West St. Paul officials say the nondescript brick apartments at 1492 Charlton St. bring trouble to the neighborhood. Residents call police far too often, they say, draining city resources — and the landlord doesn’t care.
But resident Penny Pinkerton says that’s not true. She calls the place home and doesn’t want to leave.
West St. Paul may force her to do just that. The city yanked the rental license of her 30-unit building on Sept. 25, ordering the tenants to move by July 1.
“I’m furious,” Pinkerton said. “I’ve built a life in this area, and now I have to disrupt it.”
City officials say they revoked the license — a rare move — because the landlord hasn’t improved conditions despite repeated warnings.
“Revoking a rental license is not a process we take lightly,” said Jim Hartshorn, West St. Paul’s community development director. “It’s an option that we have for ongoing problem properties [whose owners] refuse to listen to us.”
But many tenants say the city’s claims of a chaotic building are unfounded and the revocation is a draconian step, punishing everyone living there. Local faith leaders and county officials said the city’s actions threaten to make tenants — many low-income or disabled — homeless in a tight housing market that is especially short on affordable housing.
“When I got wind of this situation, my heart just bled,” said Oliver White, a pastor at Clark-Grace United Church of Christ in South St. Paul. “I mean, where will these people go? Where will they get the money?”
About 20 tenants and their supporters gathered Monday at the West St. Paul City Council meeting to explain how the revocation affects them.
In response, the council pushed back the move-out date from Jan. 1 to July 1 so children can finish school and residents won’t have to move in winter.
Multiple council members told residents they sympathized but that they should take up their concerns with the property’s owner, Greg Mailand, who they say brought the revocation on himself. They said that Mailand was taking advantage of them.
“We want property owners who are going to take care of their property,” Council Member Dick Vitelli said to Mailand. “You don’t do that. You take the rent and go to the bank.”
Mailand declined an interview. He has petitioned the Minnesota Court of Appeals to review the city’s decision to revoke his rental licenses, asserting in court documents that its actions were “unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious and in violation of the City’s City Code and Minnesota law.”
A tight ship?
A first-ring suburb, about 40 percent of West St. Paul’s housing is rented, with 126 active licenses for buildings with more than four units.
In September 2015, the city strengthened its rental ordinance, giving it more teeth, said Ben Boike, assistant community development director. Even so, he said, license revocations still remained a few each year, often hinging on code violations and the number of police calls.
For a building like 1492 Charlton with 30 units, the limit is 15 total police calls or code violations over a year, not counting medical or domestic-related calls. Exceeding that number means a building’s license may be revoked or switched to a provisional version, requiring an improvement plan.
The Charlton property generated 76 police calls last year; 27 were related to a nuisance or criminal complaints, including an indecent exposure in the parking lot, an assault and robbery with a gun and two fights.
At the revocation hearing and in his appeals court filings, Mailand said he was a responsible landlord and manager. He has a tenant screening process in place, said his attorney, Bradley Kletscher. He noted that it can take time to evict a problem tenant, adding that two tenants who prompted police calls have since moved out.
Council Member Anthony Fernandez said Mailand has failed to make any changes the council sought in a number of meetings with him.
Mailand Management says on its website that it owns 26 properties, nine of which are in West St. Paul. Four of those were given provisional licenses at the Sept. 25 meeting.
Residents and visitors described the Charlton property as mostly quiet. Several said Mailand took a chance on people who found it hard to find homes elsewhere.
Nathan Tonnancour co-owns Ally Services, a company providing support services to people with disabilities living independently. He said neither he nor six of his clients feel unsafe in the building.
“I work with 20 landlords, and [Mailand] is the most professional and caring,” Tonnancour said.
Marge Nauer, a live-in caretaker for the building, said she runs a tight ship.
“There hasn’t been that much going on, and all of the tenants will tell you the same thing,” Nauer said.
She blamed the license revocation on neighbors, who she said don’t like the building or its residents.
Emmett O’Brien, who lives across the street, said he witnessed drug deals near the building and blamed it for the garbage that sometimes blows around the neighborhood. O’Brien said he’s even seen men climbing down the building’s exterior. “It’s out of control over there,” he said.
Eric Hauge, director of organizing and public policy at Home Line, a nonprofit tenant advocacy group, said West St. Paul moved unusually fast to revoke the building’s license. He said other cities use less onerous options first.
Hauge said if the city is deterring people from calling 911, that’s problematic. If they have to weigh calling police against losing their housing, he said, “That’s really scary.”
Tenants who attended Monday’s meeting said they are happy the council gave them more time, but finding an affordable apartment will still be challenging.
The building’s rent ranges from $645 for an efficiency to $890 for a two-bedroom with a balcony. A one-bedroom in the Twin Cities averaged $976 per month in mid-September.
Police Chief Bud Shaver is heading up a committee to connect tenants with housing options.
County officials became involved anticipating that the tenants will turn to them for emergency shelter services. West St. Paul officials listed them in a memo as a source of assistance, said Madeline Kastler, Dakota County housing manager.
“We can’t even accommodate the folks entering the system now,” Kastler said.