The vacant house on St. Paul’s Hatch Avenue has been bugging its neighbors for years. In the summer, the grass goes unmown. In the winter, its sidewalks are covered with ice and snow.
But what really galls folks in the North End is that the house is owned by St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, who has championed boosting affordable housing across the city. According to neighbor Nick Bieter, 54 Hatch Av. has been more often empty than occupied over the past several years.
“In our neighborhood, a vacant house is just an invitation for all kinds of things,” said Bieter, who has lived a couple of doors away since 2001. “If you want to do something about affordable housing, you’ve got something right here.”
A neighbor’s complaint has prompted city inspectors to place the house on a list of vacant properties that will cost the mayor more than $2,100 each year for as long as the house is empty and in disrepair.
Carter did not respond to requests for an interview. Peter Leggett, his communications director, said in an e-mail that the house is owned by Carter and his ex-wife and was originally bought as a family home. It has been rented out over the past several years.
“It is currently empty, due to damages caused by its most recent occupants,” Leggett wrote. “Significant repairs are in planning and should be underway soon. In the meantime, a new property management company has been engaged and will ensure that each of the neighbors knows who to contact with concerns.”
Leggett would not say when the most recent tenants moved out or how long the property has been empty.
St. Paul Regional Water Services said no water has been used at 54 Hatch Av. since August 2018. Service has since been disconnected.
The house was added to the city’s list of vacant properties on June 11, a day after a visit from a city inspector prompted by a neighbor’s complaint. The inspection noted grass more than 8 inches tall in some areas; cracked rear concrete steps; loose, dangling and missing siding; peeling trim paint; and litter on the front and rear porches. Sections of wooden fence surrounding the property were “dilapidated.”
Reinspections on June 20, June 26 and July 1 found a number of improvements, including the grass being cut, along with removal of rubbish, tree branches and part of the damaged fence.
The multiple code violations prompted inspectors to classify the house under Category 2, one of 360 properties that the city says cannot be sold without city approval and a code compliance inspection. The mayor must also submit a cost estimate from a licensed contractor as well as a completion schedule for repairs. He will also have to pay $2,127 to “reimburse the city for administrative costs” for each year the house is on the vacant list.
A July 12 letter from the city noted the fee is past due and will be added to the house’s property tax bill. Suzanne Donovan, a spokeswoman for the city Department of Safety and Inspections, said in an e-mail that paying the fee with the property taxes “is, frankly, a fairly common way owners handle these.”
A better example
According to Minnesota Compass, which provides data and analysis about communities around the state, 60% of North End housing is occupied by renters, compared with 50% citywide. Almost 7% of North End homes are vacant, compared with 6% for all of St. Paul. The city’s vacant building database lists 74 North End properties.
Half of North End households earn less than $35,000 a year, while 32% of area residents live in poverty.
Thomas Tehle has watched the neighborhood change over the 54 years he has lived in the home he bought from his parents. More and more homes are falling into neglect and disrepair, he said. The mayor’s house shouldn’t be one of them, Tehle said.
“It’s a nice little house,” he said, adding that he visits a friend who lives across the alley each week. “I don’t see why, for two and a half years, he hasn’t done anything to it. Get it up to code so you can rent it.”
Bieter said he understands how people can fall behind maintaining their property. “But,” he said, “the mayor of St. Paul should be able to take care of a property the way you would expect.”
He said it wasn’t until neighbors complained on social media, posting pictures of the house’s overgrown yard, that the grass was finally mowed — by neighbors who live across the street.
Bieter said he watched as those neighbors — Hwa Jeong Kim, an aide to City Council President Amy Brendmoen, and her husband — did the work.
Kim has not returned repeated messages seeking comment.
According to notices filed by the Department of Safety and Inspections, the property’s next inspection is set for Friday.