There was not much to see at a modest home near Bohanon Park on Minneapolis’ North Side one recent morning. But that was precisely the point.
Leaders of Hennepin County’s housing team watched as a contractor installed vinyl sheets resembling windows, camouflaging the plywood that has dotted the vacant house since 2012. It is part of a new pilot project examining whether disguising vacant homes reduces vandalism and improves nearby property values.
“Seriously, that’s on the outside? It looks like a window shade,” Ann Moe, chairwoman of the Lind-Bohanon Neighborhood Association, said as she strolled up the block with two greyhounds in tow.
The foreclosure crisis that rocked north Minneapolis has largely subsided, but the area still features more than 300 of the city’s 550 vacant properties. Some have sat empty for years, their plywood boards one of the most visible scars of the housing crisis in hard-hit neighborhoods like Jordan, Folwell, Hawthorne and Willard-Hay.
The house at 48th and Colfax avenues is a singular case study for the county, which has also applied a similar treatment to two North Side commercial buildings. They will evaluate whether it reduces problems like copper theft or people dumping mattresses, appliances or furniture in the yard — perennial problems at vacant homes.
“As a homeowner, I know that my property values are instantly lowered because of it,” Moe said of boarded homes. “The more that I see on a block, the more my value goes down, the less the people that are here seem to care” about neighborhood upkeep.
‘On our radar’
Yet despite the county’s experiment, the city is tops when it comes to boarding. The county inherits properties through unpaid taxes, at which point most of them are already covered in plywood. Minneapolis authorized 290 board-ups last year, compared with the county’s six.
“It’s on our radar. This is something that we want to do,” said JoAnn Velde, the city’s deputy director of housing inspection services.
The city made a similar beautification attempt in 2008 when it paid a Chicago company to paint windows on vacant buildings — even mock stained glass in the case of one church. The contract was ultimately nixed because of performance problems, Velde said.
Cost is a major consideration. The city estimated that boarding up the Colfax house would have cost about $570 under normal circumstances. It ultimately cost the county just over $1,300 — about $800 of which paid for the vinyl sheets. And unlike the county, the city passes those costs on to the property owner.
“We very much like the idea of looking for better alternatives as we realize that traditional boarding methods have their own inherent flaws, but we’re also bound to make sure we don’t pass on unreasonable costs to homeowners as well,” Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde, Minneapolis’ director of regulatory services, wrote in an e-mail.
But that’s less of a concern to Council Member Blong Yang, who represents a ward with the city’s largest concentration of vacant homes.
“At some point, whoever owns the place, they’re responsible for causing the blight and causing the bad stuff to happen in the neighborhood,” Yang said. “And if it’s going to cost them more, fine. I’d be all for that.”
St. Paul’s inventory
Velde said it is often more complicated, however, since properties are often sold or owners simply don’t pay the assessed fees. “We do recover some, a percentage [of the costs], but a percentage we do not,” Velde said.
St. Paul has more than 900 vacant properties. Robert Humphrey, spokesman for the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections, said they have experimented with steel mesh, plexiglass and other materials resembling windows, but “in the end we always go back to the standard gray board as they’re readily available, easy to install, fit any application, and are time- and cost-effective.”
Back at the Colfax house, Mark Chapin, the county’s director of resident and real estate services, said they feel the extra cost is worthwhile. A 2008 University of Minnesota study of St. Paul homes, for example, found that vacant properties within 450 feet reduce a home’s value by an average of 5.2 percent. Other national examinations have found they attract increased crime and arson, as well as consume added public resources for maintenance.
“When you put that plywood up there, it sends out a signal,” Chapin said. “It’s almost like a vulnerable adult out here — the fact that it could be abused by others that might want to do graffiti on it, get in it, damage it, occupy it.”
Before they cleaned out the property, the interior was strewn with mattresses, sofas, bicycles and covered in graffiti — some of it referencing the Taliban street gang. The fake door and windows now adorning the home, include the reflection of a tree, all likely reproduce a real scene somewhere in Michigan. The county purchased the sheets from Home Illusions, a Flint, Mich.,-based company that will also sell faux stain glass and grated windows, as well as armored, screen or wooden doors.
President Scott Smith started the company after running for mayor of Flint several years ago. But he says that growth has been a challenge because local governments are strapped for the extra cash. “So we’re hoping it takes off. It just hasn’t really taken off full force yet like we want it to,” Smith said.
They’ve been sending a lot of their product to Washington, D.C., however, which charges owners of “blighted” properties twice what it charges owners of vacant properties.
“One step toward avoiding a determination that a property is blighted is to improve the aesthetic condition of the building on it, such as adding the vinyl siding with painted windows on it,” Matt Orlins, a spokesman for the district’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, said in an e-mail.
The county owns many vacant homes, but chose the Colfax property for its experiment because of its troubled history and proximity to nearby schools, parks and greenways. They hope a rehabber can eventually bring the place back to life, part of a larger city and county effort to connect vacant homes with prospective homeowners.
“It’s not the end solution, or outcome that we are looking for in the end,” Jeff Strand, administrative manager in the county’s property tax division, said of the vinyl. The goal “is to get the properties rehabilitated and reoccupied with homeowners or with quality landlords.”