Community-based fundraising and a corporate donation will help keep displaced Bell Lofts tenants in temporary hotel housing through mid-February, in hopes they will soon find long-term accommodations.
About 50 people living in the north Minneapolis apartment building were flooded out Dec. 28 after a pipe burst, prompting the city to condemn the 117-year-old structure. The incident has raised questions about the cause of the rupture, whether the building was properly maintained and the city's and landlord's responsibilities toward displaced tenants.
Enrique Velazquez, director of Minneapolis' Inspections Services division, said a fire suppression system in the building failed to alert firefighters about the flood, which was reported by tenants. About 40,000 gallons of water gushed from the ruptured pipe in a stairwell on the third floor.
Velazquez said the cause of the burst is uncertain, although cold weather was a factor.
"Had the alarm system done its job and communicated with the fire department, potentially we could have responded sooner, and maybe not as much water would have gushed into each individual dwelling unit," he said.
Crowdfunding by Minneapolis nonprofits It Takes a Village and Documenting MN helped cover hotel stays for tenants, while U.S. Bank disbursed $10,000 to It Takes a Village to pay for families to stay at a downtown Minneapolis hotel. Sixteen families were still there as of late last week.
Dyonyca Conley-Rush, director of It Takes a Village, said she is continuing to help tenants find stable housing and hopes to have everyone settled by Feb. 18.
Bell Lofts' landlord, Chris Webley, has owned the Hawthorne neighborhood building at N. 21st and Bryant avenues since March 2021, a city spokesperson said. Webley did not return several messages seeking comment.
Velazquez said Webley's landlord license has been revoked for the property. "The license is specific to that parcel, so if he has other properties that aren't impacted like this, then those will continue," he said.
Velazquez said Webley "was extremely responsive up front" and took steps immediately after the flood to remove the water and help tenants find housing. But several tenants said that after Webley paid for a week of hotel stays, he stopped responding to their messages about what would happen next.
Velazquez said the city has conducted a proactive inspection of the building every eight years — checking the fire suppression systems, fire alarms, access, elevators and other areas to make sure the building was safe and that the property owner and maintenance workers were doing their jobs.
Complaint-based inspections are also done, but those focus mostly on the condition of an individual unit or a common area rather than the whole building.
"By and large, we believe that the property itself was in good condition," Velazquez said.
The building wasn't completely ruined by the flood, he said: "The bones of the building are in very good shape. The structure is really good."
Webley will be replacing damaged panels and flooring in the wet sections after the pipe is repaired and the fire suppression system is restored. Webley has had the property "for a short period of time, so he's still learning what it's like to be a landlord or property owner," Velazquez said.
He said that in the wake of such an incident, it's important that all tenants receive the same information on a consistent basis — "whether it's from the city, whether it's directly from the property owner, or if it's from another third party that's helping to support them through this ordeal."
"Otherwise," Velazquez said, "in that void, there's just doubt — uncertainty on what's going to come next, what's going to happen tomorrow or the next day or tonight."