In his south Minneapolis duplex last week, Andrew Ellis paged through the assortment of violations the city’s inspections department has issued on his rental properties.
“They are harassing the hell out of me,” he said.
Susan Segal, the Minneapolis city attorney, doesn’t see it that way.
“We believe we have enforced reasonable requirements to make sure people have safe housing,” she said.
The 81-year-old Ellis and the city are locked in a bitter confrontation that has extended over a quarter century.
He is no ordinary landlord. For 27 years until 1996 when he retired, Ellis was a city housing inspector, issuing repair orders on other people’s apartment buildings, even as inspectors cited him for countless violations on his own properties. In 1989, he had 97 repair orders issued against him and contested more of them than any other city landlord.
The city fought back and fired him in 1990, but an arbitrator overturned the termination, saying officials acted too quickly.
Now Ellis is back in court as part of his fourth lawsuit against the city, accusing “incompetent” housing inspectors of targeting him with unnecessary repair orders that he claims they sometimes retract when he points out their errors.
“I’m not the problem; they’re the problem,” Ellis said. “I’m a provider of decent, clean, affordable housing. … I’m not ashamed of my buildings.” He used an obscenity to refer to the city officials he said he’s “fighting.”
Said Segal: “We are not singling him out in any way, shape or form.”
In 2014, Ellis was cited for 74 violations on nine of his 16 properties, about 30 of which remain unresolved, according to data the city provided to the Star Tribune. Those include orders to fix walls, floors, windows, plumbing fixtures and glass, paint exterior walls, and install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
In their response to the Ellis lawsuit, filed in federal court on Dec. 5, Segal and assistant city attorneys Tracey Fussy and Sarah McLaren sharply criticized Ellis and his wife, Harriet, who is a co-plaintiff in his lawsuit.
The “plaintiffs are serial litigants and have made similar unsuccessful claims by numerous legal proceedings, relating to their attempts to leverage owning dangerous and unsafe rental properties into personal profit by suing the city for enforcing the housing code,” the city prosecutors wrote.
Segal said the city is asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit.
Former Minneapolis City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes recalled previous city run-ins with inspector Ellis.
“He was a challenge, and it was an embarrassment to have a city employee owning properties like that,” she said. “The city still has the right and responsibility to oversee property and treat him like they would treat any other landlord in the city.”
Ellis claims the current violations against him continue to be vague and inaccurate.
In a legal brief, John Shoemaker, attorney for the Ellises, said they were accused of having an “infestation” of mice, an exaggeration; inoperable smoke detectors he said have been replaced; lead abatement issues where there were none; hazardous wiring when only a fuse needed to be changed, and garbage violations where tenants were to blame.
The Ellises further contend, through Shoemaker, that the costs of unnecessary repairs hurt his “protected class” of low-income, minority tenants, because “these costs must then be spread out over all rental units, affecting the cost of housing for all tenants.”
The city fired back in its own brief that the crux of the Ellises’ argument is that any code violation that causes him to spend money “either in correcting the violation or appealing the order could have a negative effect on them economically” and thus violates housing law.
“If so, the city is liable any time it enforces its housing code,” the prosecutors wrote.
“This is so even if the city inspects the property because a protected-class tenant calls the city to notify the city that there is mice infestation, there are no smoke detectors in the bedroom, the kitchen sink has no cold water, there is faulty electrical work or a hole in the wall.”
Ready to fight
Ellis contrasted what he called the aggressive approach of housing inspectors with the way he said he functioned when he was one.
“I had apartment owners who were comfortable with me,” he said, because he enforced “the bare minimum in the housing code.”
In their duplex last week, Harriet Ellis, her arms folded, sat beside her husband as he recited the alleged injustices the city has heaped on him and his properties.
“I wish he’d sell them all and be done with this,” she said. “Then we’d have peace and quiet.”
Said her husband: “If it was up to her, I’d give them away.”
Harriet Ellis nodded.
Andrew Ellis said he won’t do that, and will continue to press his lawsuit.
“I’m not in it for the money,” he said. “I want to win it and prove it.”