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Frank Trisko’s Experience with the City

Frank Trisko has owned a 14-unit apartment building at 301-315 17th Ave. N.E. in Minneapolis for more than 25 years. The City of Minneapolis passed a rental-license ordinance in July 1991. Within a month, Frank learned that his building would be one of the first inspected under the program. This was odd since city officials had said that building owners on the ROCCI program (“the worst landlords in town”) and those with many work orders would be inspected first.

Frank had not had a work order since he owned the building. He asked the supervisor of inspectors, Mike Osmonson, about this. Osmonson said Frank should not have been the first to be inspected. He promised to check into it but never called back.

Frank’s building was inspected by Vonne Lanell. The work orders were relatively minor. Frank completed them and received his permanent rental license around August 1991.

A nonprofit corporation, Homespun Housing, Inc., approached Frank about buying the building. Frank was willing to sell it for around $200,000. A representative of Homespun Housing inspected the building thoroughly. He was generally impressed by its maintenance and quality of tenants. However, this organization needed a loan from the Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA) to make the purchase.

On October 12, 1992, Frank received a letter from Homespun Housing informing him that they were unable to go through with the purchase. They said they would have to rehab the building back to the frame and pay relocation costs to the tenants - approximately $4,000 per tenant - which was prohibitively expensive.

In the summer of 1994, Frank was notified by housing inspector, Ricardo Cervantes, that the city intended to do a second rental license inspection on the building because someone had reported a code violation in the hall way or in one of the units. (They would not say what the violation was.) Cervantes and a female inspector did the inspection on February 14, 1995. They came up with a list of 75 work orders.

Most of the work orders pertained to conditions which had passed the first inspection. Among other things, Frank was ordered to put in a solid-core door. He was ordered to raise the handrails on the staircase to the second floor. These handrails were installed when the house was built in 1884 and should have been grandfathered in. The code said that the rails had to be between 30 and 36 inches higher than the steps. Frank contends that his handrails met the requirement but that inspector Cervantes held the tape measure crookedly so that his measurement fell outside the acceptable range.

Inspector Cervantes also ordered the installation of additional fire extinguishers in the building. City code required that there be a fire extinguisher within forty feet of each entrance. Frank had them within ten feet of the entrances, yet Cervantes ordered more fire extinguishers.

Frank complied with most of the orders but appealed the remaining ones to the Housing Board of Appeals. The board suggested that frank and Cervantes try to work things out. The matter also went to Housing Court, with a similar result. More than two years after the inspection, the case seemed to be sitting indefinitely in judicial limbo. After Frank completed the work, it was inspected not by Richardo Cervantes but by two other inspectors, Woody Dixon and Jose Cervantes (Ricardo’s brother). They were not familiar with the work or its rationale.

Inspections officials tell landlords that a rental license inspection means: “You won’t be seeing us again until the next century.” The city is supposed to be doing these inspections systematically so that, at some point, each building in the city is inspected.

Instead, this program seems to be used for punishment of landlords in disfavor. The city has not finished inspecting all the residential housing within its boundaries, yet Ricardo Cervantes was apparently authorized to do a second rental-license inspection on Frank Trisko’s building. Frank suspects this was because the MCDA wanted to acquire it. A typical practice is to harass landlords through inspections until they are willing to sell their property at a low price.

When Ricardo was done with his inspection, he growled at Trisko: “When we get done with you, you’ll either have your rental license or you will have too many points and your license will be revoked.” If the rental license is revoked, it becomes illegal to fill the building with renters. Sometimes that forces the owner to sell at a low price.

It’s interesting that another landlord has accused one of the Cervantes brothers of soliciting a bribe. The matter is now in the courts. Woody Dixon, the inspector supervisor who inspected Frank’s place, has been accused of acquiring a building that he inspected under suspicious circumstances. He illegally occupied this building while it was under a condemnation order. The mayor refuses to do anything but the county attorney has promised to prosecute.

Frank has another complaint -

In January 1994, Frank’s tenants at 301-315 17th Avenue Northeast received a letter from the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority which was signed by Cora McCorvey, its executive director. This letter pointed out opportunities for low-income people to rent apartments in high rises owned by the city under a rent-subsidy program. A person needed only to pay 30% of his or her income for the monthly rent. The letter pointed out that a single person could make up to $27,000 and yet qualify for the program. Two people could have income up to $31,000.

Frank estimates that most of his renters earned $8,000 per year. Virtually all of them qualified under this program. The letter also offered a free gift certificate if the person signed a lease in the next several months with MPHA. The letter referred to “decent, clean” housing available at 41 different locations under the program. A list of locations accompanied the letter.

As a hard-working landlord struggling to survive financially, Frank was upset by this overt, aggressive competition from the subsidized public sector. The high rises owned by public housing do not pay property taxes. For private-sector landlords, the property tax on rental property in Minnesota is relatively high compared with the tax on other categories of property. Minnesota has the second highest property-tax rate on rental housing in the nation.

Assuming that Frank’s tenants had an average annual income of $8,000, the letter promised that such people could rent an efficiency apartment or a one-bedrooom apartment in an MPHA high rise for only $2,4000 per year, or $200 per month. Frank had to charge between $325 and $375 per month for similar housing. The heavily subsidized public sector could afford to compete aggressively on price because it had access to tax dollars.

A veteran landlord, Mel Gregerson (who rented to Garrison Keillor when he was a student at the University of Minnesota), has compiled comparative costs for private and public housing in Minneapolis. He estimates that it costs $901.26 per month to operate a building owned by MPHA compared with $400.00 per month for one owned by a private landlord. A breakdown of the public-sector cost is: $299.53 per month for operating costs, $466.06 per month for debt service, and $135.67 per month for property taxes not collected. Since MPHA owns 6,700 rental units, the excess cost compared with privately owned housing would be more than $40 million per year.

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