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Continued: 550 houses in Minneapolis sit vacant despite city's efforts

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Last update: September 1, 2014 - 10:37 PM

Nearby neighbor Lydia Walker calls the house “not a problem property at all.”

But it’s not pristine, either. Plastic fencing surrounds the excavation for the sidewalk steps. There’s a roof over the front porch area, but no porch and no front door steps. Tarps and pallets are piled in back.

Hennepin as homeowner

Owners of other vacant houses have similar struggles. Robert Randolph has been working on his house in the Windom Park neighborhood of northeast Minneapolis for more than a decade.

He cited a construction injury and subsequent disability, parental illness and lack of money caused by city fees.

Randolph insisted that he is almost done rehabilitating the house, with only finishing wallboard and installing trim left. At 59, he said, he also took longer because he’s planning to live out his life there and took pains to make a safe, sturdy, energy-efficient house “that will be here 150 years from now.”

In the Victory neighborhood of north Minneapolis, the owner of a Thomas Avenue N. duplex held onto it for years, racking up dozens of nuisance citations, ranging from smashed windows to inoperable vehicles. In a 2011 appeal of his annual fee, owner Gregory Zurbay blamed being out of work for his slow progress on a property he said was his only retirement asset.

“These fines are in effect sapping the equity from my property,” he said in 2011, shortly before forfeiting the property to the county for unpaid taxes.

Zurbay’s dilemma highlights another reality with the list. Tax forfeiture means Hennepin County now owns more homes on the list than anybody else.

Once in county hands, officials can auction the homes or turn them over to the city if officials have redevelopment plans of their own.

A neighborhood group wants Zurbay’s house demolished, but a developer is interested in it. So far, the city has made no decision.

“This one stood out because way before the foreclosures it was empty and the grass was tall,” said Victory staff member Debbie Nelson, who added that such homes attract squatters and drive down values of neighboring homes.

A 2013 city analysis of longer-term vacant properties recommended ways to give owners more incentive to rehab buildings. One idea was to offer incentives for long-vacant properties weighed down by mounting special assessments. Other ideas include turning over the homes to individuals or groups to oversee the rehab and reaching out to banks that may still own the homes but have lost track of them.

Rivera-Vandermyde, who runs the city’s regulatory department, said she prefers that her staff work with willing property owners. For some, the hefty registration fee is an incentive, but for others, the fees are a burden that put rehabilitation out of reach.

“My goal is not to assess property owners out of their house,” she said.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

Twitter: @brandtstrib

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  • Inez DeMare bought this house in Minneapolis in 1996, planning to fix it up with her father, who died in 1999. It has been classified vacant since 2001.

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