Dealing with the problem next door

As the number of vacant homes continues to rise, the Minneapolis Police Department’s 5th Precinct is stepping up efforts to prevent and clean up problem properties

Much of Larry Heller’s three years in Kingfield have been spent keeping an eye on the blue house down the block.

Since mid-September, it’s been the empty house with the big slab of particleboard over the door, but it used to be a lot worse.

"They were selling drugs, people were coming up and down the street driving like crazy, moving too fast," Heller said. "We’ve got kids in this neighborhood, so a lot of people were getting pissed off about it."

Persistent 911 calls from Heller and his neighbors helped bring police and eventually city attention to the property and calm to the 3900 block of Van Nest Avenue.

The Minneapolis Police Department’s 5th Precinct expanded its approach to dealing with such properties this year and is cautiously monitoring a growing number of vacant homes — many of which are the result of a spreading foreclosure epidemic — to prevent future problems.

Tom Thompson, a crime prevention specialist in the Minneapolis Police Department’s 5th Precinct, oversees a problem properties task force that started as a neighborhood-based group in Lyndale and expanded precinct-wide in October. Participants include police, inspections staff, neighborhood leaders, a probation representative and a community attorney.

Thompson has also requested that Southwest residents notify him of vacant and boarded houses in their neighborhoods, so the task force knows where to look for trespassing, drug dealing, fires and other problems that plague abandoned properties.

Insp. Kris Arneson of the 5th Precinct stressed the importance of abating problem properties at the task force’s November meeting.

"Problem properties generate crime," Arneson said. "That is one of the biggest reasons why we need to continue to look at them. And secondly, for those who live in the neighborhoods, they make life miserable."

Defining the problem

Problem properties come in many forms. Some have housing code violations. Others are prone to criminal activity. Perceptions of what a problem property is vary among residents, police and city staff.

The city’s problem property unit, a 10-person citywide group that takes on the most troubled properties in Minneapolis, the ones individual precincts can’t take care of on their own, defines problem properties as those with histories of crime and housing violations, said Kellie Jones, an administrative analyst for the unit. They’re usually the properties that require the work of multiple agencies to clean up, she said.

The unit was working on roughly 30 of those at the start of the month, Jones said, but an influx of foreclosures has detracted from the unit’s focus somewhat this year. At the end of October, the unit was tracking 718 registered vacant or boarded properties, twice as many as last year. Roughly $1 million has been spent on boarding properties alone this year, said Problem Property Unit Director Tom Deegan.

Southwest is home to a tiny fraction of the 718 vacant properties. Only 28 were registered as vacant or boarded in the 5th Precinct at the end of October, but that’s up from a handful in past years. Deegan said vacant properties are more prevalent in some areas, but he’s seeing an increase everywhere.

"Folks that want to believe or have the perception that this is a North Side problem, we’re here to tell you that this is not only a regional problem, this isn’t slowing down," Deegan said.

Representation on the city’s Problem Property Unit is similar to the 5th Precinct’s task force and also includes social services personnel. The inspectors who meet with the 5th Precinct group are part of the city’s unit.

Deegan and Jones said they weren’t up to speed on Southwest’s wider focus on problem properties but said more resources are needed to effectively clean up existing problem houses as potential new ones continue to pop up.

"This is one of those problems that we can’t solve individually as a city or as a neighborhood, even in departments. Regulatory services can’t solve it," Jones said. "We really have to start branching out and forming more partnerships."

Finding a solution

Turning around a problem property often starts with neighbors.

Calls to police or the city’s 311 call center can get a property on the city’s radar, Deegan said, but depending on the type of problems, a property can take years to clean up.

East Calhoun resident Ruth Elaine Hane has lived next door to a deteriorated vacant house for years. Pigeons roost in the collapsing back porch, it’s had problems with vagrants and the yard looked so bad that she used to mow it herself. The house was recently boarded.

"The frustration of course is the blight in the neighborhood," said Hane, who was also worried about the possibility of fire.

Thompson and Deegan are aware of the property, but because it is not causing as many problems as others and the owner has arranged a payment plan through Hennepin County, there’s not much that can be done at the moment.

Deegan said living next to a boarded house drops property values 15 percent on average, and giving owners of troubled properties an opportunity to make improvements can be a long and frustrating process for neighbors, but everyone deserves a chance.

"We need to be respectful of that," Deegan said.

When the city’s Problem Property Unit decides to take on a problem property, it notifies the owner and sets up a meeting to develop an action plan to turn the situation around. In the worst scenarios, owners lose their properties.

The 5th Precinct’s task force is still determining how it will function throughout the precinct.

Currently, Thompson places properties in one of two categories: proactive or reactive. Vacant properties with no problems are being monitored, and the task force is working to clean up those generating complaints. The group was in the process of deciding how to prioritize its property lists.

When the precinct is notified of a problem property, police will survey the house or business and conduct a "knock and talk" with the owner to inform them of the issues.

If drugs or other criminal activity is suspected, police might send informants to the property to make buys. Karen Green, the 5th Precinct’s officer specializing in those operations, said she’s had recent successes, such as the boarding of a building at 2912 Pleasant Ave.

Green said many problems are solvable before getting to the point of using informants. Neighborhood awareness is key, she said.

"Neighbors should be putting pressure on the (problem) landlords," she said.

A constant watch

Heller’s block put pressure on the owner of the blue house at 3943 Van Nest for more than a year.

They kept track of cars, license plates and faces on the street, took photos, called 911 frequently and notified city inspectors of the house. They started attending neighborhood crime meetings.

Eventually, police were regularly driving past the house. Police responded to 20 incidents at the address during the past year. A letter of intent to condemn the property by October if improvements weren’t made was sent to the owner at the end of August, after city inspectors found the house uninhabitable.

But before the city could close it up, police responded to a call Sept. 19 from neighbors who reported people in the house after the owner had opted to vacate it. Police boarded it up that night to prevent further trespassing.

Heller said he can walk down his street without worrying about speeding cars, fights or drug dealing these days, but he still has a habit of keeping an eye on the house. It’s not one he wants to break.

"If we did nothing, you know made a call once every other month, they’d still be there," Heller said. "It has to be a consistent thing going on."