Andrew Dick is trying hard to make sense of the situation he's in.

He bought a vacant, dilapidated house on St. Paul's East Side with the intention, and the means, to fix it up and sell it. He has a track record, a plan and money in the bank.

What he might end up with, though, is a hole in the ground and a bill. According to a recently adopted city ordinance, he shouldn't have been allowed to buy the property, which is heading down the path to demolition.

"I'm the owner of the house, but I'm not allowed to fix it up?" Dick, 28, asked rhetorically.

The fate of Dick's investment now rests with the City Council, and a decision is likely within a couple of weeks. Should he be the exception to the ordinance, or should he be the example of why the ordinance was enacted in the first place?

The answer is easy for Council Member Dan Bostrom.

"According to the ordinance, it was illegal to sell that property until it was brought up to code. Period. Period -- there are no options," he said. The right outcome, he said, would be for the bank to get the property back and refund Dick's money.

Bostrom sponsored the ordinance, which took effect in September, with the purpose of holding banks and mortgage companies responsible for vacant buildings. Basically, the ordinance says that if a vacant building is listed as a Category 3 building, meaning the worst kinds with multiple safety code violations, then it can't be sold until it's brought up to minimum safety standards.

The goal is to get better-quality buildings into buyers' hands instead of passing along problems. The explosion of vacant, rundown buildings has a horrible effect on neighborhoods, Bostrom said.

The house in question, at 664 Wells St., also happens to be in Bostrom's ward, which has the highest concentrations of vacant buildings in the city.

The city surpassed 2,200 vacant buildings, the vast majority single-family houses and duplexes, last year. As of Feb. 9, there were 1,985 vacant buildings overall in the city, 159 of them Category 3 and 1,400 of them Category 2, which have fewer code violations.

At a public hearing earlier this month, City Council members debated the situation.

Bostrom made clear where he stands, but other council members questioned how the sale could have happened in the first place, because there's no real penalty for selling a Category 3 under the ordinance.

Bostrom said having to hold on to and fix up the property is the penalty.

Council members Melvin Carter III, Pat Harris and Russ Stark suggested reviewing the ordinance to see whether there's a better way to enforce it.

Maybe, Stark said, this situation could be the exception. After all, Dick owns the house, he said.

Council President Kathy Lantry said the point is to get rid of a nuisance. Does that mean avoiding an exception? "I'm inclined to let him [Dick] proceed," she said.

The Truth of Sale in Housing report -- completed in August -- said the house was a Category 2. At the late November closing, Dick was told the house was a Category 2. So he signed and took ownership.

But, according to city records, the house became a Category 3 on Sept. 16, when a notification letter was sent to the previous owner. The letter, however, did not say anything about not being able to sell the property because of its condition, only that the city would need to be told if it were sold.

Dick found out about the Category 3 status in early January. He said the city told him that the ordinance wasn't being enforced until December, so Dick figured he was OK because of the November closing.

Dick paid $19,900 for the house and put up a $5,000 bond to show he's serious about the fix-up. He repaired the broken windows and changed the locks. He shovels the walk when it snows.

The two-story house, built in 1888, still has "good bones," Dick said. He plans to spend $50,000 for repairs that include new floors, electrical and remodeled bathrooms. The estimated market value in 2009 is $108,700, according to Ramsey County records.

Dick has rehabilitated several other houses, including three in nearby Dayton's Bluff.

"The purpose of the ordinance is to make St. Paul a better place. I can appreciate that," Dick said. "But I don't see where punishing me would be a fair solution."

Chris Havens • 612-673-4148