Fighting a bad rap

WINDOM-Whether it's a burglary, booming car stereo, or scribble of graffiti, suspicions turn quickly to one source in this Southwest neighborhood.

City Limits Apartments, a subsidized housing complex off East 59th Street and Nicollet Avenue, has for years been a scapegoat for crime that takes place in and around Windom.

And it's not entirely without reason. Minneapolis Police were called to the 11-building, 198-unit complex nearly 700 times in the last two years for reasons ranging from loud music to domestic abuse.

But the numbers also suggest change. The number of calls to police from City Limits apartments dropped 44 percent in 2006 compared to the previous year, and neighbors say the problems are nowhere near what they were five to 10 years ago.

A new manager at City Limits is now trying to change its troubling reputation by reaching out to tenants and neighbors. Some of the people who live there, though, say efforts to build community will fail without better attention to basics like noise problems and building security.

&#8220I think a lot of the negative comments come from things that happened long in the past,” said Kristen Kvalsten, community manager at City Limits since last summer.

She said she's trying to build a better sense of community among tenants and create more positive interaction with the neighborhood. She points to a National Night Out event organized in August that included a guest speaker from the Windom Neighborhood Council.

She wants to offer neighborhood groups use of the buildings' new community room for meetings or other events. And a slew of other ideas include a community garden, a children's library and an outdoor movie night that would be open to tenants and neighborhood residents.

Charli Soto would rather see management spend its time and resources repairing the exterior doors on her building, which are supposed to lock on their own but often fail to click shut all the way, leaving them open to any visitor, Soto said. (All the exterior doors were checked and repaired if needed in August, Kvalsten said.)

Soto lives with her three grandchildren in a two-bedroom apartment littered with baby blankets, Care Bears and other playthings. Into her arms she intercepts a teetering 1-year-old girl, who had made a beeline for the open apartment door waving a kitchen ladle. Much of the crime Soto hears about is domestic violence. It's the drug trafficking she worries about the most.

&#8220I don't want to be a part of that, and I don't want my kids to be a part of that,” Soto said.

She was one of the few residents interviewed who were willing to allow their names to be printed. Others said they feared losing their apartments or being confronted by the criminals causing problems.

A disabled veteran vented his frustration about drug dealers as he fetched shoes and socks for his daughter before school on one recent morning. When they moved in about a year ago, he said the view out their lower level window was often a line of drug dealers loitering on the sidewalk. When the apartment management hired security guards, it mostly drove the dealers away, but problems are returning since the security patrols were recently cut back on certain nights, he said.

&#8220You call management and you get no answer. It's the same old song and dance,” the father said. &#8220They need to bring back more security. They gotta clean these places up. They've got to do better background checks.”

He thinks a high number of vacancies have led management to loosen background checks that would have otherwise rejected some residents.

Kvalsten said that's not the case, and if anything management is more strict by holding residents accountable for their guests' behavior, too.

&#8220We do a full background check. We haven't compromised that to fill up the apartments or make our occupancy look better,” she said. &#8220We probably decline 50 percent or more (of people who apply).

The checks screen for any violent or drug-related criminal record, Kvalsten said. She said she's also terminated tenants' leases for letting visitors commit crimes on the property. Tenants in 12 apartments have been forcibly evicted or asked to leave since June, she said.

Security patrols were reduced some starting in November for &#8220affordability” reasons, Kvalsten said. They used to staff security a full eight hours every night, and now that's been cut in half on weeknights, she said. Cameras were installed at front entrances, and she's encouraged tenants to call police whenever they see suspicious activity, which might account for a rise in 911 calls this fall, she speculated.

&#8220We're attacking them at all angles.”

No pizza delivery

Background check or not, all of City Limits' tenants have been turned down for one service: pizza delivery. Sagal Abdi learned this out a couple months ago when she said she was turned down by two pizza chains. Both said they wouldn't send their delivery drivers to the apartment complex.

&#8220I thought ‘What is going on? Is it that bad?'” Abdi said, as her infant son crawled across her, stretching her T-shirt with his tiny hands. &#8220They told me we don't want any of our drivers to get hurt. Who's going to hurt them? They made me paranoid.”

Assaults have occurred at the complex. A 27-year-old mother of three who works as a medical support assistant sat on the arm of her couch one recent afternoon describing how an intruder broke her jaw. The attacker, an ex of hers, pushed in her air conditioner and slipped through the opening, she said.

&#8220There's a lot of crime here. Whether they commit it in the neighborhood, I don't know,” the woman said. She said she doesn't know what the solution is, but &#8220when you charge hood prices, that's the crowd you're going to attract,” she said.

The apartments are subsidized under Section 42, which lowers rent so medium-income workers can, in theory, save up to buy their own homes. In exchange for receiving a government subsidy, the complex is limited in what it can charge. The most expensive apartment is a two-bedroom for $750 a month. It also can only rent to tenants making less than around $35,000.

City Limits' relationship with the city seems to ebb and flow, said City Council Member Scott Benson, whose 11th Ward includes the Windom neighborhood.

&#8220There have been times when management has been very cooperative with the city and periods with less cooperation. I think we're in a cooperative phase right now, so that's good,” Benson said.

The tensions between management and the neighborhood reached a peak in the late 1990s, said Pat Soulak, past president of the Windom Neighborhood Association and a longtime resident of the area.

That's when a wave of drug-related crime started spreading from the complex into the surrounding neighborhood, Soulak said, including burglaries, car thefts and break-ins, and a lot of graffiti. When a dead body turned up at the intersection of 59th and Nicollet one summer, Soulak said the neighborhood demanded the city address the problems.

Calls to City Hall resulted in a police barricade at the apartment entrance, she said. Officers checked IDs, and only residents were allowed to enter the parking lot or buildings. Crime encroached again after the check point was removed, but never returned to the level it was before, Soulak said.

When the apartments' owner, Dominium Apartments, needed to renew a rental license last year, the city held meetings with officials and neighbors and drafted a set of conditions it would have to follow.

Council Member Scott Benson (11th Ward) said his office has heard complaints from tenants in the past. Minneapolis Police in the late '90s put the buildings on lock-down, sitting at the gate and stopping everybody to make sure they were residents before they entered. Things have improved since then, Benson said.

&#8220We were able to work with the management to create a security plan (which went into effect in November 2005), and from what we can tell, I think it's helped significantly,” Benson said.

The council member added that any efforts like the movie night, community garden and community room would be welcome, too.

&#8220Our primary concerns are assuring they have adequate security to maintain a safe environment for their tenants and people who live in the neighborhood,” he said. &#8220Anything else they would do beyond that would be extremely helpful.”

A work in progress

For every complaint, Kvalsten has an answer for what management is doing to fix it. But like the mice and cockroaches the complex was treated for over the summer, the problems aren't going away overnight. A pest control company is at the building every week to continue the battle, Kvalsten said.

A woman in her late 20s sat in her apartment on a recent afternoon, wearing a Timberwolves T-shirt and sipping a Coca-Cola. She wonders whether people will be willing to participate in those plans.

When she rides the bus, she said she hears people call the complex the ghetto or the projects. All the negativity affects residents and makes solving it complicated.

&#8220The main problem is that people don't want to get involved because they think most of their neighbors are criminals,” she said.

It's sad if residents feel that way because that's not the case, Kvalsten said. &#8220It's really a good community of people. Ninety-nine percent of the people who live here are excellent.”

She acknowledged problems in the past, but said changes since she started have had a serious impact.

&#8220I think that things have changed for the better in a short amount of time,” she said. &#8220It's a different world than how it was when I started.”

She encouraged residents to communicate ideas and problems to the office, and to get to know their neighbor's apartment.

There are some &#8220sensible” tenants, said one, a 73-year-old retired mailman and Army veteran, but those people appear to be outnumbered, he said. As he carried a bag of trash to the dumpster, he described the 30 cardboard boxes lining his kitchen and living room walls to deaden the thump of his neighbors' stereos.

&#8220Every floor has one, so I got one to retaliate,” he said. He placed the stereo strategically in a closet to maximize it's intrusion on the next door neighbors.

He wonders if the stereo trick didn't lead to a crueler retaliation. He thinks somebody might have made a false report to police a few days earlier. It was about 8 p.m. on a Sunday night when police knocked at his door, he said. When he let them in, he was placed against the wall and handcuffed by four officers, he said. The police explained they had a call that someone in the apartment was armed and suicidal, he said.

&#8220I'm 73. The first time I've ever been handcuffed,” he said. &#8220I'm counting my days to get out of here, just like in the military.”

Reach Dan Haugen at 436-5088 or [email protected].