2 months after fire, housing is still city’s focus

by Stephanie Kudrle

The deadly Dinkytown house fire in September has brought more attention to student-tenant issues on and off campus.

As a result of the incident, student housing inspections are under way, while neighborhood-student contact has increased and tenant rights discussions have swelled.

Minneapolis housing inspections deputy director JoAnn Velde said student-housing inspections – which began mid-October – have gone well.

City inspectors have completed 312 of the 700 planned University-area rental inspections. The city is inspecting all rentals with three units or fewer, and Velde said the city hopes to complete inspections by Dec. 31. The fire department is also inspecting housing units with four or more units, such as apartment complexes.

She said students generally comply with inspectors’ requests, but many students are concerned about over-occupancy violations.

When inspectors find more unrelated people living in a housing unit than it is zoned for, they issue an over-occupancy violation. The city then sends the landlord an order to get the property into compliance, often forcing the landlord to make the extra occupants move out.

As of last week, the city had issued 62 over-occupancy violations out of the 210 completed inspections, Velde said. However, she said, multiple violations could have been issued for the same building.

Velde said inspectors issue more violations because of safety and legal problems – not just over-occupancy.

She said inspectors also find bedrooms lacking legally required window exits or separation from furnaces in basements and attics. By law, a wall must separate furnaces from bedrooms.

Barb Boysen, a legal assistant with Student Legal Service, said since the inspections started, the number of students filing over-occupancy complaints with her office has increased.

In some cases, students claim their landlords knew the residence was over-occupied, Boysen said.

“Students understood from the landlords that it was OK,” Boysen said. “They were not aware of the limits and violations.”

In other cases, students said landlords avoided legal problems by having some of the occupants sign the lease but allowing others to live there and pay rent, Boysen said.

“The landlords would have the legal limit of residents sign the lease, and then the students would pay the rent by one check,” she said.

None of the cases have gone to court, Boysen said, and in some instances tenants solved the problems themselves.

University action

In the fire’s wake, the University re-examined its involvement with off-campus housing.

University officials revised the policy regarding which landlords will be listed on the institution’s off-campus housing Web site.

Now, landlords with repeat code violations are not listed. Before, the list included all landlords licensed with the city.

“We are delisting the landlords with violations and complaints to help improve the decisions students make regarding housing,” said Jerry Rinehart, vice provost for student affairs.

He said the University is looking at the lack of affordable housing for students and examining whether the University can afford to build more housing complexes.

“There are some market realities with that,” Rinehart said. “How much debt can the University take on?”

Minneapolis City Council member Paul Zerby, 2nd Ward, represents most of the Marcy-Holmes and Southeast Como neighborhoods and said he is also working on the issue of safe and affordable housing.

He said he is looking to create an ordinance in Minneapolis that would require inspections before a building can be occupied. The St. Paul City Council recently passed a similar ordinance.

Zerby said he is trying to work more with students’ concerns and said he hopes student housing improves.

Something for survivors

Greg Simbeck, neighborhood coordinator of the Southeast Como Improvement Association, said residents and students recently discussed a memorial for students Brian Heiden, 19; Amanda Speckien, 19; and Elizabeth Wencl, 20, who died in the blaze at 827 15th Ave. S.E.

Simbeck said community outreach has increased since the fire, improving student-neighborhood relationships.

“In a way, it was a catalyst for us to work together more closely with students,” Simbeck said. “It brought us together on important issues, like affordable, decent housing.”

After the fire, the University community and a nearby business pulled together to help the fire victims’ roommates.

Rinehart said Melrose Apartments offered the four roommates a special housing contract at the complex for the same rent they paid at their duplex.

Additionally, the Minnesota Student Association and the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly set up a fire survivors fund in September to help those students pay rent and replace textbooks destroyed in the fire.

MSA Vice President Jeff Nath said the fund for the students is now more than $7,000.