When the Historic Bell Lofts apartment building flooded late last year, displacing 22 families three days after Christmas, tenants said they’d been having problems with the north Minneapolis property for months.
Just three weeks earlier, city inspectors cited Bell Lofts’ owners for pest control problems. Three weeks before that, inspectors dinged the owner for failing to maintain the building’s heating system.
Over the last decade, inspectors logged 133 violations of housing and fire codes at Bell Lofts ranging from trash in the yard to plumbing and electrical problems — including 38 citations for what the city classifies as “life safety” issues, such as maintaining smoke detectors and fire alarms, according to city data.
While Bell Lofts’ story drew widespread attention, the building is also far from the only one in north Minneapolis with such a track record.
City housing and fire inspectors have issued more than 477,000 code violations to property owners over the last decade. North Minneapolis neighborhoods alone account for 181,000 of those violations.
In other words, just two of the city’s 13 wards account for nearly 40% of the code violations, despite accounting for less than 15% of Minneapolis’ overall housing stock, according to a MinnPost analysis of Census data and city records.
“These violations can range from less serious to very serious,” said Samuel Spaid, a housing attorney who directs research at HOME Line, which provides legal advice to tenants. “Issues such as heat, loss of other utilities, water leaks, mold, damage to windows or porches — almost anything you can think of that might be considered a home repair or problem in an apartment.”
Around one in eight violations citywide identified a life safety problem. The most common of these violations involved providing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, providing fire extinguishers or maintaining emergency lighting. In a small fraction of life safety cases — around 1,000 in the last decade — inspectors were flagging an “illegal” or “unsafe” building.
Roughly one-third of the violations were for “nuisance” issues, like stray trash, un-mowed grass or weedy lawns.
Inspectors issued more violations in the Jordan neighborhood — ringed by Broadway, Lowry and Emerson avenues on the North Side — than any other in the city over the last decade: just over 32,000.
Bell Lofts is located in the neighborhood just to the west: Hawthorne, which had the fourth-highest total, with more than 20,000 violations since 2013.
Why is the North Side such a hotspot for housing violations?
It’s hard to pin down one single answer, but poor management may be one common thread.
Without specifying particular owners, Spaid said that “there are landlords who do not run their properties well, and do so across a large number [of properties] and often disproportionately account for a high number of violations, a higher number of evictions, a higher number of calls to our hotline.”
While those calls to Spaid’s organization don’t only come from Minneapolis, government officials have taken steps in Minneapolis in recent years to confront landlords who allegedly failed to maintain huge numbers of North Side properties.
In 2016, City Council members voted to strip Mahmood Khan of rental licenses at 42 north Minneapolis properties.
Khan was listed as the violator on more than 3,000 citations in the last decade. Those 42 North Side addresses account for 2,300 of those violations. (Khan had appealed the revocation, even attempting to get the U.S. Supreme Court involved; the Court declined.)
Last February, Attorney General Keith Ellison sued HavenBrook homes, a Georgia-based company that manages more than 600 rental properties in the Twin Cities — the vast majority of them in Minneapolis. Ellison accused the company of “systematically … keeping its properties uninhabitable for tenants,” as part of a “deliberate strategy to extract profits.”
While that case is currently locked in a legal fight over jurisdiction, city officials negotiated — in effect — a corrective action plan with HavenBrook’s owners, Front Yard Residential.
The settlement agreement’s provisions call for Front Yard to resolve inspection issues at 210 of its properties — which, over the last decade, racked up more than 5,200 violations. All but a handful of those properties are on the North Side.
What role does systemic racism and inequality play?
Minneapolis has a well-documented history of redlining that historically forced many residents who are Black, Indigenous or people of color into less desirable neighborhoods and substandard housing. A solid majority of residents in north Minneapolis are BIPOC.
However, other neighborhoods with majority-BIPOC populations have fewer violations, suggesting more complex forces are at play. The city’s database reflects only a relative handful of violations in Cedar-Riverside, for instance, where more than 70% of residents are non-white.
Neighborhoods with larger low-income populations tend to have higher totals of violations, though the correlation with income isn’t as strong as you might suspect: There were about as many violations per resident in the less-affluent East Phillips neighborhood (0.9) as there were in more-affluent East Bde Maka Ska (0.9).
Another demographic datapoint might illustrate a reason why some violations are not reported.
Spaid said his organization has found that many immigrant tenants are less likely to report problems because they don’t speak English. Tenants who are undocumented may fear contacting a government official.
An example: The Phillips neighborhood — where well over one-third of residents are foreign-born — has low rates of violations per rental unit, especially compared to problem-housing hotspots like the North Side.