City seeking neighbors help in dealing with blighted properties

Southwest has managed to stay comparatively clear of foreclosures, demolitions and the blight that has been rampant in North Minneapolis.

So much so that a letter sent Sept. 17 to the city’s neighborhoods asking them to waive a 45-day review period before the city can take control of blighted properties had some questioning why the letter was even necessary.

Elfric Porte, the city’s manager of single-family housing, said that the letter was sent to every neighborhood. Porte said that the 45-day waiting period can sometimes stifle the city’s chance to purchase homes because they may go up for auction in between monthly board meetings.

He further argued that if the city purchases a blighted property (defined as a deteriorated single-family home valued at less that $150,000), it would have to answer to neighborhoods. Whereas other, possibly unscrupulous, agencies would not.

Still, the city’s somewhat confusing letter raised questions.

“Why would this trickle down to us?” asked Fulton Neighborhood Association (FNA) member Morgan Clawson at FNA’s Oct. 8 meeting.

Southwest has relatively few problem properties compared to other parts of the city.

None of the city’s 950 reported vacant or boarded properties is located in Fulton, and only 32 in are in the whole of Southwest, according to city figures. Of those, half are located in Whittier neighborhood. Whittier is also the only Southwest neighborhood to have a problem property demolished in recent history.

But while the Fulton board had no problems with waiving the 45-day review period, Armatage opted not to.

“There’s a reason there’s a waiting period,” Armatage resident Shevvi Crowley said at an Oct. 22 neighborhood meeting. “Slowing the process down and making sure everyone is on board is not a bad experience, in my opinion.”

Crowley, a 13-year Armatage resident, hasn’t seen any blight in the neighborhood lately.

And while foreclosure notices may not be that noticeable on Southwest homes, they are still there.

Of the 2,304 foreclosures reported by the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office from January–September 2008, about 10 percent have occurred in Southwest neighborhoods. Whitter, again, accounts for the most with 34.

But how has Southwest managed to largely avoid the housing crisis?

While it is easy to point to Southwest’s demographics of possibly more moneyed residents and fewer renters, experts say the answer may not be that simple.

“It has a lot of different pieces to it,” said Mike Vraa.

Vraa has studied the nationwide housing epidemic for the last two years while working as a managing attorney for the South Minneapolis-based tenant advocate group Minnesota HOME Line.

“You’ll see this all over the Unites States — it seems to be like a disease almost when it happens,” he said of foreclosures. “It hits one neighborhood and starts to spread, and next thing you know two blocks have become completely foreclosed when three blocks over there [are none].”

Vraa said Southwest, like the North Side, has “pockets” where renters and homeowners do not have the resources to pay what they owe. He also said that many of the owners he has worked with were under the false impression — oftentimes from the Sheriff’s office, and even banks — that they would be better off vacating the property sooner rather than later.

“You can’t always just say those are the poor people over there and those are the rich people,” he said. “It does start to affect the house next door, and there’s no hiding from it.”

Despite the relative lack of foreclosed, vacant and boarded properties in Southwest, there remains a bit of confusion amongst neighborhood boards about how much of a say neighborhoods would have if they signed the waiver.

Porte said that even if a neighborhood waives its right to the 45-day review period, it could take back that decision simply by sending another letter rescinding its decision. If a neighborhood opts not to sign the proposed waiver, Community Planning and Development (CPED) would have to go to a neighborhood board before it buys a home, aside from those owned by Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Hennepin County.

Which Crowley said is a good thing.

Her experiences living in neighborhoods similar to Armatage in both Milwaukee and Atlanta told her to speak up against the waiver, when others on the board seemed OK with it.

“I don’t understand the haste to say we’ll waive it because it sounds good,” she said. “I was surprised that they wanted to waive it without any more information.”

As of Oct. 23, Porte said he has only received two waivers from Southwest neighborhoods — Kenwood and Tangletown — but he has yet to file the letter from Armatage declining. He said that he was surprised more neighborhoods haven’t come to him with questions but said he was open to any who would.