Vacant houses not always empty

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 20, 2012 - 9:28 PM

Squatters. Vandalism - or worse. Delinquency inspectors are often on the front line of checking on conditions - and sometimes unwelcome inhabitants - at addresses in foreclosure.

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Krish Maharaj, an independent contractor who specializes in the inspection of foreclosed and payment-delinquent properties, found unlocked doors to a foreclosed apartment unit on the south side in Minneapolis that he had inspected earlier in the year.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Krish Maharaj has fled from a charging dog and held court with drugged-out tenants on his rounds, inspecting hundreds of metro-area homes in foreclosure or delinquency.

But none of that prepared him for a visit last month to a house in St. Paul, where he learned that authorities had just charged nine men and teens with dragging a 14-year-old girl into the vacant home and sexually assaulting her.

"It was alarming that one of the properties I'm responsible for ... had this activity occur," said Maharaj. "It made me question what had occurred at the other 500 properties I check up on on a monthly basis."

Vacant houses have served as the backdrop in recent months to several crimes in St. Paul. In March, Andrew W. Braun was fatally attacked on the porch of his house. He was at the house, registered vacant in 2010, to settle a drug debt.

Even more houses play host to burglaries and trespassing. In December, a homeless man died after lighting a fire in a vacant house in Minneapolis.

The foreclosure crisis has left thousands of homes vacant across the metro. A report from the Minnesota Homeownership Center shows that there were 13,181 foreclosures in the metro last year.

As of April 2, there were 1,292 vacant buildings in St. Paul, up about 100 from 2011.

Police and licensed city inspectors play key roles in monitoring vacant properties. But it's independent subcontractors such as Maharaj, inspecting homes for banks, who often make the first and ongoing contact with vacant houses -- and the people who shouldn't be living in them.

"People are angry, defensive or scared," said Maharaj, 26. "I've had people accuse me of being a rapist, a burglar and casing the neighborhood."

Delinquency and foreclosure inspectors, who are not licensed, start showing up when payment is 30 days overdue. They provide bank contact information to the mortgager. They return monthly until payment is made. If the property falls into foreclosure, inspectors visit monthly, looking for squatters or damage until it's sold.

"We're just the front line, the eyes of the property," said Brooke Simpson, owner of Simpson Inspections in Forest Lake.

Police said homeowners can also play a crucial role in monitoring safety around vacant homes. Sgt. Paul Paulos, a police spokesman, said residents should watch for unusual activity, trucks or vans parked out front and strangers.

"If it doesn't feel right to you, call us," Paulos said.

To verify vacancy, Maharaj knocks on doors, peeks through windows, checks for mail.

When people get angry, his main defense is playing dumb and retreating with an impossibly cool demeanor, although inspectors can always call for a police escort. He leaves his car running in some neighborhoods.

He once donned a fluorescent orange bike vest in hopes it would beef up his credibility and put people at ease. Nope.

"People were watching me down the block," he said.

At a house in Minneapolis, he climbed a stoop and leaned precariously against the railing, lifting his cellphone to a high window so he could snap a photo, looking every bit a burglar to the uninitiated.

It was especially awkward because he walked by the house almost daily when he was in middle school.

"It's disheartening, seeing these homes in the neighborhood where I grew up," he said.

He walked around back and lifted a garbage can lid. Empty. Another small trick in the inspector tool kit.

Maharaj, a homeowner himself, estimates that he's done about 1,500 inspections since starting the job in January. On a previous assignment, he spoke with a homeowner he knew from that same middle school walk. He used to play with her dog.

"It makes me feel like I'm the bogeyman," he said.

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib

  • related content

  • Krish Maharaj, 26, said his main defense when confronted by angry residents is to keep his cool and retreat, although he has the option of calling for a police escort. He leaves his car running in some neighborhoods. He estimates he’s done 1,500 inspections since January.

  • SOMETHING NOT RIGHT? To report problems at vacant homes call police or the Department of Safety and Inspections at 651-266-8989.

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