Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously described a stipulation in the Park Board superintendent’s lease about public house tours. The lease allows public tours of the home’s main floor for a total of 47.5 hours per month. In practice, tours currently come through the house about 20 hours per month. A clarification has also been made to note that two of the Park Board’s 14 superintendents have been acting supers.
You may not be aware, but as a Minneapolis resident you’re a landlord.
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board owns a large house that it rents to its park superintendents.
Eight of the 12 supers and two acting supers over the years have opted to live in the Dutch Colonial house built in 1910 for Theodore Wirth in Lyndale Farmstead Park. Others already owned a private home locally when they were hired.
Now it’s Al Bangoura’s turn. The superintendent hired in late 2018 originally opted for a short-term lease on the house when he moved back to Minneapolis for the top job. He seems genuinely pleased to be living in the mansion associated with Wirth, who lived and worked there for decades and shaped Minneapolis parks more than any other person.
Our ownership of the mansion makes the Park Board our leasing agent. It sets the rent and terms for the Wirth house and the superintendents who occupy it. As I’ve written previously, the Park Board set the rent for previous superintendent Jayne Miller at $1,154 in 2011 and didn’t increase it for the remaining six years of her tenure. I suspect that many renters in Minneapolis would welcome a six-year rent freeze.
When I asked the Park Board’s then-president Anita Tabb about this lax approach to rent in 2016, she said she’d review the situation once the board finished adopting the next year’s budget. She didn’t. Asked about the situation after he became president in 2018, Brad Bourn said he didn’t expect future superintendents would opt to live in the Wirth house.
But Bangoura did. When he was hired 13 months ago, the board finally addressed the rent issue.
Bangoura has been paying $171 more per month than Miller did. Both rented the second and third floors and the main-floor kitchen. Park staff calculated those same spaces at different square footages in 2011 and 2018, so Bangoura is paying more rent but less per square foot than Miller based on those differing calculations.
Additionally, his lease gives him use of the rest of the main floor of the house — effectively adding more than a thousand square feet to his lease without charging him for it. The Park Board rationale was that public tours of the house use the main floor. But tours currently only come through the house about 20 hours a month, and Bangoura has uninterrupted access the majority of the time.
A superintendent shouldn’t be faulted for getting a good deal on rent. Rather it’s an issue that falls squarely at the board’s feet.
Low rent has implications that go beyond the Park Board’s budget. Charging any superintendent a rate that’s below the market could be construed as extra compensation. In Miller’s case, that would have pushed her over the state compensation cap on local officials in 2016 because she was already at the maximum pay allowed.
There are also tax implications. The IRS regards as taxable compensation any difference between the fair market rent for a residence and what the employee is actually paying. Not keeping the rent up to date could mean a back tax bill for a superintendent. Bourn said he doesn’t think that the rental situation was reported to the IRS.
One Park Board rationale for Bangoura’s rent is that he shouldn’t be charged for the first floor because it’s in public use some times. Another is that having park users sledding down the hill behind the house and playing soccer on an adjacent field give the superintendent less privacy. The third floor tends not to be prime space for occupancy. There are lath boards visible inside some closets. It can be sweltering and require continuous operation of a window air conditioner during some months and be chilly in others.
But offsetting that, views from the house are lovely, including Wirth’s gravesite at nearby Lakewood Cemetery, and the Park Board (and public) pay the utility costs.
The $1,325 monthly rent for the six-bedroom house was guided by the recommendation of a real estate rental consultant. But it seems suspect. Two blocks away, for example, a three-bedroom rental is asking $1,950. Bourn acknowledged that he has paid more for a basement apartment than the superintendent pays for the Wirth house. Moreover, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that Twin Cities area rents between 2013 and 2018 rose by more than 20% — more than the increase between Miller’s 2011 rent and Bangoura’s 2018 rent.
Bangoura’s initial lease was for only 13 months. That was designed was to give him the flexibility to decide whether to keep renting the Wirth house or find other quarters once his family moved here from North Carolina after the end of the last school year. He said in a recent interview that he’d prefer to stay.
“It’s an amazing house,” Bangoura said. “I’m in awe of living there.”
The lease expires on Feb. 17. Joan Berthiaume, who runs the Wirth home tours, met with Park Board staff in November. She said she was told that Bangoura now wants a lease that encompasses the whole house. She said she couldn’t get a straight answer on whether that meant that the Minneapolis Park Legacy Society tours of the building would end. Bourn said that his understanding is also that Bangoura wants exclusive use of the entire house. In that case, Bourn said, the rent should better reflect market conditions. But his successor as board president, Jono Cowgill, will be negotiating that with Bangoura.
The board should take the opportunity offered by a new lease to set a more realistic rent for a house that’s on the National Register of Historic Places and sits in a beautiful patch of greensward. That extra rent could be used to make the third floor more comfortable.