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Continued: After fatal blaze, other tenants tell of hazards

  • Article by: MAYA RAO
  • Last update: March 11, 2014 - 10:26 AM

Last September and October, 722 Russell Av. N. racked up 27 code violations, including orders to fix exterior doors, illegal wiring, walls, and water damage, and replace heating equipment. The building lately appears to be missing a front door — there is only an empty green frame — and tenant Emma Brown said the heating system is so strained that she has to crank it up to 90 degrees to properly heat the house, and that the building is poorly insulated. She said she put up with it after moving in last fall because she was anxious to get out of a homeless shelter where she was staying with her children.

Minneapolis inspection records may not capture the full story about tenants’ living conditions. They are sparse on details and give no indication of how long a tenant lived with a particular problem before inspectors visited. Landlords are required to post a notice about the city’s 311 help line, but some tenants interviewed by the Star Tribune did not know about their right to call the number to file a complaint. Others feared that the landlord would ask them to leave if they called the city.

Zollicoffer, for instance, said she’d never heard of 311, so her months without heat are not reflected in the city’s tenant complaints.

Lewis, who had previous evictions and other run-ins with the law, also acknowledged that he only called the landlord — but never the city — about the lack of heat that prompted him to give his seven children blankets off his own bed.

“Renting to people with diminished options almost insulates you against renter complaints,” said Don Samuels, a former longtime council member who complained to Bertelson several times when he was in office.

Records that did not appear in the city’s list of tenant complaints showed that renters at one house called inspectors out to replace a furnace in late January.

They told the Star Tribune they went three weeks without heat in January and relied on space heaters and the oven.

Other Bertelson tenants have faced difficulties in recent months: 2518 4th St. N. was shot up in November, with bullets slamming through a window over a renter’s boyfriend’s head while he was sleeping.

And Lakella Davis left 1523 22nd Av. N. — behind Samuels’ house — last month after an infestation of black mold and other problems made her concerned for the health of her mentally impaired baby. Records show the city issued 10 code violations based on her complaints.

Problems from the start

Coming from a homeless shelter with four children, Dianna Jones was thankful to have anywhere to live in February 2013 when she moved into the upper unit of 2818 Colfax, the property that would burn one year later. She paid her $1,000 rent with the help of Social Security and county housing assistance.

There were problems from the start, she said. Mice and bedbugs ran rampant, even though she said she brought in only new furniture to supplement items left from the last tenant. Electrical sockets sparked. She and her children were shocked when they flipped light switches. The walls always felt warm, though the heating system did not work in various rooms, she said. The balcony was crumbling; and after a window fell out, birds and rain came into the kitchen.

She said she called Bertelson and his maintenance man for months but no repairs were made. Her frustration came to a head when she began receiving large electric bills and learned that she was wrongly being billed for the entire duplex because of problems in the wiring.

When she stopped paying, Xcel Energy shut the electricity off. She said the utility told her Bertelson also owed money that would have to be paid before they could turn the power on again.

After eating out of a cooler for months last summer, Jones finally called the city. Records show she complained not only of the lack of electricity but also of drywall falling from the ceiling, the broken window, the rotting balcony, and mice.

Jones recalls 2818 Colfax as “definitely a dangerous place to live.” For months before the fire, she was working with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid on a case against Bertelson.

Records show that Jones also reported “additional electric problems” to inspectors. Bertelson previously said that he wasn’t sure what that referred to, though something — possible a storm — pulled the power mast away from the building.

In September, the lack of electricity prompted the city to deem the building unfit for habitation, and it issued an intent to condemn the property unless power was restored. Minneapolis inspectors did not look into the additional electric issues that Jones reported to them, according to a city spokesman, instead focusing on getting the lights back on. The power was restored on the 24th of that month.

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