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Steve Meldahl’s Purchase of a Duplex at 414 23rd Ave. N., Minneapolis

Steve Meldahl is a private contractor and property owner who has successfully rehabbed over 250 residential buildings in Minneapolis during a period of 27 years. His purchase of a duplex located at 414 23rd Avenue North in Minneapolis illustrates the City of Minnneapolis’ thorough disregard of the law.

In the spring of 1997, Meldahl bought this building which the city had condemned. He intended to renovate the building and convert it to a four-bedroom, two-bathroom single-family dwelling.

The law requires that condemned buildings be brought up to new-building code. Meldahl went to the offices of the Department of Inspections requesting an inspection of the necessary code compliance. He tendered payment for the inspection.

A department official told Meldahl that the city would not allow the building to be brought up to code until a “249 hearing” was held. Because it was classified as a “nuisance property”, the building and its fate were now in the hands of the Minneapolis City Council. Under the 249 ordinance, the City Council had the power to decide whether a “nuisance property” would be preserved or be demolished at the owner’s expense. It would hold a hearing for that purpose.

At the hearing before the City Council, Meldahl submitted a seven-page list of repairs and renovations which he intended to do on the building. His total cost was $28,000. The city building inspector argued that it would cost $85,000 to $125,000 to do a proper job of renovation and, therefore, Meldahl’s proposal was inadequate.

The president of the City Hall sneered at Meldahl: “We know the quality of the work your crew does. Meldahl invited her and another Council member to inspect one of his recently completed buildings, but they said they were too busy.

This inspector had no documentation for his claim - only a page of scribbled notes which his subordinate had produced.

The City Council decided to tear down the building. Interestingly, because the lot size was several feet shorter than the minimum for “buildable lots”, the building’s demolition meant that no new building could ever be erected on that site. It would forever remain a vacant lot, needing to be maintained at taxpayer expense.
Section 249.10 of the City Housing Maintenance Code states: “because of the need to assure that buildings which are capable of rehabilitation are promptly rehabilitated ... it is the policy of the city to promote rehabilitation of vacant and unoccupied buildings.” Meldahl was clearly capable of rehabilitating such buildings and he had presented a detailed plan for doing so. Yet, the city decided to demolish this duplex, thus violating its own stated “policy”.

Section 249.40(3) of the same ordinance states that, at the 249 hearing, the city should notify the building owner of his or her right to appear at the hearing and “the right to examine witnesses at the hearings”. Meldahl asked to cross-examine the person who had given the city’s estimate of rehabilitation costs but was told that this person was not available. It also requires “(c) that the hearing will be recorded.” No recording was made of this hearing.

Minnesota statute 463.l8 allows the recipient of a demolition order to halt execution of the order by serving the city with an answer stating that the facts of the order were in dispute. Meldahl had the Hennepin County Sheriff serve the city with such notice within the required time period. Yet, two days after being served - on a weekend, no less - the city began demolition of the duplex. In effect, it was destroying the evidence.

Meldahl sued the city in District Court. Judge Diana Egan threw out the case, arguing that Meldahl should have gone immediately to the Minnesota Court of Appeals by writ of certiori instead of following procedures that were prescribed by state law.

The case is now pending in the Court of Appeals. The problem here is that the Court of Appeals generally requires a transcript of lower-court proceedings to make its ruling. In this case, it would need, at least, a transcript or tape recording of the administrative hearing by the Minneapolis City Council. Since that hearing was not recorded, the Court of Appeals has no basis for hearing an appeal. The fact that the City Council violated its own ordinance may actually work to Meldahl’s disadvantage.

The alternative is that the Minnesota Court of Appeals can throw the case back to District Court and to the judge who was originally unwilling to hear it. Either way, the city has a taxpayer-financed staff of 60 attorneys to grind Meldahl down in the appeals process.

It is significant that, after a prolonged binge of tearing down buildings and harassing private landlords, the City of Minneapolis now has a severe shortage of “affordable housing” for low- and middle-income city residents. An estimated 5,000 buildings have been demolished in the last seven to ten years. The city’s solution is to go to the state legislature to ask for tons of money to replenish the housing stock. Needless to say, experienced private contractors like Meldahl, who are not part of the club, will not be on the receiving end of these funds. The big dollars will go to the big-time developers who have ties to city officials, to the attorneys who help the city acquire properties cheaply and “creatively”, to the housing non-profits staffed with ex-city officials, to the municipal-bond sellers who help finance the new construction, etc., etc.

The Minnesota Constitution states that “private property shall not be taken, destroyed or damaged for public use without just compensation therefor, first paid or secured.” While the city’s interpretation of condemnations by eminent domain push the envelope in seeking diminished levels of “just compensation”, measures such as the nuisance-property ordinance (Section 249), designed to circumvent this, propel city government into new avenues of lawlessness on the frontiers of societal decay.

 
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