When the fire alarm went off, Joan Riley-Hasan’s first thought was, “Who pulled the alarm again?” It happened so often at the Historic Bell Lofts apartment building in north Minneapolis that she’d grown numb to the sound.
But this time, something was actually wrong. In the hallway, Riley-Hasan saw a torrent of filthy, smelly water rushing like a creek towards the apartment. She hurried back to her daughter, Shantel Riley-Hasan, and her three grandchildren inside – ages 2, 6 and 9.
“The place is flooding,” Joan Riley-Hasan recalled saying. “We’ve gotta go.”
That night, Dec. 28, 2022, a frozen pipe burst open on the third floor of the building at 21st and Bryant avenues north, spewing a torrent through the building. Joan and Shantel Riley-Hasan grabbed the kids and splashed outside through water at least a half-foot deep. Soaked and shivering on the curb with other tenants of the 25-unit building, Shantel Riley-Hasan called her sister, Dyonyca Conley-Rush.
“I instantly hopped in my van,” said Conley-Rush, who runs It Takes A Village, a non-profit that serves north Minneapolis. “I get over there, and there were people standing outside in the street, wet kids crying … We were putting people in the van to get warm.”
Bell Lofts’ tenants harrowing predicament made the news: The flood displaced 22 families – many of whom were low-income and relied on housing vouchers or rental assistance – just three days after Christmas.
The building’s owner secured hotel rooms for the families with the help of several local foundations. Conley-Rush – known to her friends as “Ms. D” – was one of several community activists and philanthropies who organized food and supply drives, raised more funds to cover residents’ expenses and solicited donations to lengthen their hotel stays.
But underneath the human drama, another layer of the story has received less attention: The Bell Lofts case was the largest test yet for the unique, city-backed program that provides financial relief to tenants who lose their rental housing through no fault of their own.
What is Rental Relocation Assistance?
Since June 2020, city ordinance has required Minneapolis rental property owners whose rental licenses are revoked, or whose properties are condemned, to pay their displaced tenants the equivalent of three months’ rent — enough money to theoretically cover move-in costs at a new place. (St. Paul has a similar ordinance.)
If the owner doesn’t pay, city officials tap into a $100,000 fund to cut a check to the tenants, then collect from the owner or tack a special charge onto their property tax bill. Minneapolis’ fund is rare for the state, according to the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, which represents property owners.
The idea behind this program: allow city inspectors to hold rental property owners accountable, while minimizing the collateral damage to tenants, according to Jessica Stone, Minneapolis’ manager of alternative housing enforcement.
“People are displaced because of the things that we do,” Stone explained. “So we were trying to figure out, how can we enforce the safety of the renters without having this question of, ‘Should we do this if we know that the end result will be families displaced and not knowing where to go next?’”
The Bell Lofts flood has become a milestone for the city’s program, marking the first time officials used the city’s rental relocation assistance program at a larger apartment building.
The city offered relocation assistance to 22 families at Bell Lofts.
Compare that to 17 families that received assistance in the previous two years of the program combined – most of whom lived in single-family or duplex units, Stone said.
Tenants have gotten relief checks, but city still waiting for owner’s payment
Stone noted that though Bell Lofts was a 25-unit building, all but three families accepted rental relocation assistance because it appears as income on their taxes, which could affect their eligibility for other benefits programs.
In the months since the incident, Conley-Rush said 19 of those 22 families have since found new housing. That includes her sister, Shantel Riley-Hassan, who has moved into a three-bedroom house on a quiet north Minneapolis street; she thinks it’s a lot nicer, and for the same monthly price as her Bell Lofts place.
Without that ordinance, Bell Lofts families “wouldn’t have gotten anything,” Conley-Rush said. Under the city’s requirement, property owners “have to make sure that these residents are OK.”
Yet the Bell Lofts case is not quite tied off.
The building’s owner, developer Christopher Webley, said the city couldn’t hold him responsible for the burst pipe, which he has argued was an “act of nature.” By late January, it was clear he planned to appeal the city citation that required him to pay rental relocation assistance.
With many Bell Lofts families still living in donated hotel rooms at the time, Stone said the city decided that it would take too long to wait for an appeal. So Webley and the city struck an agreement: Webley would pay $22,000 to the city, the rough equivalent of one month’s rent at Bell Lofts. The city would pay the full three months of relocation assistance directly to tenants. Webley would also pay back all security deposits to tenants, in full, regardless of any past-due rent amounts.
The city’s checks have gone out to all tenants who applied. Webley has also paid back tenants’ security deposits, as best as Stone and Conley-Rush can tell.
But as of this week, Webley has yet to deliver his $22,000 payment to the city of Minneapolis. He did not respond to several email and phone messages from MinnPost seeking comment.
Stone said officials may need to seek a special appropriation from the Minneapolis City Council to fully replenish the $100,000 relocation assistance fund, “depending on need” – but she also added that “we’re not too concerned” about depleting that fund.
A history of trouble
Bell Lofts has been a troubled property for years, dogged by suspicions of criminal activity both nearby and on the premises.
In the decade before Webley took over the building in March 2021, city inspectors cited previous owners for 102 violations of housing and fire code. Before the flood, the city cited Webley and his company 21 times for problems ranging from smoke alarm maintenance, to water damage, to problems with the building’s heating facilities.
The Riley-Hasans moved into Bell Lofts nine months before the flood. Though Shantel Riley-Hasan – who then worked at a grocery store, and now works as a certified nursing assistant – loved the building at first, maintenance issues began to pile up.
“Stuff just started breaking,” she said. “Like if you pulled at the cabinet, it just comes apart like somebody glued it back together.”
Later, cockroaches appeared in force. When they alerted building management? “No response. Nothing,” Shantel Riley-Hasan said.
To Shantel Riley-Hasan and Conley-Rush, all of this was prelude to the flood. Webley had owned the building for almost two years at the time of the flood – enough time, they argued, to act on his goals for improving the property.
“I feel like he was in over his head,” said Conley-Rush. “You don’t have a problem taking money for rent. It doesn’t take a lot to fix a doorknob. I think [if you] show effort that you’re trying to change something, a lot of people will applaud that more than you just sitting back doing nothing.”
In that light, Shantel Riley-Hasan argued the city’s agreement lets Bell Lofts’ owners off easy.
If the city let Webley rent again, Shantel wondered, “who says that’s not going to happen to another family?”
The city of Minneapolis has not yet lost an appeal from a property owner in a rental relocation assistance case, Stone said – but city officials also said that settling with Webley was simply a means of getting funds to tenants quickly. Going through the appeals process would’ve taken another two weeks.
“We didn’t want to keep prolonging giving out these funds,” Stone said. She added that the city settled in part out of acknowledgment that Webley had paid for some hotel stays. (The owners also worked to raise funds for tenants and helped point tenants toward permanent housing, according to the Bell Lofts website.)
The city’s fund may have compensated Shantel Riley-Hasan but she is still considering a lawsuit against Webley to replace items she lost: a bed, a couch, a table set, clothes.
And then there are items she can’t replace – sentimental items, like clothes that belonged to her father, who died in 2021.
“Clothes with his scent on it,” she said. “I can’t get his scent back.”
Update: This story has been updated to include information about St. Paul’s rental relocation assistance ordinance. A previous version of the story said that Minneapolis’ ordinance was the only one of its kind in Minnesota.