On May 12, the day the city inspector came to board up his house, Ted Poetsch was eating lunch. After living all of his 53 years at 823 Penn Av. N., Poetsch had an hour left to pack his stuff and get out.
Cane in hand, he lurched around, throwing a few things in bags, putting Kitty in the carrier. He heard the contractor outside starting to drill into the door frame.
Poetsch made his way down his narrow stairway, resigned to the end he had resisted for three years, through personal financial missteps, the false promise of a foreclosure "rescue" and a court victory that gave him short-lived hope.
He came to the door and realized that he was too late. A truck had driven away from the house, prompting those outside to think the tenants were gone. Poetsch had been boarded up inside his house.
City officials say Poetsch had ample warning that they were coming that day, but they say his brief incarceration was an unprecedented mistake. In many ways, Poetsch's experience is emblematic of the forces that have fastened plywood over so much of the North Side and urban neighborhoods across America.
The house at 823 Penn, vacant and already a target for thieves, is now owned by Fannie Mae. In September, the federal government took over the mortgage giant in a multibillion-dollar bailout after it was brought to the brink of collapse by the housing meltdown.
Poetsch got no such assistance. The city determined that the house was potentially unsafe and that Poetsch was essentially a squatter in the only home he had ever known. Now this North Side neighborhood has one fewer neighbor and one more boarded house.
"Everybody loses," said Poetsch's onetime attorney, Josh DuBois, who helped Poetsch get out of his boarded house that day in May.
A Fannie Mae spokeswoman said that it intends to renovate and sell the house, one of more than 62,000 foreclosed homes it owns nationwide. Poetsch, who is disabled, has found an apartment in Mound. But he's still trying to understand how it came to this.
"They kicked me out on the street," Poetsch said. "A handicapped person ain't got no rights."
The family homestead
In 1945, the Poetsch family moved into the elegant, gabled Victorian at 823 Penn. The youngest of four, Poetsch was born with a hip problem. A later knee injury left him totally disabled and unable to work.
Those limitations never interfered with his lifelong passion: building model cars. He spent hours in his second-floor workshop, parking dozens of the miniature hot rods and muscle cars in display cases.
When his mother died in 1990, she left him the house. In the easy credit days that followed, Poetsch, living on disability income, took out a home loan to pay for a new roof, credit card debts and other expenses. Now he calls it "that stupid loan," which started all the trouble. In 2006, he was missing payments. The lender gave notice that it would foreclose.
Then Poetsch got a phone call. A company in Bloomington, Unified Home Solutions, could keep Poetsch in his house. All he had to do is sell it to an investor, rent from the new owner for a year and then, with his credit restored and his money saved, repurchase the house.
He signed the papers. But it didn't work out as planned. The man who bought 823 Penn, a real estate investor named James Stellman, blamed Poetsch for frittering away his money instead of saving enough to buy the house back.
Poetsch said he was scammed. In early 2008, facing eviction threats, Poetsch sued Unified Home Solutions; its president, Scott Spady; Stellman and Stellman's wife, Beverly, alleging they violated laws regulating companies that act as "foreclosure consultants."
In July 2008, Fannie Mae foreclosed. That same month, the parties in Poetsch's lawsuit reached a confidential settlement that gave him some compensation. As part of the deal, Poetsch would be allowed to stay in the house for six months, when a state-mandated redemption period expired.
Foreclosures had become a national crisis, and the federal takeover of Fannie Mae put pressure on the lender to slow evictions displacing thousands of Americans. In November, Fannie Mae imposed a moratorium on evictions, including anyone living in its property at 823 Penn Av. N.
But the city of Minneapolis had its own concerns.
A potentially unsafe property
On April 1, the city posted a notice on the door of 823 Penn, saying it was unlawfully occupied because no one had a license to rent it. That followed nearly a year of warnings, said JoAnn Velde, deputy director of city housing inspections.
"We've got occupants living in a building where nobody's responsible for the maintenance," she said, which is potentially unsafe.
Poetsch knew the end was near. Yet he didn't get his affairs in order. On May 12, a housing inspector, a police officer and a contractor interrupted his last lunch at 823 Penn.
Monica Castrejon, a representative of the contractor, Castrejon Inc., said her company was directed to board the front and back doors.
"We do the job," she said. "We don't make the decisions."
It's the city's job to ensure the place is empty when the boards go on, she said.
Velde said the contractor typically yells into the house before the boards go on. It isn't standard practice to walk through, she said, because it's sometimes unsafe.
"There was a truck that left," she said. "The officer believed all of the occupants were out of the property at that point."
Unable to climb out a window, Poetsch called DuBois, his attorney. DuBois called the city, which told him to dial 911 if someone was trapped in a house. Then he went to 823 Penn with an electric drill. But the city uses screws that require a special screwdriver to remove them.
"What the city did was board him inside a house they said was unsafe," DuBois said.
By 3 p.m., the police officer and Castrejon worker returned, removing a board long enough for Poetsch and Kitty, his 12-year-old cat, to get out.
Velde said she had never heard of another case of someone accidentally boarded inside a house. "Absolutely, it was a mistake," she said.
The last visit
Last week, Poetsch got permission from the city to retrieve his belongings. But the city wasn't going to remove the boards.
Poetsch brought along a friend who climbed in a window and with a few powerful kicks sent the board over the back door flying.
The television, his DVD collection and some of Poetsch's cherished bar lights were gone. Dust clouds flew as model cars were packed in boxes, shopping bags, recycling bins.
At 10:30 p.m., Poetsch decided he couldn't take any more. He locked the upstairs unit and left the empty home at 823 Penn Av. N., its doors gaping open.