Abandoned homes with unpaid taxes often languish for years before they are forfeited to the government. But Hennepin County is using the courts in hopes of bringing the properties back to life sooner.

County officials wrapped up their final hearing this week in a monthslong experiment to dramatically cut the time that some problem property owners have to pay their back taxes. The pilot program targeted nine “worst of the worst” homes scattered around Minneapolis, all of which had been condemned and were racking up housing violations.

“Typically, these properties are in very bad condition and they’re deteriorating and they’re damaging these neighborhoods,” said Mark Chapin, director of resident and real estate services. “The quicker we force a decision about what’s going to happen to that property, the more quickly we can … remedy the situation.”

County officials took advantage of a state law that allows them to file a complaint in district court requesting a special five-week period for owners to redeem their property after becoming delinquent on their taxes — a process that normally takes one to three years. Most of the homes in the pilot spent several years in arrears and were vacant even longer.

The result? Three property owners paid their taxes, three houses were forfeited to the county, two are pending forfeiture and one was demolished by the city. Chapin said they ultimately will make a recommendation to the County Board about whether to pursue this option more regularly, though because of the extensive legal work required to reach owners, it would still be limited to properties meeting certain criteria.

Tax-forfeited homes generally end up in one of two places: Some are held by the city and either demolished or sold to people willing to rehab them through the city’s “recycling” program. Others are sold to the highest bidder at semiannual county auctions. The city sells some for just $1 because of damage sustained over several years sitting empty.

“Basically, we’re getting at a decaying asset in the community quicker,” Chapin said. “And if it can be rehabbed, we give it that chance. If it can’t be rehabbed, then we remove that damaging component from that neighborhood.”

Vacant homes are particularly problematic on the North Side. About 59 percent of the city’s 535 vacant homes are in north Minneapolis, which otherwise comprises just two of the city’s 13 wards.

‘A lot of drug dealing’

Homeowners on the 4000 block of Aldrich Avenue are keenly aware of nearby vacant properties. One of them, 4047 Aldrich Av., was targeted by the county’s program. It is flanked by another vacant home and an empty lot where a house burned down.

The property at 4047 Aldrich was declared vacant in 2009 and was condemned in 2011. It has since generated about 123 housing violations, according to the county. Amy Holubar, who lives next door, said it has been a draw for criminal activity.

“You see two boarded houses, you see a lot of drug dealing going on right there,” said Holubar, whose large fence warns visitors that they are on camera. Dealers assume no one will notice them, she said. “Well, yeah, I do know. I do know that you don’t belong out in front of that house, sitting in your car waiting for something.”

A peek inside a broken window at 4047 reveals a messy pile of unrecognizable fabric items — as well as a child’s stuffed animal — left by squatters. Holubar said the property became a drug den and a brothel after its owners abandoned it. “It’s got a really bad history,” she said. “The house is trashed. It’s really sad.”

Another neighbor, Sharon Kinkle, is eager to see residents move in. “Everybody just kind of talks about it,” she said. “Everything just takes so long.”

 

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