Thursday, August 7, 2008
"We Don't Need No Stinking Building Permit" (3001 6th St. N)
Photo by John Hoff
The situation at 3001 6th St. N. came to a head rather quickly this morning...
I went by at about 10 a.m. and saw the roof was half done (shingles removed) and new aluminum siding had just about covered the building. The crew was fast and I have no criticism of their workmanship. It was, I confess, even kind of nice to see the new siding. The house had really been showing its age.
I called 311 to inquire about a building permit. These folks weren't just doing a little cosmetic work but a massive amount of renovation, not the kind of thing which can go under the radar. Frankly, I figured 311 wouldn't have any information--that it would turn into a game of phone tag in the papery tunnels of city bureaucracy. I figured this based on my frustrating experiences of trying to find out who has CURRENT OWNERSHIP of buildings, something which takes months to get updated in the online property records system, both city and county.
(And did I mention how inefficient it is that Minneapolis/Hennepin County online property records can't be searched by name of property owner? Oh, yes. I've mentioned it before. But I'll point it out again)
To my surprise--quite a pleasant surprise--the 311 operator had the ability to instantly check whether there was a building permit. There was none. She couldn't see over the phone, so she asked for specifics about the work. They were actually working on the place? I had to reply over the noise of the work; hammers hammering and trimmed off pieces of metal siding hitting the lawn.
Oh, yes. ma'am. You couldn't call it anything but work.
So the 311 operator made out a report. She told me I could remain anonymous. I didn't need no stinking anonymity. I was PROUD to put my name on the report, I said.
When I was done talking to 311, I couldn't help but wonder how many days it would take to see some action, and I wasn't ready to wait patiently while the slumlord proceeded to dig in.
The problem isn't the work itself. The work looked pretty good and was a form of progress. But a slumlord who doesn't take out building permits isn't going to screen tenants, either, which leads quite directly to yet more drug dealing on my block. One thing leads to another, quite predictably: No permits likely means no screening means bad tenants who deal drugs on the block, a problem which takes FOREVER to solve, if we EVER manage to solve it after massive, costly effort by both citizens and police.
No, better to nip it in the bud, I figured, at the point where Mr. Slumlord was renovating with the unlicensed contractors and no work permit and could be caught red-handed.
Also, there was the matter of FIVE UNITS versus THREE UNITS in that building, and what was allowed versus how many human Pringle chips of profit would a slumlord try to stack in that massive house under the radar, all the tenants piled on top of each other, miserably, right in front of one of the worst drug-dealing intersections in the city which we have STRUGGLED FOR SO LONG to secure.
I knew there wasn't a building permit. I knew because 311 said so. I went over to 3001 6th St. N. and was very careful to stay on the sidewalk, because I knew when this conversation was over I'd be invited to leave.
I spoke to one of the workmen. He didn't know English. I asked in Spanish for the building permit. He pointed me toward somebody else I should talk to, that-a-way, toward 30th Ave. N., where I might find the boss.
Two guys sat in a truck, eating chips. I wasn't even sure they were part of the work crew or just a couple of guys eating chips in the shade. You can depend on a licensed contractor, no matter how small, to put his company name on his/her truck. A truck is literally liability-on-wheels, so of course a company name will go on a company truck most of the time. You want to get a clue whether a contractor is licensed or unlicensed? First look at their truck.
Well, this truck had no company name.
The first guy, the older guy, pretty much thought I could go to hell with my inquiries about whether they had a building permit--and why wasn't it prominently posted on the exterior, as per the requirement and common practice of licensed contractors? I said, "OK, fine, that's what I'll tell the city officials. I asked if you had a building permit and you said you don't need one and it's nobody's business."
The second guy--the younger one--ran over and said, "Look, he's just one of my workmen. I'm the boss, here. You talk to me, not him."
The conversation went around and around. We had one area of agreement: the work being done was good, productive and skillful work. Our major area of disagreement was whether a building permit was something which was needed, should be displayed, or should even be discussed.
"Look, you know how it is in this neighborhood," he told me, which could mean a lot of things, but seemed to mean I should cease any inquiry about a building permit.
He told me my persistent inquiry about whether there was a building permit was "disrespectful." I told him it was disrespectful for slumlords to move into our neighborhood and do things in defiance of the law and expect all of us to just turn our heads the other way.
Conversations like this always end in a draw over the same basic disagreement: is the North Side ruled by law, or by "law of the streets?" To which form of law should one defer? The conversation ended formally, with his announcement the conversation was formally over.
I called Mike Karney of City Inspections. I have him on my speed dial. He gave me the name of the person known as the "Permit Finder," and said I could get her direct number from the 311 system. So it was back to 311, and then it was time to leave a message on somebody's voice mail, all the while halfway expecting somebody would come over from 3001 6th St. N. and hit me with a board while I talked on my cell phone.
I was keeping Peter Teachout in the loop by cell phone, each step of the way--Peter had been making inquiries with some other public official about the 3001 6th St. N. situation--when I saw one of the dark green City Inspections vehicles driving down 6th Street.
Could they be getting on my report this quickly? I waved him down. The next thing you know, he was taking pictures and getting license plates.
I took a few of my own pictures, including the one above. Taking photographs infuriated the foreman, of course. We had a brief discussion about the right to take a picture from a public sidewalk, but the inspector came over to me--assured me the city was on top of this--and I took his advice to get out of Dodge.
I can hardly wait to see what tomorrow brings. I hope it's a red "CEASE WORK" placard on the front door. Slumlords are ruining our North Minneapolis neighborhoods, but this one has been slowed down, just a little. If there's one valuable lesson to pass on, it is this: the 311 system has current building permit information at their fingertips. And the slumlords are not all-powerful. They are required to get permits and use licensed contractors.
And, yes, the city does respond. Today, the city responded very quickly, even if part of the response time was a bit of a lucky accident.