Maureen Dalnes says it's just not fair: Under a city loan program soon to be revisited by the Legislature, she is expected to pay as much for repairs to her Roseville townhouse as neighbors who have twice the space.

Her 796-square-foot home was assessed at $32,000 for roofing and siding improvements -- the same amount as her neighbors with more space, she said. She also doesn't understand why Roseville has declared her middle-class condo building a "housing improvement area'' and given it a $1.5 million loan for the exterior repairs.

"If the city is lending them $1.5 million, you'd think there would be some kind of oversight for fairness,'' said Dalnes, who will take her case to the City Council tonight.

A growing effort

As Twin Cities suburbs work to maintain quality housing, older condos and townhouses are showing up on their radar screen. Dalnes' experience points to one financial option that many suburbs are tapping to repair those buildings -- and raising questions about what the law intended.

At least a half-dozen suburbs have declared a condominium or townhouse -- or a cluster of them -- "housing improvement areas'' eligible for city-backed loans. The designation is from a 1996 law to help cities prevent these high-profile buildings from deteriorating, as well as to give homeowners a longer-term loan to repay than a big one-time assessment.

Suburbs such as Hopkins and St. Louis Park said their assessment fees have generally varied by unit size or other factors. But Roseville officials say they can't recommend a different assessment formula to help the six small units such as the one Dalnes owns, which are half the size of the standard 1,600-square-foot units, because the formula is based on the governing rules of her Westwood Village I homeowners association.

"We're not going to try to come up with a perfect formula,'' said Pat Trudgeon, Roseville's community development director. "If [the homeowners association agrees] as a board, that's the way it is. There's nothing we can do about it.''

A sympathetic response

City Council Member Amy Ihlan disagrees. "The council's job is to make sure assessments are fair, just like what they do for private property,'' she said. "When we assess for street improvements, we don't let homeowners on the block get together and decide how the assessments should be allocated.''

The 1996 law that allowed cities to use this funding option is scheduled to sunset this year, but the League of Minnesota Cities is lobbying to maintain it. The law was based on a request from Hopkins officials, who were worried about housing deterioration in that city's Westbrooke neighborhood, said Kersten Elverum, city planning and economic development director.

About 17 percent of the city's housing was in that neighborhood, she said, but conditions had declined in some properties to the point where lenders didn't want to give mortgages. Hopkins tried unsuccessfully to pull together private and government loans, she said, then turned to the "housing improvement area'' option to repair 1,040 units in three projects. She considers the loan arrangement a success.

The Westwood Village I building, meanwhile, is a well-kept 47-unit building, nestled among two companion townhouses near the corner of Dale Street and County Road C. The homeowners association asked the city to declare it a housing improvement area and submitted two rejected loan bids from local banks to show it could not get a lender, Trudgeon said.

Sarah Maristuen, the association manager at Westwood Village I, said the designation was a good fit because of the scope of the project and the association's lack of financial reserves. As for assessing every homeowner the same amount, everyone benefits from exterior repairs such as roofing and siding, Maristuen said.

"Townhome living is community living, and you pay for things you don't use,'' she said.

Dalnes said she doesn't object to paying for improvements on common spaces as long as those payments are fair. She plans to make that argument -- again -- in the hope that the city will get involved in the assessments. "People need to know this can happen to them,'' she said.

Jean Hopfensperger • 651-298-1553