Minneapolis Property Owners Action Committee (later Property Rights) began in 1994 when two or three landlords got together and talked about about problems of being an inner-city landlord in Minneapolis. They soon realized that they could not fight these problems alone. They had to reach out to other property owners who faced the same situation. They had to get organized.
Recruits were not hard to find. Passing out flyers and button-holing fellow landlords in hardware stores, building-supplies stores, or the Housing Court, this initial group of two or three landlords soon grew to two or three dozen persons who gathered together for a gripe session twice a month at an office in south Minneapolis. There they poured their hearts out to each other - the horror stories flowed freely. They decided to sue the city of Minneapolis for its uneven and, at times, incompetent inspections program.
Charlie Disney, moderator of these gripe sessions, emerged as the groups leader . Disney was a former stockbroker and state champion table-tennis player. He became well-known locally as proprietor of Disneys table tennis center on Lake Street, which, for twenty-five years, gave instruction in table tennis and brought some of the worlds top players to Minneapolis for exhibition matches. Disney later became President of the U.S. Table Tennis Association. (He had a brush with history in being involved with the national group at a time when ping pong diplomacy established relations between the United States and mainland China.)
In these years, crime had hit hard along Lake Street. Intimidated by criminals, people stopped coming to practice table tennis at Disneys place. The center was forced to close. Having bought five duplexes in south Minneapolis, Disney was now experiencing the travails of the Minneapolis inner-city landlord. He found himself leading a group of individuals reviled as slumlords and absentee landlords in the citys political culture. Unfazed, Disney and his associates pushed on.
What kinds of problems were these landlords facing? First of all, drug dealers were pouring into Minneapolis from places like Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Gary, Indiana, attracted to Minneapolis by relatively high prices for crack cocaine and relatively low rates of imprisonment. They were recruiting persons to front for them to rent rooms in apartment buildings where they could sell crack. They were also openly selling drugs on the streets. The homocide rate tripled, reaching a peak in 1995. The city was nicknamed Murderapolis.
The city police and government officials seemed at a loss to deal with this situation. What strategy did they adopt? They decided to blame landlords for the crime problem. The citys community policing policy - a nice-sounding name - was, in fact, a public-relations offensive aimed at persuading neighborhood associations, block clubs, and other community groups that crime in their neighborhood was due to uncaring, irresponsible landlords who had neglected to screen applicants properly. Crime was attributed to problem properties owned by these individuals and not to the persons who actually committed criminals acts.
The landlords struck back on talk radio questioning the idea that buildings cause crime and that tearing down buildings eliminates crime. On Labor Day weekend, 1996, they held a press conference on the corner on 19th and Portland in south Minneapolis, reputedly the worst site of open-air drug dealing in the city. The point was obvious: Landlords were being held to high standards for policing crime in their buildings while drug dealers plied their illegal trade quite openly on busy street corners as police squad cars whizzed by.
Several of the local TV stations sent crews to cover the event. The Star Tribunes ace reporter, Kevin Diaz, was on hand as well. It so happened that gunshots were heard down the street just as the press conference got underway. The landlords were off and running! They even received a letter from the Governor of Minnesota commending them for their civic diligence.
Things were not going so well on the legal front, however. A federal judge threw out their class-action lawsuit against the city. This had been the groups reason for being. The landlord movement needed to reinvent itself.
One of its members, a school teacher named Mike Wisniewski, proposed to videotape the groups meetings. Instead of meeting once every two weeks in a real-estate office, the landlords began to hold monthly meetings in the community room of Whittier neighborhood park. Now they were in show biz! Wisniewski had connections with the Minneapolis cable-access station. First hundreds, then thousands of city residents tuned in to hear Disney and his friends vent their anger against Minneapolis city officials.
The first picketing event took place on the sidewalk in front of Minneapolis City Hall (next to Hubert Humphreys bronze statue) in the winter of 1997. A dozen or so Property Rights members turned out. So did reporters from public radio and the newspaper.
Next the group picketed the Mayors state of the city address at a school in south Minneapolis. When city officials held a town meeting at the armory in northeast Minneapolis, the first six witnesses were all landlords. The same type of thing happened at the county boards annual meeting. Disney and his crew were starting to irritate some important people.
With so many well-placed enemies, the logical next move was to go into politics. The landlords formed a political-action committee which held a number of meetings. Actually, this venture was not so successful. The PAC was at odds with Charlies group and eventually was dissolved. Yet, the 1997 city elections were too important for the landlords to ignore.
At this time there was a popular hostess of a radio talk show named Barbara Carlson, who came on in the morning on KSTP-AM just after Jesse Venturas show. As a former Minneapolis City Council President and the Governors ex-wife who had just published a tell-all book about their life together, she was quite a character. Carlson also knew something about the rental-property business in Minneapolis since her step-son had recently invested in an apartment building and lost his shirt.
Barbara Carlson came to one of the landlords monthly meetings, listened to the horror stories, and, a day or two later, told the press that she was considering running for Mayor.
This was quite a bold step since Minneapolis is basically a one-party town. (The mayor and twelve of thirteen City Council members were DFLers - Democrats.) Carlson would be running as an Independent - a non-Democrat - most Republicans having long since fled to the suburbs. Carlson did eventually decide to run. The landlord group, of course, backed her.
The Carlson campaign is, perhaps, best remembered for an incident that occurred at a candidates debate in north Minneapolis. The debate was held at a cafe which has a largely African-American clientelle. The incumbent mayor, an African-American, enjoyed its support. Undaunted, Charlie Disney and a handful of supporters and friends came to the meeting displaying signs that were interpreted as being uncomplimentary to the mayor. One of the signs read: A vote for Sharon is a vote for crime.
were relatively calm during the meeting, but, afterwards, a female supporter
of the mayor confronted a female supporter of Barbara Carlson who was
carrying signs back to her car. Soon the mayors supporter was
pulling the Carlson backers hair.
At that point the mayors personal bodyguard stood in front of the husbands car, blocking the escape route. The husband yelled at him to get out of the way. When the husband thought he had a clear path out of the parking lot, he gunned it out of the parking lot. The bodyguard then pulled out his gun and started shooting at the fleeing car.
Once home, the husband was honest or stupid enough to call the Minneapolis police to make a report concerning this incident. The police promptly paid him a visit, impounded his car, and hauled him off to jail.
There was an official investigation as the citys spinmeisters claimed that the husband had tried to run over the gun-toting bodyguard. Quietly, the husband was released from jail and received his car back. No charges were ever filed.
Anxious to defuse a racially explosive situation, both the Mayor and Barbara Carlson pleaded for harmony. Charlie Disney put his controversial sign back into storage. The incumbent Mayor went on to win the election by a 55% to 45% margin.
That was not the last clash between Disney and Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. In April of 1998, there was a grisley murder at an apartment building located at 1818 Park Avenue in south Minneapolis. An elderly woman named Ann Prazniak was found dead in her room that had been taken over by some drug users. Her decomposing body was found stuffed in a cardboard box in the closet. The neighborhood was extremely upset. A meeting took place in a house across the street (coincidently, belonging to the couple who had involved in the election-related altercation described above.)
At this meeting, the City Council member for the area, Jim Niland, blamed the landlord for tolerating crime in his building. If the landlord did not clean up the problem soon, he said, the city would descend on him like a ton of bricks. A day later, there were reports on television that rats had been spotted in the building - a sure sign that city inspectors would soon strike to close down the building. The landlords decided to act.
Since the building had been sold to a new owner two weeks earlier, most reasonable complaints of negligence would fall upon the previous owner. Disney and cohorts quizzed the previous owner at some length. Had he screened tenants properly? Had he neglected maintenance on the building? Had he forgotten to fix the locks? Convinced that the landlord was clean, the landlords decided to hold a press conference in the hallway outside the Mayors office at Minneapolis city hall.
Their press release said that Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee had 500 members. Fortuitously, reporters interpreted this to mean that 500 angry landlords would be descending on the Mayors office. The Mayor graciously offered use of the conference room next to her office for the landlord-led press conference. Several television camera crews showed up as did the citys leading newspaper reporters.
The Mayor herself was on hand for the event. So was the City Council member from the crime-ridden area. Disney began to interrogate the previous owner of the apartment building, asking specific questions about how he had managed the building at 1818 Park Avenue. Disney invited those in attendance to ask questions of their own. It was supposed to be a fact-finding session.
The Mayor asked to speak. For five minutes or so, she spoke in general terms about how everyone ought to pull together; about how there were both good and bad landlords and tenants and the city was ready to help solve problems that they might have. Having made her appeal for harmony, the Mayor started to leave the room.
One of the landlords, Bill McGaughey, spoke next. He said that, in this particular case, it was not a matter or good or bad landlords and tenants, but of thugs and criminals from the street who had broken into a womans apartment. He cited the ordinance which asigned the city police responsibility for law enforcement in the city. City ordinances, he said, also gave the Mayor authority to deputize citizens in the case of emergency; but she had chosen not to do so. It was the polices job to stop crime, then, not landlords. There was thunderous applause in the room as McGaughey finished his remarks. The Mayor beat a hasty retreat.
Once the flood-dam had burst, some of the tenants at 1818 Park Avenue asked to speak. One after another, they bitterly denounced the lack of law enforcement in their neighborhood. They complained of political pressures to deal with crime by emptying out buildings. Law-abiding tenants such as themselves were being made homeless because the city could not control the crime situation.
About this time, there was pushing and shoving in the back of the room. Reportedly, the Mayors bodyguard (the same one who had fired the shots in the cafe parking lot) told some of the spectators to move from the doorway next to her office. The situation threatened to get ugly.
The Mayor now had a major public-relations problem on her hand. To ease the situation, the Mayors chief of staff pledged that the Mayor herself would go to 1818 Park on the following day to talk to residents about their problems. All this was reported in a front-page story in the Star Tribune newspaper.
The Mayor did keep her commitment. She did go to the troubled apartment building. In the end, however, all the tenants were forced out of the building. To ease their pain, the city had arranged for them to be put up for a week in a suburban motel while they looked for other housing. (Because of the Minneapolis housing shortage, it normally takes dislocated tenants three to four months to find another apartment.) Not everyone was happy.
Meanwhile, Charlie Disney and company were keeping up the pressure on the city in other ways. They eagerly embraced the concept of a Minneapolis crack tour originally proposed by John De Vries and other block-club leaders in Phillips neighborhood. These neighborhood activists had put together a pamphlet that looked like a travel brochure, promising that tourists in south Minneapolis could see plenty of drug dealers on the street. Sure enough, the drug dealers were there.
Charlie Disney and another landlord conducted about twenty-five such tours during the next two to three years. Posing as thrill-seeking visitors from the suburbs, these landlords cruised the streets of Phillips neighborhood in a shiny new van. In the back of the van were the real tourists: state legislators, judges, county commissioners, even a U.S. Congressmen, traveling incognito. Seldom did the group return empty-handed. Sometimes the drug dealers even climbed into the van to discuss terms. Of course, the fruits of these negotiations were never consummated.
Charlies group even went so far as to invite members of the Democratic National Convention to take the crack tour when its site location committee came to Minneapolis to check out the city as a prospective host of the 2000 convention. None of these people took the tour.
This leads us to the time that Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee and its allies shut down a meeting of the Minneapolis City Council. It happened on the weekend before the 1998 elections. The group had with them two gubernatorial candidates from minor parties as well as other candidates for statewide office from various parties. There were, of course, the usual landlord suspects at this event as well.
The occasion for the protest was that the City of Minneapolis had revoked the rental-license of a landlord who had received (actually he hadnt received) three warning letters from CCP/SAFE, which is the political/ public relations arm of the Minneapolis police department. Again, this landlord was supposedly tolerating crime. So his building had to be shut down and all the tenants evicted.
Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee wrote a letter to request a meeting with the SAFE officer involved in this case. They went to SAFEs downtown headquarters at the appointed time. The officer herself happened to be taking a vacation day then. Her supervisor appeared instead. Bull horn in hand, the protesters first rallied outside the police building and then walked inside to talk with the supervisor. This meeting went nowhere, so the protesters next walked a block or so to City Hall where the City Council was in session. They learned that the Council had already voted to revoke the landlords license.
The shutdown began meekly enough. The protesters sat for awhile in silence as the City Council worked its way through the agenda, stonily ignoring their presence. Charlie Disney wanted to put a little more ummph in the event. He suggested to his group that they rise from their seats and start marching around the back of the Council chambers with their signs, picket-style. Soon twenty to thirty persons were engaged in this circular walk. Still, the Council stonily attended to its business.
At this point, one of the protesters shouted: Hey, theres a demonstration going on there. The President of the City Council banged her gavel: This is our meeting, youre disturbing our meeting. Baloney, shouted one of the protesters, its our meeting. Looks of befuddlement passed over the faces of the City Council members. The silent buzzer was sounded and police arrived. There was an eery standoff, neither side making a move.
For half an hour, the Council members huddled with each other as if discussing strategies to deal with the disruption. Ultimately, the President announced that the second-ranking council member would make a report on the rental-license revocation. There was some give-and-take and a few angry exchanges when the City Council member called the landlord in question a liar. Then the protesters dispersed.
In the newspaper account of this event, the President of the City Council characterized the protesters as fringe people who must have recruited the others picketers on the street.
Because the major TV and radio stations (with one exception) did not send reporters to this event, the landlords themselves publicized the event by videotaping it and showing it repeatedly on cable TV. Soon other groups were starting to become more militant. Political activists in Minnesota were getting more ummph.
In the latest phase, politically active persons in Minneapolis-St. Paul and surrounding areas discovered that there was an affordable housing crisis as the vacancy rate for rental housing hovered around 1 percent. Many housing advocates wanted more money from the state to build new housing. The landlords take on the situation was that the citys binge in demolishing rental units to fight crime was, at least, partially responsible for the housing crisis.
So Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee has led the charge against the citys tearing down buildings. When the citys community development agency purchased and demolished a tri-plex at 3330 Chicago, the landlords staged a mock funeral for the building even as bulldozers were working to clear the lot. When a 10-unit apartment building at 2727 Chicago Avenue owned by a large housing non-profit was scheduled to be demolished, the landlords again staged a picketing event. This last protest was co-sponsored by the Minnesota Tenants Union.
So, you see, even though landlords and tenants do have their differences, the thrust of this landlord movement is not to protest or agitate against tenants, as many suppose, but against abusive city government. They are protesting a political system that acts as a predator upon private landlords. If there are problem tenants and problem properties as the citys political culture claims, there is also such a thing as problem city government.
Though fighting City Hall is not a venture guaranteed to make friends, Charlie Disney and company have been forced into that posture. The landlords in Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee are not ones to flee to the suburbs to escape big-city problems. Pariahs though we may be in the vibrant, diverse fabric of Minneapolis city politics, we landlords have at least learned to stand and fight. For nice Minnesotans, this may not be the easiest thing to do.