The "Slum-lord" Wars
It starts with an attitude. During the 5th Ward candidate debate at Lucille's kitchen on August 26, Minneapolis City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes referred to Charles Disney, executive director of Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee, as representative of a landlord group whose members "victimized" people.
The idea that inner-city landlords are rather seedy individuals who own run-down buildings and exploit poor people infuses the city's political culture. Drug dealing may run rampant in the streets. Legal and illegal gambling may bring an epidemic of personal bankruptcies. But it is landlords, who provide housing for city residents, that get the blame for crime and urban decay from city officials.
In reality, the typical small-time landlord in Minneapolis is someone who repairs torn screens and fixes leaky plumbing fixtures and generally does not have time to sit around the table talking about neighborhood issues with CCP/SAFE officers, politicians, and local activists. As a result, he or she lost the battle of the memoranda, press releases, and grant proposals to those from whom such things are a specialty. In the cross-fire of adverse publicity, these landlords became "slum-lords" or "absentee landlords", who personified crime in their neighborhoods.
Then Charlie Disney's group came along, slapping the city with a class-action lawsuit, going on talk radio, holding press conferences on drug-infested street corners, producing cable TV shows, and recruiting Barbara Carlson to run for Mayor. It's been hand-to-hand combat with political foes, like the battle of Stalingrad, taking the city back one piece at a time.
In their vast army, incumbent city officials have a batallion of SAFE officers - political and public-relations specialists on the city payroll, 60 in all - to stage such events as the demolition of Bob Zeman's apartment building at 1030 Morgan Ave. N. and distribute paraphernalia identifying the person as a "survivor" of that experience. For heavy artillery, they have city inspectors armed with the power to write voluminous and expensive work orders or condemn buildings.
In Charlie Disney's army are the handful of landlords who picketed the 4th Precinct police headquarters on the day after the building at 1030 Morgan Avenue was demolished. Some are defectors from hostile city government, like Andrew Ellis, a retired housing inspector who tirelessly points out a lack of consistency or adequate inspector training in interpreting city code. Some are hardy guerrillas like Frank Trisko, who personally installed more than 150 lawn signs for Jim Graham in the 6th Ward. And then there is Disney himself, a perennial state table-tennis champion, who bursts upon a public meeting like a missionary ready to convert the world.
There is a provision in the Minneapolis Housing Maintenance code (244.1450) which gives city regulatory officials total discretion to condemn buildings for a variety of reasons. A strict interpretation of that ordinance would give city inspectors the power to condemn buildings where a single cockroach or mouse was found in the building or where in the case of David Sundberg (See Star Tribune article, August 26, 1997), a trap costing less than $5.00 had been removed from beneath the bathroom sink.
Of course, such ordinances giving city officials broad discretion to regulate building safety and health were written on the assumption that this power would be used in a reasonable manner. They did not take into consideration that elected city officials would develop such a hateful attitude towards rental-property owners or, through inspections, take such a "hands on" approach to problems of housing and crime.
In Insight News (July 14, 1997), Jackie Cherryhomes is quoted to the effect that the best way city residents can combat crime is to call 911 and Inspections. Documents obtained from the city in a lawsuit reveal that another City Council member had coached a constituent to use the term "party house" when complaining to Inspections. Insiders tell us that both City Council members and the Minneapolis police regularly contact Inspections to solve crime problems.
Private landlords in Minneapolis also have to worry that the city will confiscate their properties through condemnation by eminent domain and unfairly low estimations of fair market value. One, a Gulf War veteran, lost a mansion in north Minneapolis to MCDA, receiving $1.00 in compensation. He estimates that the city spent at least $50,000 in attorney's fees to drive such a hard bargain with him. Sundberg lost a house assessed at $66,900 on the city's tax rolls, receiving $15,000. Another landlord, who once owned more than 90 properties in Minneapolis, lost them all in a 1993 bankruptcy proceeding brought on by the city's outright confiscation of a 20-unit apartment building that he had bought on Franklin Avenue.
Few in our liberal political culture will shed tears for landlords whose "property rights" have thus been violated by the city. But that fact is that abusive measures such as this perpetrated by Minneapolis city officials are causing private landlords to disinvest in the city, which, in turn, is shrinking the supply of affordable housing for the poor. In that context, "Charlie's army" has found a surprising range of allies and, in the end, may win the war.