Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Body Cavity Searches! Bunk Dope! Bizarre Criminal Accusations Against Councilmember Don Samuels! Public Safety Committee Meets THE PUBLIC!
400 31st Ave. N, Photo by John Hoff
Are all City Council committee meetings this much fun? I might have to go more often...
It was actually kind of spontaneous that I went at all. Jeff Skrenes of HACC had to go, and we were talking on the phone. He had no residents to take with him--the Polish lady was feeling under the weather and Patty Cake was working--so I volunteered to show up and say what needed to be said about 400 31st Ave. N:
It is a scorched, hulking ruin, whose dark windowless eyes gaze down balefully upon our hopeful little eco-village tree farm. It literally blocks the sun from shining, which is not surprising: a woman tried to kill herself in this building by setting a pile of clothing on fire. What did "the voices" tell HER about the house which the present owners have failed to heed? Squirrels may value 400 31st Ave. N. as a place to hide nuts, the Polish woman's cat may have been drawn to its depressing aura as a place to go crawl and die, but this house is (as they say in Dixieland) "all lived out."
These were things I was prepared to say if allowed to take the podium, but there were rules in effect about what could go before the Public Safety and Regulatory Committee. The person appealing could make arguments but NOT present new evidence. Folks who had a non-ownership interest in the fate of the property were relegated to "peanut gallery" status.
Allegations Of A Vendetta By Council Member Don Samuels
We had to wait a long time for our agenda item, (No. 13) but we were highly entertained by Agenda Item No. 11, which took a bizarre turn. Morris Klock, owner and manager of 1422 Golden Valley Road, a rental property, was facing revocation of his license.
The revocation was based on bad conduct on the premises...bagging up marijuana, shooting off an assault rifle, that kind of thing.
First of all, Klock claims he is only the manager and not the owner. He didn't explain this supposed inaccuracy in the procedural record, merely asserted it to be the case. His first argument--if you want to call it that--was to reach into an over-sized padded envelope--commenting in a shaky, nervous voice on something he brought inside Council Chambers, despite there being security in the City Hall building.
I had a fleeting thought about whether it might be good to hit the deck at this point, but the item I saw emerging from the envelope looked like...a bag of chewing tobacco.
Oh, yes, and it was. Klock seemed quite triumphant about this fact. With no metal detector on the premises, no search at the door of Council Chambers, by stealth and cunning he had managed to bring in a plastic bag of tobacco. Klock tried to assert the item probably looked suspicious. I thought it probably looked like tobacco. A bag of PARSLEY, SAGE, ROSEMARY and/or THYME, now that would have looked suspicious.
The chair, Don Samuels, kept wanting to get Klock to his point, whatever it might be. There was quite a bit of referral to the attorney advising the council about what sort of things Klock was allowed to say, whether he was allowed to introduce new evidence and what exactly was the definition of "new evidence."
Klock kept clawing his way through a procedural thicket he didn't appear to fully comprehend, but seemed to adapt to by trial and error, finally getting to the crux of his argument, which was not so much an argument but an accusation:
Don Samuels, the chair of this very committee, had supposedly been in a confrontation with Klock at a North Minneapolis bakery. Supposedly, Samuels had grappled with Klock, had detained Klock from leaving, had imprisoned poor Klock in the bakery like a gingerbread man to await who knew what fearful fate?
During this incident, allegedly and supposedly, Samuels had vowed to get Klock's rental licensed revoked because the property in question was bringing down the values of Samuels' own properties. And this was the reason we were here, today. Yes, there it was. It was all a vendetta by Samuels, the chair of the committee! (Klock seemed to expect gasps from the crowd, a Perry Mason moment as the true villain was revealed!!!!! Um, he didn't get any of that)
Klock wanted a police report made. Oh, yes!
Klock turned to the officers in council chambers. He pointed out he was making this accusation of assault, and a report should be made. They would "have to be brave." They should take his report and let the chips fall where they may.
The way it all shook out...Samuels abstained on the vote. The rest of the council voted to revoke the rental license. Klock went out in the hallway and was never seen again, but apparently a police officer did take the odd little report as an alternative to catching Klock with a butterfly net. I saw the whole thing as bizarre and unlikely, PARTICULARLY when taken in the context of Klock's supposed "management plan" for the building.
No male guests, full body cavity searches for females
Klock claims there was a method to his madness, and it was all revealed with the baggie of tobacco prop. Oh, yes! There is no way to keep drugs out of a rental building in North Minneapolis. No, not unless you strip searched everybody. (Klock was saying "strip searched" but the Findings of Fact reveal his purported "management plan" involved full body cavity searches, but only of females. No male guests would be allowed)
The city's position is that days after a "management plan" was due, Klock submitted a scheme which was "grossly deficient, unrealistic and wholly unenforceable" and included "a provision to ban male visitors and perform full body cavity searches on visitors."
Klock said he was making a point about the impossibility of keeping drugs out of a building. But, I kept wanting to ask, where did Klock get the notion the plan had to be PERFECT? Or that the result had to be PERFECT? The city was all the time asking for a plan, not perfection. The city wasn't asking Klock to eliminate sin, but control secular crime to a reasonable (perhaps not perfect) degree. Klock's whole take on the matter was just...bizarre and eccentric. Somebody needs to talk about their issues, and I don't mean with rental property.
Fairly Bad Stuff At 1422 Golden Valley Road
What was all the fuss about, anyway? What was so bad about the building in the first place?
On March 17, 2007, a resident of Apartment #1 was shot in the head when somebody from Apartment #4 fired an assault rifle in the building. Police described holes and bullet fragments. It really sounded like Apartment #4 would not be getting their damage deposit back.
Then, on March 5, 2008, Minneapolis police served an outstanding arrest warrant on Bobby Fairly, known to reside in Apartment #2. Cops found his cousin, Jesse Fairly, in the rear of the premises with "numerous baggies of marijuana in his possession." Bobby Fairly was also discovered there, asleep, and more marijuana was found in baggies on a kitchen table.
How much marijuana? Exactly 51.93 grams. Anything in excess of 42.5 grams is not a "small amount" under Minnesota law.
So that's the kind of bad stuff which has caught the attention of city government. Did Don Samuels take this quirky little slumlord and put him in a headlock while the gumdrop eyes of gingerbread men looked on, horrified? Golly, I sure hope so. I always did admire Don Samuels. Now I think I like him twice as much. Really, if somebody could take the slumlords aside and have a heart-to-heart talk with them from the business end of a headlock, maybe North Minneapolis would be in much better shape.
Did He Bring A Note From His Doctor?
After some interminable and tedious discussion about city employees raising money to help local charities on their off hours, while possibly wearing their uniforms (the horror, the horror) we finally got back to the good part of the floor show: slumlords being thrown to the lions.
First up was Leroy Smithrud, the owner of 2400 Dupont Ave. N. and, ironically, a member of the Housing Committee for the Hawthorne Area Community Council. Smithrud, looking like a jolly and harmless fellow in old-fashioned denim overalls, had a number of cards to play:
1.) Numerous physical ailments which had kept him from being on top of things and performing fixes. What were some of those things needing fixing? Try 38 open housing violations, including my personal favorite: illegal wiring. The building has been vacant since January, 2004 and hasn't had a rental license since May, 2003.
WORD ON THE STREET is Smithrud used to kick a little money back to his tenants to keep them from telling housing inspectors about code violations. Lately, the building is reportedly full of old junk like washing machines.
2.) He is a longtime member of the neighborhood association. This whole matter is being pushed by Council Member Diane Hofstede.
At this point I was telling Jeff, "I'd be happy to get up there and rebut that. Somebody from Hawthorne should defend Hofstede on this point." In fact, it is the Hawthorne Area Community Council itself which is in support of seeing the building demolished. The fact Smithrud sits on the Housing Committee simply provides a rich irony, and shows how closely intertwined our relationships are in the neighborhood.
In this particular instance, Hofstede is simply doing what the neighborhood wants done. She didn't cook up this scheme or push it on her own. It is the neighborhood itself which is fed up.
3.) The building could be fixed up and people could live in it!
Yes, and some of those people were present in council chambers. Fresh from their defeat at 3101 6th St. N, Community Justice Partners was once again trying to obtain a building for the neighborhood-based rehabilitation of felons. Their hearts are in the right place, but I worry about what they can pull off in reality since they can't even keep their website updated. So how will they maintain a building full of felonious tenants with extreme needs?
In fact, 2400 Dupont Ave. N. has lost its "nonconforming use" rights under the current zoning and can no longer legally be an apartment complex without a variance. The neighborhood association is dead set against granting a variance. If CJP obtains this building, they would be depending on a miracle instead of rooting their plan in reality, but my observations tell me this is precisely what they intend to do.
(That's not necessarily a criticism, merely my observation)
The building in question has had two fires. The city's Findings of Fact in the matter contained this interesting nugget: Of the 944 houses on the city's Vacant Building Registration, 140 are in the Hawthorne Neighborhood.
With very little discussion, actually, the city council voted unanimously to demolish the building. The CJP folks appeared stunned. They looked prepared to take the podium and make their impassioned arguments. One woman said, "That's it?" She couldn't believe it. Demolition by the sound of calm voices saying, "Aye." This is how the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.
City Council Says "Whoa, Nelly!" To Kleindl Empire
The averages were pretty glum when the Kleindl family came to the podium with their attorney, Laura Hage, to defend 400 31st. Ave. N. Every single building had been relegated to the bulldozers by a unanimous vote, plus there was the whole clock-cleaning incident with Morris Klock.
Hage laid out her case with lawyerly care, pressing those facts which were most helpful to her and minimizing those facts which cut the other way. But Don Samuels--I'm crazy about that guy!--got one of her arguments in a headlock. Hage had tried to use the damage estimate of the City Fire Department while minimizing the expertise of the city's housing inspectors. But reality was just the other way around: the Fire Department was just documenting its operations and throwing out a ballpark figure of damages. Theirs was the estimate to be thrown out, and the inspectors had the estimate to be trusted.
The difference in estimates was notable. The Kleindl family said the building would take $30,000 to fix, but they were prepared to come up with twice that, if necessary. The city was saying fixing stuff up to code would take in excess of $100,000.
Hage kept trying to press her strongest point: the Kleindls had just obtained the building. They hadn't been given any opportunity to fix it. But what did the Kleindl's mean, exactly, by fixing the building? Slap on some paint and wallpaper, it seems.
Kleindl estimate to put in kitchen cabinets: $800.
Kleindl estimate to fix the floors: $1,000.
Kleindl estimate for structural problems: There were no structural problems.
Young Mr. Kleindl claimed he wanted to fix up the house and live in it PERSONALLY in order to keep an eye on his rental properties, instead of driving to North Minneapolis every day from Elko, Minnesota, which was costing him $1,000 a month in gas. The fact he didn't live in North Minneapolis and yet was buying up everything in sight hardly endeared him to Council Member Barbara Johnson.
Johnson, whose staff pulled together the data which became the federal indictment of T.J. Waconia, was very interested in how many properties the Kleindls owned. One by one, Kleindl gave up the addresses. It was quite an empire. And he had plans to buy more. How long had he been a landlord? Well, he was just getting started in the last year or so. But he had done all these other things: built houses. Sold houses. Renovated houses. He was ready. Ready to run an empire of rental property.
Johnson began pecking away at a keyboard. She asked Kleindl about a particular property he owned: 2918 4th St. N. She asked him about all the 911 calls and began to list what some of the calls were for: shots fired. Domestic violence. Drug activity.
Whoah. Whooooooooooooooah. Kleindl was saying he didn't know about that stuff. Why hadn't somebody informed him? Good lord, he was signed up for the email alerts from the police. So why hadn't he been NOTIFIED? At some point, Kleindl's wife came to the podium and said she was aware of the domestic violence incident, and she had made inquiries at the property. Yes, they were on top of that one.
Johnson pressed further and asked about rental licenses. Did all their properties have rental licenses? Kleindl seemed to say yes...his lawyer stood on her toes and whispered something urgently in his ear. Kleindl appeared to insist all his properties had rental licenses AS OF TODAY. Johnson paused for a moment and said she wanted to read the statement of the Housing Director of HACC, which was Jeff Skrenes, seated beside me. She sat there and she read the statement to herself, silently. The Kliendls squirmed.
I knew what Jeff's statement said: it included a bunch of stuff about how the Kleindls were running their other properties. It included allegations of drug dealing at 3033 4th St. N., right across from the property in question, and a statement about how tenants had been put into 3033 4th St. N. before the building even had a FRONT DOOR.
Jeff hadn't been able to read that statement during the first committee hearing. But he'd managed to get copies in the record. It paid off. Johnson appeared to grimace and shake her head, slightly, at the "portrait of a slumlord empire" laid out in the statements submitted by people in the neighborhood, gathered and put forward by Jeff Skrenes.
At some point, City Council Member Cam Gordon expressed dissent from the direction the council was taking. He didn't think discussions of the other properties were relevant to the property at issue. But the Kleindl lawyer was standing RIGHT THERE. If the discussion wasn't relevant, why wasn't she raising some objection, even a little one for the record? The fact is you can tell how people will treat their property in the future by how they have treated their property in the past, and how they treat their OTHER property in the present.
Hage tried to characterize the Kleindl family as EXPERTS in fixing up property. Give them a chance to fix up THIS one, she argued. The facts before the council seemed to argue otherwise: the Kliendl family was buying up everything in sight, but did they know how to run rental properties? Apparently, they were jumping off the diving board headfirst without checking the depth of the water. They were depending on coats of paint and a modestly-priced lawyer to make everything turn out alright.
Nothing comes easy in the eco-village
There were two dissenting votes: Council Members Gordon and Schiff. They seemed to think the council was riding roughshod, a little bit, too quick to resort to demolition in this instance. But Gordon's remarks came with an unusual caveat: he didn't know how truthful everybody was.
I was fairly certain those remarks weren't directed at the experts from the city, but at the guy who was claiming he'd make 400 31st Ave. N. his home after putting in $30,000 in fixes. That little pink house? The home of a landlord with an EMPIRE of rental property?
I don't think so. In fact, I know otherwise: the senior Kleindl has told me the second story of the garage behind 3010 6th St. N. will become a kind of office for running the empire. Why would they need the house at 400 31st Ave. N.? Heck, that house can be jammed full of tenants, just as soon as somebody cleans up the charred mess from the fiery suicide attempt.
The Ugly History of 400 31st Ave. N.
Here are some little nuggets which came out in the Findings of Fact. The house in question was purchased by a Yulanda R. Mitchell for $153,000 on October 13, 2006. She defaulted on her mortgage. There was a sheriff's sale. At some point, there was a fire. A woman at the house tried to commit suicide by lighting a pile of clothing ablaze. She tried this in two different locations in the house. The Kleindls claim she barely damaged anything except wall paper and a door frame. Thank goodness, huh?
I'm not surprised 400 31st Ave. N has been a witness to such madness. It is an ugly, depressing little building with sickly pink interiors and exteriors. The color pink has been shown to elicit the outbreak of aggressive actions in scientific studies with prisoners. I'm not even kidding about this. (See Pellegrini, et al, 1981)
At one point, Kleindl seemed to be trying to cut a deal: give him a break, here, and he promised to never buy another condemned building. There would be no plea bargain, though there would be two dissenting votes.
And the bulldozer deity received another sacrifice. But the revelations were alarming. How many more landlords like the Kleindls are building empires in North Minneapolis founded on thin coats of paint and buildings of dubious structural integrity? See, this is one reason the city and county databases need to have search capacities which include name of owner. Otherwise, the only way to connect the dots is to have somebody like Barbara Johnson ask, during a city council meeting, "Please list all the properties you own."
Or tediously sift through every property record, looking for patterns. Which is what Barbara Johnson's people have done, and that's why T.J. Waconia went down the way it did.
Well Argued, Counselor
In the hallway, I complemented the lawyer. She had done as well as she could with really unfavorable facts.
One utterance by Kleindl was interesting: he didn't want to stand in the way of progress. If the city wants the house, then make an offer.
Well, why doesn't Kleindl JUST NAME HIS PRICE? Why doesn't he reach out to the neighborhood people and negotiate?
Kleindl keeps waiting for somebody to offer him an eye-popping satchel of money. Really, what he needs to do is cut his losses and hope for a fistful of dollars, probably less than he paid for that wreck in the first place. If my own house was worth $17,000 to the city, and if $18,500 is looking like a price which can be paid to obtain the house at 415 31st Ave. N. (rumor has it) then the price of the wreck at 400 31st Ave. N. is probably...
Less than $18,500 but more than $17,000 based on the size of the two houses in question. The Kleindls should see if they can sell 400 31st Ave. N. for exactly what they paid for it, cut their losses, (lawyer fees especially) and consider this a "costly lesson learned" as they build their already-impressive empire.
It would be nice if Kleindl really did want to live in North Minneapolis. Somehow, I have my doubts. Somehow I think this has more to do with having a homestead tax exemption for one of their properties instead of actually living in North Minneapolis.
The duck house tells the tale
A few weeks ago, I saw the Kleindls hauling off the oversized stucco doghouse located behind 3010 6th St. North. In fact, Jake and Gabe of 612 Authentic managed to tape the dog house migrating out of the neighborhood...and it made sense it would migrate, because one of the Kleindls said they planned to haul it out to Elko, Minnesota and use it for a duck house.
Uh huh. How lovely that must be. An idyllic farm, somewhere near Elko, and there will be a charming little stucco house with yellow ducklings, peep peep peep.
But Kleindl insists he prefers to live right in our neighborhood? That he will be a fellow resident, living cheek-to-jowl with his tenants, only a block away from 2918 and all the 911 calls? Why, any time his tenants have an issue, they can just walk down the street--or stagger, if they have been shot, stabbed, or inebriated to the point of lacking balance--and knock upon their landlord's door to express their problems or concerns!
Cam Gordon put it so well: he's not sure everybody is telling the truth.
A silent "than you"
Right before we left, I caught the eyes of Council Member Barbara Johnson and Diane Hofstede. I gave a thumbs-up.
"Thank you," I said, moving my mouth without making a sound.
Only one way to celebrate: TESTES!
A lot of cell phone calls were made on the way to the parking garage and while rolling along in gridlocked traffic, including:
To the Polish woman: to let her know there had been victory, and her presence was not needed since none of us were allowed to take the podium anyway.
To Peter Teachout: to advise him of developments, and find out he was interviewed today by--my word--Al Jazeera, which is trying to "put a face on Minneapolis" right before the Republican National Convention.
The meeting had gone long. Me and Jeff were starving. I suggested we should spend our dollars at the Bangkok Market, right in the eco-village. Jeff found something he liked. I found the pig testes and sow ear stir fry, plus some sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaves.
"I don't eat feet or private parts," Jeff informed me.
"You really don't know what you're missing," I replied, shrugging.