The placard, marked “Notice of condemnation” in capital letters, was on John Stachowski’s door when he got home from work.
He hadn’t paid his water bill, so his water was going to be shut off. That meant the city considered his house, on St. Paul’s East Side, a health and safety hazard. He had one day to pay his bill or leave.
“I’d lived there 30 years, and I knew in the past that you could kind of put off your water bill for a while, and they wouldn’t just shut you off,” Stachowski said. “It’s like, really? If I don’t pay it by tomorrow, I can’t come back to my house?”
City code requires that properties have running water, and a condemnation notice deeming a property “unfit for human habitation” can follow within days of a shut-off. Between 2016 and 2018, St. Paul sent condemnation notices to 188 owner-occupied properties for lack of water service, according to a Star Tribune analysis of condemnation records.
City officials acknowledge that policies intended to keep residents safe can force them from their homes — a phenomenon made all the more dire by the housing shortage in St. Paul and across the region.
“The goal isn’t to harm people, and I think that, unintentionally, some of these policies have been harming people,” said City Council President Amy Brendmoen.
St. Paul data show most condemnations due to water shut-offs happen in some of the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods. Of properties the city condemned between 2016 and 2018, more than half have been sold, according to Ramsey County property records. Of those, 49 were sold in a bank sale. Of all the owner-occupied homes condemned after water shut-offs, 45 are now registered vacant buildings.
Mayor Melvin Carter was unavailable for comment.
Last week, the City Council approved a policy that will give residents more power to appeal their water bills and shut-offs. Department of Safety and Inspections Director Ricardo Cervantes said the department hasn’t tracked whether residents are displaced because of water shut-off condemnations.
“What you’re pointing out to me is we should maybe be tracking that somehow,” he said.
‘Total abject panic’
St. Paul, like Minneapolis, gives residents multiple notices before turning off their water. Shut-offs happen more than a month after St. Paul Regional Water Services issues a bill; according to Water Services’ 2019 budget, water bills average about $300 a year.
In Minneapolis, a water bill becomes delinquent after 21 days and shut-off can follow soon after, according to city policy.
“It may be a surprise, but it shouldn’t be a surprise that this is happening,” said Kellie Jones, director of housing inspection services at Minneapolis Regulatory Services.
Condemnation notices can still catch residents off-guard.
Tammy Soler owned a house on St. Paul’s East Side for 23 years and had her water shut off a few times for lack of payment. But it wasn’t until December 2017 that a condemnation notice followed, and she panicked.
“Are they going to come and take my kid? Are they going to come and condemn my house? Where am I going to live?” she recalled thinking.
Soler paid her water bill and avoided having to leave her house, though she eventually moved. After facing foreclosure, she sold the house last year for a $55,000 cash offer.
She’s still in St. Paul, but thinks often of the little 19th-century house where she raised her three children. “I wish I wouldn’t have moved,” she said, “because I really miss my house.”
It’s not just unpaid bills that can lead to a shut-off. The city sometimes does it if a resident doesn’t use enough water.
Aaron McKain came home one day in January 2018 to find his water shut off and the house, in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood, condemned.
According to St. Paul Regional Water Services, a meter reading in November showed zero water consumption, and multiple notices went unanswered. McKain was ill and had left town for several weeks for the holidays, and said he missed the notices as a result.
When he got home, he had three days to vacate. He contacted the city but started moving his belongings anyway, afraid that he’d be locked out.
Though McKain’s water was turned back on a few days later, the episode stuck with him.
“There was that moment of total abject panic,” he said. “It’s gone from, ‘Hey, you’re not using enough water,’ to, ‘Hey, we’re going to shut the water off,’ to ‘Hey, the house is condemned, you’ve got to get your stuff out of there.’ ”
Help is limited
City officials in both St. Paul and Minneapolis emphasized that forcing someone to vacate their house after a water shut-off is a last resort.
Cities often refer residents to nonprofits and government programs that can help pay utility bills, though those programs often rely on grant funding and limit how often individuals can use their services.
“People will come back multiple times, because they’re vulnerable,” said Lauren Lightner, supervisor for the Ramsey County program HouseCalls, which provides utility assistance. “They’re kind of living on the edge of their budget.”
St. Paul Regional Water Services, which serves St. Paul and surrounding communities, offers once-a-year payment assistance to residents who qualify as low-income, said General Manager Steve Schneider.
That program, funded by resident donations and money left behind in old accounts, regularly runs dry, he said.
The Board of Water Commissioners has asked staff to look for ways to expand that fund to serve people whose bill spiked because of a leak, Schneider said. Water Services also provides payment plans, and is considering ways to help people who’ve had their water shut off more than once, he said.
Until last week, appeals over water billing went to risk management in the city’s Human Resources department. The City Council decided last week that water customers will now appeal to Marcia Moermond, the city’s legislative hearing officer. If a resident doesn’t agree with Moermond’s recommendation for how to resolve their case, they can take their case to the Board of Water Commissioners.
Meanwhile, the Department of Safety and Inspections is exploring how many people are displaced by its practices, and is beginning to track whether tenants are losing their housing because of actions against their landlords, Cervantes said.
“We’re certainly ultimately sensitive to the issues that are facing the city, and we’re constantly looking for better ways,” he said.
Staff writer Jeff Hargarten contributed to this report.