As a district judge, Vicki Landwehr spends her days meting out justice. But as the co-owner of nearly 20 residential properties in the St. Cloud area, it’s Landwehr who’s on the receiving end of public scrutiny — and legal action.
Several of the properties she and her husband, Don, own have been identified by neighbors and St. Cloud city officials as blights on neighborhoods. Earlier this week, police raided one house and found a meth lab — the latest in a series of troubling incidents that have angered residents and prompted city officials to investigate.
City officials have met twice with residents to discuss the problems. The most recent meeting, held last week, drew about 100 attendees. The city is so concerned about the issue that it is now taking administrative action against the couple for renting the houses without a license.
Some residents, meanwhile, have filed a complaint with the Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards about Vicki Landwehr, who has been a judge since 1993.
Vicki Landwehr said this week that she felt “terrible” when she learned that some of her properties had become neighborhood sore spots.
“I can certainly understand everybody’s desire to live in a neighborhood that they’re happy to live in,” she said. “And that’s why I felt so bad when I learned of the problems experienced by the neighbors.”
Several properties have been the site of many police calls. In some cases, the houses were occupied by people who had appeared as criminal defendants in Landwehr’s courtroom.
The city’s investigation, meanwhile, has revealed “high levels of criminal activity” at some of the properties, said St. Cloud City Attorney Matt Staehling.
St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis this week called the problem “a legal issue for the city and a public safety issue. No neighbors should have to deal with the tremendous challenges that these neighborhoods have had to put up with.”
But it will be difficult for the city to clean up the mess, officials said, because the Landwehrs don’t rent the properties — they sell them on contracts for deed.
Under the terms of those sales, tenants make payments to the Landwehrs while the judge and her husband retain ownership of the property. The buyer assumes ownership only when the house is fully paid off — but many never are. It’s a business model similar to the rent-to-own method of buying furniture or appliances.
In some cases, contracts for deed can be used to skirt laws and regulations governing rental property. And that is what the city believes is happening with three of the Landwehr properties, Staehling said. Those properties have changed hands repeatedly, with one holder of the contract for deed transferring it to another while the Landwehrs continue to retain ownership.
“We’re pursuing these as basically illegal rentals — renting without a license,” Staehling said.
Staehling called the houses “very distressed properties,” adding that they “have caused a great deal of fear and anxiety in the neighborhoods, and I think for good reason.”
The police raid this week at 934 Longview Drive — where the meth lab was found — was the second at that address in less than five months. In July, the house, now on its fourth contract-for-deed owner since the Landwehrs bought it in 2003, was the site of a full-fledged SWAT action by St. Cloud police and Sherburne County sheriff’s deputies.
Jim Goke, a retired St. Cloud State University professor who lives one door down from the house, said he was awakened at 3 a.m. during the July raid by a flash-bang grenade.
“I walk out in my bathrobe and the whole cul-de-sac is filled with police,” Goke said. “And there were [armored vehicles], and then a Humvee pulls in.”
After that incident, which led to drug and gun charges against one man living in the house, city officials began investigating the Landwehr properties, Kleis said.
Pushing for change
Don Landwehr, who has been in the real estate business since 1970, defended contract-for-deed sales, calling them an excellent investment. Owners of rental housing are responsible for maintaining their properties, he said. But in a contract-for-deed sale, that responsibility belongs to the home’s occupant.
“With a contract for deed, I just collect the payments,” he said, adding that he oversees the couple’s real estate holdings while his wife is responsible for making financial deposits.
Vicki Landwehr said she has nothing to do with the day-to-day property management, operation or decisionmaking. In the courtroom, she said, she is scrupulous about informing parties about potential conflicts that might arise because of her real estate ownership.
Despite that caution, she said that she sometimes has incidental legal dealings with people who occupy her properties.
“She sometimes comes home and says, ‘So-and-so was in court today — I wish we didn’t have them in our house,’ ” Don Landwehr said.
Don Landwehr said city inspectors have many tools to address problem properties, including citing and fining occupants for nuisance violations such as neglected exterior maintenance or trash in the yard. He said he works with the city to clear up issues whenever he’s made aware of them, and has been especially focused on the problem properties that have been identified in the past few months.
“I think the city will tell you that we’ve made good progress on their concerns and are continuing to work diligently on it,” he said.
Both Landwehrs said neighbors have not contacted them about the problems. Given the chance, the Landwehrs would have tried to resolve the issues much sooner, they said.
Meanwhile, the city is working with its state legislative delegation to propose legislation giving cities more power to crack down on abuse of contract-for-deed sales.
“Clearly these properties, in our estimation, are being operated like rentals,” Kleis said. “There really needs to be a way for a city and a neighborhood to have some better accountability when it comes to contract for deed, particularly when you have residents who truly are causing a tremendous amount of challenges and issues.”