In June, landlord Chris Micek got a notice from the city about a new tiered inspections process for his duplex in the Seward neighborhood. The letter notified Micek that his property was in Tier 1, meaning he was among 85 percent of landlords who were doing things right. The letter thanked Micek for keeping his property up, saying owners like him were “the cornerstone of a healthy and safe neighborhood.”
But as the inspector, Joe Jarvis, made his way around Micek’s duplex, it became clear “it was going to be trouble for me.” Micek was cited for 18 violations, from bicycles in a shared hallway to kitchen cabinets that needed to be maintained in a “professional manner,” which would cost him between $10,000 and $15,000. He was initially given only 45 days to complete the work, which he says is impossible due to construction lag times caused by a booming economy.
“Nowhere in the letter does it make clear the inspections are going to result in significant costs to landlords due to higher standards or criteria,” said Micek. “Many of the repairs have existed for decades and have been grandfathered in since we have owned the homes by past city inspectors. You have to look up contractors, take bids and start work, and everybody I called is really busy right now.”
Micek quickly realized he was not alone. Neighbors began to compare notes and post their lengthy lists of citations on a neighborhood Internet forum. Long-term duplex owners, many of whom live in one of the units inspected, were getting citations for similar small violations many called “nitpicking and punitive,” conditions that had been examined and passed by inspectors many times before.
“Either there was one zealous inspector, or Minneapolis was doing a terrible job of communicating a new inspection system,” said Micek.
The city, however, says such inspections of rental properties are taking place citywide, in a more focused, systematic way. Neighbors on adjacent blocks were likely inspected within days of each other and communicated the findings, unlike previous years. Jarvis’ bosses denied that the inspector, who has about four years’ experience, was either targeting the Seward neighborhood or being stricter than previous years. They said many of the homes were built between 1900 and 1910, had not been inspected for five to eight years, and had likely deteriorated since then.
Pardon Seward residents for being skeptical.
Several of them said they welcomed inspections and wanted to keep the neighborhood safe and livable. They said previous interactions with city inspectors have been positive, cooperative and even beneficial. But not this year.
Wendy Adamson, who lived in Seward for many years before recently moving, has heard inspection horror stories from numerous people.
“A lot of people are afraid to go public for fear that they will be inspected next, which may not be true at all,” said Adamson. “My experiences with inspectors were wonderful.”
This year, however, one of Adamson’s neighbors received extensive citations, even though his property seems immaculate, she said.
“I am really upset about this,” said Adamson. “He’s a wonderful person. His kids shoveled my walks without being asked. It hurts to see good young families do things the right way then be terrorized by the process.”
One homeowner posted a story that said they allowed the inspection, even though they had not recently rented out the second unit in their duplex. After being cited for numerous violations, the owner pulled the rental license so the inspector “would just go away.”
Another owner who wrote on the online forum said she had three or four minor citations last time, but this fall was flagged by Jarvis for 37, which could cost her a small fortune.
Jim Wellna, owner of Wellna II Hardware in the area, said neighbors have flooded into his store in panic, looking for quick repairs. “Some are already underwater in their homes and can’t get a loan,” said Wellna. “Some folks have lived here 50, 60 years and don’t have the resources to go through the appeal process.”
Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon, who represents the area, said he’s gotten about a dozen complaints, but agreed there could be many more who are unwilling to raise their hands out of fear of retaliation. He understands why there are “conspiracy theories” about the city trying to push properties into lower tiers, where inspections will be more frequent and expensive. “I think a lot of folks are good renters,” said Gordon. “These are landlords we want around.”
Gordon has scheduled a meeting for Nov. 10 to discuss the problem. He said the council approved a new system early in the year to promote efficiency, and it’s just started rolling out the past few weeks.
“My opinion is that it has a lot do with this inspector,” said Gordon. He said the city might consider reassessing the properties already completed. Gordon also said the letters that have gone out to homeowners about needed fixes don’t include enough information about flexibility, and “maybe we need to change the tone.”
Noah Schuchman, interim director of Regulatory Services, said the fact that housing problems were not cited in previous inspections doesn’t mean they don’t need to be addressed now. He also rejected the notion that one inspector had gone rogue, and said the city tries to keep to the same standards from year to year. Late last week, Schuchman said that the city was flexible in negotiating schedules for all repairs, except for those that pose immediate safety concerns. Homeowners with personal concerns should contact housing inspectors before the November meeting.
“We are willing to work on timelines,” said Mike Rumppe, deputy director of Housing Inspection Services. “These things are not written in stone.”
Several homeowners said they have unsuccessfully tried to reach the inspections department, (with no direct number, they go through 311) while the clock ticks on repairs and potential fines loom.
Micek worries about his tenants, who fear having to move “if these draconian inspection practices are enforced.”
“We are sitting ducks, here,” Micek said.
The people who contacted me are not scofflaws nor slumlords. It seems like the city could hold off on fines and deadlines until their questions are answered.
firstname.lastname@example.org 612-673-1702 • Twitter: @jontevlin