Wrecking ball to claim more Mpls affordable housing

By Dwight Hobbes
Contributing Writer

Bethlehem Baptist Church is on the left, the doomed 1205 S. 7th St. on the right. -Photo by James L. Stroud, Jr.

The apartment building at 1205 S. 7th St. in Minneapolis used to be basically a one-building ghetto. It was a stereotypical, dilapidated eyesore, complete with a scarred, refuse-strewn lawn, filled with drunks and junkies on welfare plus an honest working tenant or two. Butch (not his real name), who has lived there since 1996, recalls his neighbors then as a “bunch of bums on Section 8.  Kept the place run down, breaking windows, tearing up the walls in the hall. This one fiendin’ crackhead broke into the basement washing machines for the change. Then you couldn’t do laundry.

“Wasn’t bad enough they lived like animals, snuck in neighbors’ homes, stole cameras, televisions, stereos. Always fights. Cops came two, three times a month it seemed. Them parasites ain’t give a damn, living just about rent-free. They wasn’t about nothin’ and wasn’t trying to be.”

How it worked was that Section 8 clients paid a pittance, less than $20 a month on the average. Hennepin County paid the rest of the rent directly to the landlords. Like clockwork. Said landlords showed up if and when they found it necessary. Otherwise, the building steadily went to ruin, the only ramshackle structure on a nice block that has two churches. When the 1205 tenants didn’t raise hell, the block was a decent, quiet place to live.

Change began in 2005, when next-door neighbor Bethlehem Baptist Church (BBC) bought the duplex. Foregoing the land-grabbing norm of tearing everything down and putting up a parking lot, BBC reseeded the lawn, renovated the apartments, and generally took an interest in making the place habitable.

“Funny thing,” says Butch — “they didn’t have to get rid of the bums. The nicer the place shaped up, the faster deadbeats left. Could’ve had something to do with Kurt being a regular presence.”

Butch states that Kurt Swanson, agent for Masterworks Inc., which now manages the building for BBC, was hands-on, unlike the previous landlord, and closely supervised building improvements. Which made it hard to drink, drug and brawl on whim. So, the disruptive tenants took their Section 8 vouchers elsewhere and were replaced by others more appreciative of having a safe roof overhead.

Fast forward to 2011: The roof at 1205 So. 7th Street is no longer safely overhead. Come June 1, BBC brings in the wrecking ball and Minneapolis’ shortage of affordable housing — those increasingly rare low-income rental units — grows still more acute.

What happened? BBC’s priority in making the purchase was to control the space; a broader purpose wasn’t immediately decided. Masterworks offered to manage the building. Kenny Stokes, BBC pastor for outreach, says, “[We wanted to] preserve the building while we had it and not prematurely remove it.” Hence, a partnership formed as a stop-gap measure to maintain the housing for at least three years.

As time passed, it grew harder and harder to pay the bills. Masterworks, for all its best intent, is, as Swanson notes, “not made of money. We have to be realistic.” Ultimately, rental income, which was funneled back into building, couldn’t cover all the necessary repairs, particularly damage from a nasty rainstorm last July that dumped about 7 inches of water much faster than it could run off. Insurance covered the roof but didn’t kick in for the nearly collapsed second-floor ceiling, soaked, mildewing corridor walls and such until deductibles were paid out of Masterworks’ pocket.

Jon Grano, BBC pastor for operations, reflects, “Increasingly, Masterworks finds it hard to put…funds into maintaining, fixing up the building. That’s been the biggest challenge.” And the church won’t commit to a longer term investment.

Pastor Grano says, “One of the things [BBC] looked at before purchasing the property was a possible complex that would have retail and housing.” That’s after a process of conversations and negotiations take place with developers, architects and construction contractors, and after the BBC congregation is consulted — possibly by 2013.

“At this point,” says Pastor Grano, “it’s not much more than conceptual.” Which doesn’t help the tenants who concretely have been rendered homeless.

Tenant Paul Johnson takes it in stride, noting, “I was wondering when it [would] happen. I was told when I moved in [it would be] anywhere from five to eight years. It’s been almost six. So, this is it.”

Swanson attests, “We don’t want this to be any harder on anyone that it has to be. Every attempt is being made to [relocate tenants].” How? First, with purse strings: Residents who remain in good standing will have May’s rent, along with their damage deposits, refunded.
Second, Masterworks, principally in the person of board member Swanson, is combing through business contacts trying to come up with viable housing leads. Hardly cavalry riding to the rescue, but it’s more than landlords characteristically do for displaced tenants.

Butch takes scant solace. “I’ll tell you point blank, it’s a lousy situation. On one hand, Bethlehem could’ve bought the place and junked it to begin with, but didn’t. Give them credit for that. On the other hand, where the hell are people who don’t make but so much money going to live?”

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to dhobbes@spokesman-recorder.com.