Residents raise concerns about housing inspections

Southwest residents may have noticed shiny red fire trucks lumbering through their alleys this summer as city housing inspectors have enlisted the fire department to help conduct nuisance sweeps in Southwest’s 7th, 11th and 13th wards.

"Not only have we been in Southwest, but the Minneapolis Fire Department has been down there, too," said District Manager Janine Atchison, who supervises sweeps in Southwest. "[They] look for issues during down time."

In between emergencies and training, fire fighters cruise the streets searching for overgrown brush, junk in people’s yards and other nuisances. "Our only role is to call [violations] in to 311," explained Fire Marshall Dave Dewall.

In addition to sweeps conducted by housing inspections and the Fire Department, violations are also taken anonymously over the phone. Anyone — regardless of whether he or she lives in Minneapolis — can call 311 and send out an inspector to check on problems with a resident’s house.

Some neighbors are worried that violation reports have become unfair and excessive.

"I’ve been seeing many, many more red, yellow and orange placards on doors, in Kingfield and Central and Whittier, than I used to see," wrote one Kingfield resident on the Minneapolis Issues List. "Who has decided on this over-enforcement and why?"

According to authorities, there are five inspectors covering areas in Southwest and roughly four fire trucks could be patrolling the 7th, 11th or 13th ward on any given day.

Atchison doesn’t consider it to be over-enforcement — in fact, they’ve been pretty successful cleaning up the city. From May 1 to Sept. 10, housing inspectors found 3,900 interior, exterior and nuisance violations, which is just 300 less than the number of reports during the same time last year when the city decided to step up inspections.

It’s a different story, however, when your house is the target.

Barbara Shefland-Portesan has it rough. According to a letter she wrote the Southwest Journal, her ex-husband no longer pays child support or health insurance for their 13-year-old daughter; she had to shell out thousands of dollars to put her kid through private school because the public school near her home is full; and she has a herniated disk in her neck.

On top of her financial and physical woes, Shefland-Portesan regularly receives letters from the city’s inspections division about "nuisances" in or around her Linden Hills home. Most recently, inspectors ordered her to move a tire, storm door and sheet that were leaning against the side of her house. Another letter instructed her to scrape and paint the trim around her windows, door and garage, replace cracked glass and landscape her backyard, which has been worn down by her two dogs. She was given six weeks to fix the violations.

"I’m a single mom with a low income," she wrote. "They sent me these letters with no telephone contact to me first. They have no idea my finances, or heath, at this time."

Atchison insists that the city is sensitive to those with money problems. "Every letter we send out also has in it a resource list," she says. "We work with all kinds of groups that provide assistance."

Shefland-Portesan, who works as a secretary, already took out a loan from the Center for Energy and Environment (CEE), an organization that works with Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds to improve properties, in May. "I can’t afford to take out another loan," she said.

In response to her complaints, the city gave her a time extension until Oct. 31, which Atchison says they’re usually happy to do. "Of course, we don’t want to penalize people who are getting this work done."

Shefland-Portesan moved the nuisance items into her garage and took a $500 cash advance out on her credit card to pay someone to paint her trim and replace the broken windowpane. She had just taken out the (CEE) loan to have central air conditioning and a new furnace installed and wasn’t expecting to have pay for more home improvements so soon.

Even more troubling for Shefland-Portesan is the order to landscape her backyard. The small patch of land has been worn down to packed dirt, but due to a 7-foot cedar fence, no one can see it but her.

Shefland-Portesan doesn’t think that any of her neighbors reported the violations, but that a housing inspector who visited her home to issue permits for her new central air conditioner may have decided to single her out.

Not likely, Atchison says. "When the inspector is going through that alley, going down that street, they take a look at all the houses on that block and maybe even in a two block area," she explained.

But Shefland-Portesan’s garage looks like a palace compared to her next-door neighbor’s peeling garage, yet they haven’t been ordered to repaint.

"As far as I’m concerned, the city is negligent," she said. "Whose standards are we going by?"

Contact Mary O’Regan at [email protected] or 436-5088.