Meet your new neighbors, the Squatters

  • Article by: JIM SPENCER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 6, 2010 - 8:12 AM

As the number of empty, foreclosed houses in the Twin Cities soars, hard-to-catch squatters are making themselves right at home.

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The house near Battle Creek Park in St. Paul looks gorgeous outside, but inside, it's a wreck. The home shows evidence of squatters, with bedding left behind, while fixtures, pipe and wiring were stripped.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Coon Rapids housing inspector Leya Drabczak visited the house almost weekly for more than six months.

The woman who lived there never answered the door -- even when she was home.

"She had furniture and plants," Drabczak said. "She had an 'ab-ductor' exercise machine."

What the woman didn't have was the legal right to live there.

Housing officials say such squatters are the latest offshoot of the foreclosure crisis, leaving thousands of empty homes ripe for illegal occupancy.

In the Coon Rapids case, the housing inspector lacked proof that would allow her to remove the squatter. The former owner of the $195,500 house abandoned it, let it slip into foreclosure and returned to Nigeria. The Texas bank that technically owned the property didn't return Drabczak's calls.

"If there is no imminent danger, I don't have the right to go in," she explained.

The six-month standoff ended when Coon Rapids officials finally persuaded Xcel Energy to cut off electricity because the woman's use of six space heaters to stay warm represented a safety threat.

The shutoff allowed city officials to apply a new ordinance aimed at controlling squatters. They cut off the house's water -- flushing the woman out, so to speak. That episode and others like it arise from a swelling list of vacant houses. In the past five years, inventories of empty buildings have exploded in Minneapolis and St. Paul, growing 300 percent or more in each city.

Surrounding suburbs do not report dramatic growth of empty buildings. Indeed, in some cases, such as Coon Rapids, aggressive tracking of abandoned properties and recent tweaks to city ordinances have helped reduce the inventory.

Housing officials in the metro area don't track illegal occupancy. Some say they haven't noticed an uptick in squatters. But several housing officials acknowledged that record numbers of failing mortgages have created opportunities for illegal occupancy that are unique and hard to monitor.

For example, unemployment bred by the recession now forces foreclosures in middle class and upscale neighborhoods, where houses cost $200,000 and up. This leaves abandoned buildings -- and occasionally squatters, copper thieves and vandals -- in places they rarely, if ever, appeared before.

Stripped but lived in

In St. Paul, you can see it in a custom-built, 2,600-square-foot house near Battle Creek Park. Officially, the twice-foreclosed house resides on the city's roll of vacant properties. From the outside, it looks splendid, a beautiful combination of blond brickwork, glass blocks and fresh paint. But St. Paul code enforcement inspector Rich Singerhouse recently wandered among blankets and others bits of bedding that lay in snarled lumps in the once-handsome split-level.

The house had been stripped of cabinets, carpeting, copper and kitchen appliances. But ashes from freshly burned logs collected in one of the house's two fireplaces and fresh wood awaited ignition in the other. Amid the mess, a sofa overlooked the sprawling backyard, where deer regularly roam. Someone had stored cans of soup, fresh potatoes and a bag of corn flakes in the gutted kitchen. And although no one appeared to have used the weight machine or tanning bed left in the exercise room, someone looked to have washed dishes in the sinks of the once-elegant master bath.

In St. Paul, the inventory of abandoned buildings -- mostly residences -- grew from 372 at the end of 2004 to 2,007 at the end of 2008. As of Dec. 9, St. Paul listed 1,609 vacant buildings on its website, a decrease from November. All but 53 were residential properties.

Figures in Minneapolis, which records vacant building in a more narrow way than St. Paul, showed a 300 percent growth in registered vacant buildings -- from 286 at the end of 2004 to 857 at the end of 2008. Through the first nine months of 2009, Minneapolis reported 824 vacant buildings.

As the economic aftershock of mortgage defaults hits commercial and mainstream borrowers, Singerhouse now finds himself and his inspectors pasting blue vacant building notices in "nice areas," such as Como Park and Macalester-Groveland. Farther north in Coon Rapids, Drabczak recounted the story of a man who died and whose $160,000 twin home was occupied by an alleged squatter. "I had lengthy conversations with him," Drabczak said. "He said he had the owner's permission to be there. I called the bank, but I ended up in voice mail purgatory." It took many months, but finally a utility cutoff in October forced the man to move.

Tough to track

Although issues of safety and sanitation abound, accurately tracking illegal occupants of abandoned homes in this recession may be impossible.

"Anecdotally, we're not seeing many squatters during the day," said Grant Wilson, Minneapolis manager of problem properties. "Sometimes, we get a complaint of a board peeled off [a city-secured vacant home]." Still, Wilson admits empty homes can easily slip under the regulatory radar. "If the grass is cut and there's not trash collecting in the yard and we're not getting nuisance complaints, we wouldn't know about it."

St. Paul prides itself on having the area's best vacant-buildings management program. But it can't come close to tracking the actual inventory of empty dwellings, said Steve Magner, the city's vacant-building manager. "My perception from being out in the field is that there are at least half again as many properties unoccupied as we have on our list and maybe more," Magner said. "I can almost guarantee you that there are at least 1,000 homes available to squat in."

In one case, Singerhouse said, an entrepreneurial resident of a foreclosed six-unit building began to collect and pocket rent from other tenants after the landlord left.

Despite examples like that and the free riders in Coon Rapids, squatting is almost always a lifestyle of last resort, said Monica Nilsson, director of St. Stephen's Street Outreach Program, which helps the homeless. "Breaking into somebody's house is breaking the law," she said. "Most people don't want to do that. Most people will live in their cars until they can't do that anymore."

A "domestic situation" left Maureen Meschke homeless. The 55-year-old woman tried to live in a friend's foreclosed house on Clinton Avenue in Minneapolis after her friend moved out. "She gave me the keys," Meschke said. Troy Sanders, the Realtor trying to sell the bank-owned property, said he asked Meschke to leave three times. With the property weeks beyond the redemption period in which Meschke's friend could legally recover it from the lender, Sanders finally changed the locks.

While numbers on squatters are sketchy, no one denies that foreclosures are forcing more people from their homes. Hennepin County eviction notices jumped from an average of 64 a month in 2000 to 91 a month in 2008, the sheriff's office said. In Ramsey County, the sheriff's office issued an average of 83 eviction notices a month in 2000 and 117 a month in 2008.

She won't go

Barbara Byrd refuses to leave her foreclosed duplex in Brooklyn Park. She thinks she was the victim of predatory lending and says her mortgage company did not bargain in good faith to modify her payments to an affordable level before foreclosing on her home loan. As a result, Byrd now squats in the home where she has lived for a decade. A judge told her nearly two months ago that she had to leave. The 50-year-old security guard has sued her mortgage company, EMS, and is working with the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign.

"I'm just not going to walk away and leave it empty," she said. "One day, I know the sheriff will come with a notice that I have to be out in 24 hours. If that happens, we'll sit in. Arrest is the risk I have to take."

While Byrd battles actively, officials in the metro area say indifferent owners, especially out-of-town banks, make it easier for squatters. "We had a situation this year where the homeowner was in jail," said Coon Rapids neighborhood coordinator Kristin DeGrande. "The people living in his house were his friends. The mortgage company was not trying to get them out. They moved out when we cut off the water." Turned out the squatters were growing marijuana, DeGrande said. They left when they could no longer water the plants.

True squatters, Singerhouse explained, don't want to be found -- or caught. Recently, he said, "I came in the front door of [an abandoned house] and the people ran out the back. I found a little nest by a heater in one room." Most communities have a social service network to help squatters find another place to live. Nilsson of St. Stephen's homeless outreach says those resources fall far short. Meanwhile, an inability to count illegal occupants may understate the squatting problem.

"If you show up with a grocery cart and a tent and start a bonfire, the neighbors are probably going to call to say someone is breaking into the house next door," Magner said. "But if you pull up in a car and go through the front door, people may think you bought or rented the place."

Jim Spencer • 612-673-4029

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