Failure to pay water bill results in icy waterfall

Gusher demonstrates problems with enforcing little-known rule in Minneapolis.

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Sometime around Jan. 1, a pipe ruptured in a vacant house in north Minneapolis and the resulting waterfall froze on its way out a first-floor window.

Photo: James Shiffer, All

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Sometime around Jan. 1, a pipe ruptured in a vacant house in north Minneapolis and the resulting waterfall froze on its way out a first-floor window.

It's a distressing sight to neighbors, not only because the water may have wrecked an otherwise livable house, but because the city could have prevented the deluge by shutting off the water more than a year ago.

As recently as this past fall, the city put a notice on the front door of 3738 Dupont Av. N. warning that the water would be shut off on or after Nov. 1. Service wasn't actually terminated until Jan. 3, after a neighbor called the city about the miniature glacier next door.

"From where I am standing, I do not understand why this happened," said Chris Morris, director of the McKinley Community association. "The city dropped the ball."

City officials acknowledge they missed a chance to prevent damage, but they said shutting off the water is more complicated than it sounds. The trouble at 3738 Dupont reveals an often unenforceable city ordinance that makes property owners responsible for maintaining valves used to terminate water service in case of nonpayment. While those "stop boxes" frequently don't work, it can take months before a city-hired contractor makes repairs when errant property owners refuse the responsibility.

Still, the failure at 3738 Dupont is "very, very, very unusual," said Tom Deegan, the city's director of housing inspections. Deegan said the city is typically "very efficient" at preventing such situations. "This is just really strange," he said.

Built in 1907, the two-story home had fallen on hard times. The property went through foreclosure in 2006, and its current owner, Erik Laine, told Whistleblower last week that he has essentially abandoned the property. In 2007, Laine bought four houses in Minneapolis but said his career as a landlord was short-lived when he lost his day job and couldn't keep up with the expenses of his properties.

"It is partly my fault," Laine acknowledged when told about the broken pipe. "I never had any plans to let it freeze." But the city required thousands of dollars worth of repairs before he would be allowed to rent it once again, and that was money he didn't have, Laine said.

In December 2009, no one was paying the water bill, so city workers paid a visit to shut off the water, said Marie Asgian, the city's superintendent of water distribution. The stop box was broken, which prompted the city to send the owner a letter, asking him to fix it, Asgian said. Most property owners are surprised to learn they can be held accountable for that piece of plumbing, she said.

"Usually when we tell people, they have no incentive to get that fixed," Asgian said. "It never happens until our contractor gets to it."

Last June, 3738 Dupont went on a contractor's shutoff list, but jobs are ranked by the size of the unpaid bills, Asgian said. "Sometimes there's quite a lag on these."

Meanwhile, despite the shutoff order and the lack of a rental license, new tenants moved into the house last spring, said neighbor Cynde Hanson. By September, the city learned the house was being rented illegally, so they ordered the tenants out and slapped a bright orange water shutoff notice on the door. Laine said it was the first time he found out that he needed a license, even though Minneapolis has required landlords to get licenses for 20 years.

The tenants were out and the front door posted, but the water service stayed on.

During a brief thaw around New Year's Day, Hanson looked out her window and noticed the north wall of 3738 Dupont seemed to be weeping. When everything froze again and the house was still wet, she called the city.

A Jan. 18 inspection finally brought some good news about the house. A city inspector took a look at the interior and found no evidence the water leak had buckled floors or ruined ceilings, Deegan said. The city will move forward with condemnation, but Deegan said he'd recommend renovation instead of demolition, if the damage is as minor as it appeared during the inspection.

Deegan said he suspects the outside wall is filled with ice. "Come spring, we will follow up and at that time there may be additional damage," he said. 

Residents of the well-kept block on the North Side hope the house won't remain in limbo much longer.

"We either need it to be [torn] down, or we need somebody stable in there," Hanson said.

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