One of the last inexpensive apartment complexes for poor people in downtown Minneapolis has slowly decayed to disrepair, and its potential renovation is now pitting City Hall against a developer who is pushing out the tenants.

The four connected brick buildings on Laurel Avenue, built in 1893, are hidden by modern Minneapolis on the western corner of downtown — planted between Interstate 394 and a Hennepin Avenue parking ramp. For tenants willing to share a bathroom, however, the Park Laurel complex has remained a tattered refuge in the city center.

A new owner said everyone needs to leave by the end of the month so the property can be rehabbed. Several tenants who haven’t yet moved say they have nowhere to go, and at least one is prepared to go to a homeless shelter.

The city is mulling legal action that might buy tenants some time, and an advocacy group is criticizing management’s unusual tactics to pressure people out — such as posting a notice of inspections to “ensure the move-out process is happening.”

“Any kind of way to inconvenience you, this is what’s going on over here,” said Eric Dabdee, a chef at a catering company who lives in a first-floor unit with his 8-year-old daughter Aricka. His kitchen ceiling is caving in from water damage, and he got a cat to handle cockroaches and mice.

The sale and rehab of the Park Laurel is the latest example of developers converting cheap, older housing in prime locations into a higher-end apartments with rents set at whatever the market will bear. That rapid loss of “naturally occurring affordable housing” has become a growing concern among housing advocates who note that preserving and rehabbing affordable properties is cheaper than building new.

Maven Real Estate Partners purchased the Laurel Avenue buildings in March. They plan to convert it into a more traditional building — no shared bathrooms — with new cabinets and quartz countertops.

“We acquired the building with the intention of renovating the property, because previous owners had allowed the property to deteriorate pretty far,” said Justin Greer, Maven’s director of operations.

Maven has a similar project down the block at The Alden, another aging apartment building that was home to moderate-income tenants until this winter.

‘Are you moving?’

Park Laurel is in poor shape — bathrooms covered in mold, a rusting laundry room with holes in the walls, water leaking through light fixtures, mattresses and furniture strewn about a shared courtyard. Tenants say people frequently sneak in to do drugs or sleep.

The building has racked up 314 housing code violations since 2006. It has had several landlords in recent years, most recently Persaud Properties. Maven gave tenants notices to vacate in late July. Since then, tenants have seen notices that locks will be changed Sept. 30, that the water may be shut off due to unpaid bills and that the mail will stop being delivered — in addition to the move-out inspections.

“Eleven a.m., knock, knock, knock, there’s just a guy standing there and he goes, ‘Are you moving?’ ” said tenant Mike Sullivan. “It totally caught me off-guard.”

He’s waiting to hear back about a couple of jobs, but if he has to leave at the end of the month, “I would be at 1010 Currie, the homeless shelter,” Sullivan said.

The tactics have attracted criticism from Homeline, a tenant advocacy group, which says lockout threats, move-out inspections and other actions run afoul of tenants’ rights.

“They’ve come in with little regard for the people that are there, many of whom have been there a long time,” said Eric Hauge, an organizer with Homeline.

Surviving on Social Security checks without a car, 70-year-old Claude Hernandez has lived at Park Laurel for 12 years. He pays $475 for his unit, sharing a bathroom with others, and has come up empty in his apartment search. “September’s almost over and there’s still nothing,” Hernandez said.

City weighs action

Maven’s management company ultimately issued a new notice, backtracking on some of the lock-change and move-out inspections. Greer attributed the improper notices to a young employee of the property management firm they’ve hired.

“Nothing that we sent out was intended to pressure tenants,” Greer said.

The city is weighing whether to file a tenant remedies action over the unaddressed housing violations at the property, said City Council Member Lisa Goodman.

Greer said he sympathizes with the city’s affordable housing concerns and is examining whether this could become an affordable housing project. He believes the city is sending conflicting messages.

“They want me to renovate the building, but they don’t want me to vacate the building,” Greer said. “And I think that in order to properly renovate the building, I need to vacate the building in order to do the right amount of work.”

Hauge noted some of the outstanding violations are fire safety issues, and Greer is responsible for fixing them because he chose to continue collecting rent on the property.

Goodman said she supports the private market but that in this situation it is not working toward the public good.

“In the end, the public’s going to have to find a way to support these people,” Goodman said. “If they don’t live in this housing, they’re going to be in a shelter, and that’s going cost the public, too.”

 

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