See more of the story

The letter from St. Paul inspectors told Patrick Milan he could be held criminally responsible. His offense? A messy vegetable garden in the backyard of the house he rents in the North End.

Milan got a letter from St. Paul’s Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI) in October 2017. He was confused that it listed things that weren’t there — appliances, discarded furniture, car parts — alongside the pallets, windows and tarp that the city said he had to get rid of.

The most alarming message was in capital letters: “Failure to comply may result in a criminal citation.”

“I don’t consider myself above correction. If my yard is a mess, I’m happy to clean it up,” Milan said. “But this threw me into a panic, and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.”

St. Paul’s inspections department mails thousands of code enforcement letters each year, citing property owners for violations ranging from tall grass to hoarding. City Council President Amy Brendmoen wants the department to soften its approach, especially for first-time offenders, and she may pass a resolution setting a deadline for those changes.

“Especially as we’re talking about equity and recognizing that all of our neighborhoods have different personalities and styles, how do we reach out to people in a way that encourages their compliance, instead of hits them over the head with it?” Brendmoen said. “I get it, there are really good reasons for some of these things. But that’s not what the orders say. The orders are like, ‘You’re breaking the law.’ ”

Safety and Inspections Director Ricardo Cervantes agrees.

“We’ll continue to massage those letters,” he said. “We have to be truthful, we have to be legal, but we can certainly kind of tone it down a little bit.”

When a St. Paul resident gets an enforcement letter from DSI, it tells them what the problem is, what they need to do to fix it, how much time they have to do the work and what will happen if they don’t get it done. Penalties include property tax assessments and criminal citations.

Minneapolis’ Regulatory Services takes a similar approach, with a standardized letter format that multiple departments use, said Kellie Jones, director of housing inspection services.

“We have discussed the possibility of revisiting the letters to see if there isn’t a way to continue to improve them … to make sure that the language is customer-friendly and customer-oriented and that people receive it and understand it, as well as appreciate the tone in it,” she said.

This year, St. Paul’s inspections department held community meetings about code enforcement with residents in the North End and West Side neighborhoods. Attendees said they want the department to focus on solutions instead of penalties, ensure the complaint system isn’t abused by residents reporting unfounded violations and “improve the quality and tone of communications.”

“They said, ‘Yeah, the tone — it’s like you’re still lording it over us, like we’re criminals,’ ” Cervantes said.

Inspectors have started using paper door hangers to remind residents to clear snow and ice from their sidewalks before they get a letter. In 2020, DSI plans to update its technology to be able to include a photo with every letter, so it’s clear what the violation is. The department is already able to include photos with some of its letters, which read, “Thank you — we appreciate your cooperation!” below the inspector’s contact information.

Also in 2020, a grant-funded AmeriCorps VISTA member will refer residents to home repair services if they need help bringing their property into compliance.

Inspectors and other city staff often work with residents to provide extra time to get work done. But in cases where a property is deemed unsafe to live in — if it doesn’t have running water, for example — there’s less leeway.

The city in some cases condemns houses, forcing occupants to leave until problems are fixed. As a result, some of the city’s most vulnerable residents — people who are aging, living in poverty or living with mental or physical disabilities — have had to leave their homes because they hoarded bags of clothes or missed a water bill.

DSI hasn’t tracked how these practices displace residents but plans to start, Cervantes said.

In an interview Dec. 17, Mayor Melvin Carter said the city needs to strike a balance between keeping its housing safe and avoiding harming residents.

“We want to be intentional about the impacts that those things have on our most vulnerable residents, to ensure that the city isn’t creating more challenge for folks who really need less challenge in their lives,” he said.

City leaders have pointed to code enforcement letters — which Brendmoen called “terrifying” at an August council meeting — as the first step in a confusing and stressful process.

After stashing gardening supplies in his garage, appealing the city’s order and connecting with Brendmoen, his council member, Milan was able to avoid penalties.

But the experience has stuck with him, and made him think about how the city might approach enforcement in a gentler way — from the very first interaction with a resident.

“It starts with that opening conversation,” he said.