A Macalester-Groveland couple who struggled for years with a hoarding problem are hoping a judge will block the city of St. Paul from tearing down their 100-year-old home.
On Thursday, their attorney, Matt Anderson, asked a Ramsey County judge to prevent the city from razing the home at 1904 Princeton Av., saying the dangerous conditions city inspectors have continually cited no longer exist. A former neighbor of Mary Jo and John Kattar has an agreement to restore and sell the home if the order to tear it down is lifted.
"Who wins when there is a hole in the ground? Who wins when a 100-year-old house is demolished?" Anderson said. "No one."
But the city, which condemned the house in 2007 and has since 2019 repeatedly extended deadlines to clean it up enough for it to be inspected, cannot simply take the Kattars' word that the house is now safe, Assistant City Attorney Anthony Edwards said.
"It's too late," he told Ramsey County District Judge Laura Nelson.
A long struggle
For 12 years after the Kattars vacated the house, no other action was taken. Then, in September 2019, the city notified the couple that the home was a nuisance property and that it could be demolished if its code violations weren't corrected.
What followed were letters and hearings and extensions and even referrals to programs to help Mary Jo Kattar with her hoarding problem. Still, the house remained packed with stuff. In March 2020, the Kattars said the threat of COVID-19 slowed their efforts even more.
In December 2020, the City Council declared the house a dangerous structure and unanimously voted for it to be demolished. Through last summer and fall, officials said, the Kattars never cleaned the house to a point where it could be inspected.
The Kattars appealed, but on Dec. 6, 2021, the state Court of Appeals affirmed St. Paul's order.
Then, in February, the couple cleared out the house — and found a prospective buyer.
A new vision
Joe Schaak, who once lived across the street from the Kattars and whose business includes rehabbing and selling old and nuisance homes, inspected the house and said it could "become an amazing home for a young family."
But under terms of a joint venture agreement, Schaak won't take control of the property unless the courts or the city cease efforts to demolish the house. He said he has renovated "six or seven" vacant properties in St. Paul.
Schaak, who moved to Stillwater in 2008, said he was recently at a holiday party in his old neighborhood.
"The neighbors don't want to see one of those McMansions going up," he said of the three-bedroom home he envisions renovating to include an upper level master suite. "It's a great neighborhood. I think everyone wants to see it saved."
While Schaak would not divulge the financial details of his agreement with the Kattars, Ramsey County records show the house has a 2021 estimated market value of $299,600. The couple continue to pay property taxes — nonhomestead — of more than $7,000 a year, including additional assessments because the home is vacant. Values of other homes on the block range from nearly $300,000 to more than $450,000.
Neither John nor Mary Jo Kattar responded to a request to be interviewed.
On Wednesday, neighbors across the street, who did not want to be named, said they would rather see the home improved. Next door to their house, workers were busy renovating a brick story-and-a-half home.
Because the house has now been adequately cleaned and no longer poses a hazard, Anderson said the city has an obligation to stop the demolition process and let the Kattars' agreement with Schaak be completed.
"Otherwise, you're demolishing a house that doesn't need to be demolished," he said.
Edwards, the assistant city attorney, said city officials are not unsympathetic to the couple's struggles. There have been nine legislative hearings since September 2019 in an effort to give them time to clean up the property, he said. It's time to move on. he said.
What if, he asked, the Kattars' back out of their agreement with Schaak? Will the process be reset yet again and a nuisance property continue as a nuisance?
"They are asking to essentially take their word for it that house is now safe," Edwards said. "It's too late. … This is a property that for many years has not been safe, and may still well not be safe."
Nelson said she will give a ruling "as quickly as I can." Then she asked if the city will "hang tight until I make a decision."
Edwards said it would.