.

In October 2003, during the safety sweep, an inspector cited Puzak for not properly posting his license, needing to install faceplates on electrical outlets and needing to repair fixtures at that property.

‘We love our landlords’

Not everyone is unhappy with their living situation.

University senior Ta Ho said he likes his 1063 12th Ave. S.E. residence. And the violations an inspector found during a license inspection this fall don’t bother him because his landlords, Allison and Tim Thiesing, responded quickly.

“We love our landlords,” Ho said.

When a sprinkler hose flooded the basement, the landlords hired people to replace the carpet and fix the walls. Within a week the basement was livable, Ho said.

“We’ve had our fair share of problems, but (our landlords) have been fast to react to them,” he said.

Allison Thiesing, who rents one other property in Prospect Park, said she and her husband respond quickly for good reason.

“I look at it like I would want it to be safe enough for my kids to live in the house,” she said.

Landlord watchdogs

Not all landlords act like the Thiesings.

And members of neighborhood associations are plenty aware of it.

Johnson, a Dinkytown resident who sits on the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Revitalization Program committee, said housing inspections services had agreed to send the association a monthly list of violations. The association then would send letters to landlords about the importance of complying with city codes.

She said the association last got a list in September.

The wake-up call that changed the housing environment

These issues – the good and the bad – aren’t news to Paul Zerby, a former Minneapolis City Council member. He said he knew “substandard” housing existed in University neighborhoods long before a fall 2003 fire killed three University students. He saw firsthand the problems while door-knocking in 2001.

“It was terrible stuff,” he said.

Zerby advocated the safety sweep after the University students died. More than four months and hundreds of inspections later, housing officials and community leaders declared rental properties in the Marcy-Holmes and Como neighborhoods safe, according to earlier media reports.

“Did they stay safe? We don’t know until we get another complaint,” Velde said. “But in that moment in time, yes.”

Opinions vary on the lasting impact of the safety sweep.

“There are some landlords that haven’t changed at all,” said James De Sota, neighborhood coordinator for the Southeast Como Improvement Association.

Melissa Bean, executive director of the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association, thinks differently.

“In my mind, there have been some improvements due to the sweep,” she said.

Not that there couldn’t be more improvement.

“Is there a long way to go? In many instances, yes,” she said.

Bill Dane, a University Student Legal Services lawyer and housing advocate, said properties in Marcy-Holmes and Como neighborhoods have shown an overall improvement.

He should know. The housing advocate lives in the Como neighborhood and works with students who experience rental problems.

But he said the houses in Marcy-Holmes and Como don’t seem maintained.

“I was thinking things are looking bad again.”

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