Making a clean sweep

City cracks down on Southwest property owners as part of citywide initiative

Rocks could soon replace a small strip of grass on David Gray’s property in the Lyndale neighborhood.

A rock bed would prevent any further city orders to cut his lawn, which an inspector recently cited for being taller than 8 inches, he said. Gray was greeted with the order, along with another to clean up his garden, when he arrived home last month from a couple weeks on vacation.

If Gray’s lawn is cited again, it will be placed on a contractor’s list of properties to mow immediately after grass exceeds 8 inches. Gray would have to pay for each cut and would remain on the list for a year after his last violation.

The new ordinance is part of the city’s more aggressive approach to housing inspections.

While eight inspectors sweep each building in the 3rd, 4th and 5th Wards this summer, 10 others continue to respond to complaints and look for violations throughout the rest of the city. Eleven interns were hired to assist inspectors and perform nuisance sweeps, looking for tall grass, trash, cars on lawns and other violations.

Cleanup time extensions have nearly come to a halt and Rocco Forte, assistant city coordinator who oversees regulatory services, said inspectors are being more proactive than they have been in past years.

“I think that regulatory services has been too lax,” Forte said. “It’s our responsibility to focus on what the issues are and clean them up.”

Though some residents welcome stricter enforcement of the city’s code, others are skeptical of the new approach, and a few find it just plain annoying.

Cleaning up

More than 22,000 housing violations have been found citywide between Jan. 1 and June 15 of this year, said JoAnn Velde, deputy director of Housing Inspection Services. Of those, roughly 3,000 were in Southwest.

By the end of 2006, Velde said, she expects inspectors to find at least 25 percent more violations than the roughly 41,000 total found last year throughout the city. More than 8,000 violations have been found in North Minneapolis alone since June 16 of this year, when the 3rd, 4th and 5th Ward sweeps began.

Forté said the city’s curb-to-alley northern sweep could extent to other parts of the city in years to come and the interns, who enable inspectors to cover more ground during the summer months, will be funded again next year.

“This is a pilot program, and we’re going to take what we learn and use it,” he said. “It’s (a curb-to-alley sweep), coming south if need be.”

Regulatory services will continue to hold residents throughout Minneapolis to a “higher standard” of cleanliness regardless of whether a sweep is taking place, Forte said.

“I do believe that once people know we’re serious, they’ll clean up their yards,” he said.

Holding the line

“We’ve been told to hold the line,” said Minneapolis Housing Inspector Darrell Spears while driving on a recent Friday afternoon to a Southwest residence that reportedly needed a new driveway. “To hold the line on what the due dates are.”

The gravel driveway at 3217 Pleasant Ave. was overgrown with grass and weeds. A pile of brush rested near the garage. Spears marked what he saw on a clipboard. The property owner would be getting a citation in the mail.

Spears thumbed through a stack of complaints to see where to go next. He found numerous violations that day – trash in an alley, a lawn with 20-inch grass, peeling paint on a garage and more.

Spears has been met with open arms in some neighborhoods and unwelcome in others. He’s been all over Minneapolis and said each neighborhood has its issues.

Keeping up property is a basic responsibility, he said, and he doesn’t want people to see him as the bad guy.

“If everybody’s property looks nice, it’s a livability issue and everybody wins,” he said.

CARAG resident Jim Rains knows the backside of his garage could use a new coat of paint. He found someone to do the job before Speers wrote him a citation for it, but he doesn’t mind the reminder.

Rains said residents in his neighborhood are usually good about communicating problems to each other before complaining to the city, something Speers and other city staff encourage.

Jim Rosco of Whittier, which was found to have more violations last year than any other Southwest neighborhood, has a native garden he knows neighbors have complained about. He once received a citation when it grew too tall. But he said neighborhood squabbling is a minor reason for complaints.

Rosco said he knows there are problem properties in the area and would like more consistency in the city’s efforts to cite them. He’s seen sweeps come and go with little attention given to finding long-term solutions, he said.

“I think it’s important to have a consistent message and regularly enforce it,” he said.

Forte said the city’s more proactive approach isn’t temporary and will continue when the grass stops growing and the snow flies.

Keeping up

Gray trimmed his lawn and weeded his garden, which incorporates native plants, soon after getting home so he would meet the citation’s due date.

“The turn-around time for corrective action is way too short,” said Gray, whose frustration was worsened by $1,000 in property damage from a reckless driver that occurred while he was away. “As soon as I get back, I’ve got one of these nasty-grams, and its due on the date I get home.”

Gray said the city should make catching vandals and others who damage property a priority over citing him for his lawn. He said he has a hard time keeping up with repairs.

Residents get seven to 10 days to correct nuisance violations and 45-60 days for structural violations, Velde said. Residents who can’t keep up their property for whatever reason should hire someone to do the work or make an arrangement with a neighbor, Velde said.

Or, buys some rocks.

Jake Weyer can be reached at 612-436-4367 and [email protected].