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When the rental-license inspector comes calling

I own a house at 1702 Glenwood Avenue in Minneapolis and occupy two out of its four units. The city website says that this house was built in 1900. I do know that it was previously owned by the Heffelfinger family, related to the grain-milling Peaveys, and was the original structure in the neighborhood.

I have lived in the two upstairs units of this house since June 1992. Paying tenants occupy the three-bedroom unit beneath me and the two-bedroom unit on the north end of the building.

This is the story of an inspections ordeal (no worse perhaps than many others in the city have suffered in recent years) endured for most of 2011.

One theory is that I incurred the wrath of city officials when, at a board meeting of the Harrison Neighborhood Association on December 20, 2010, I expressed outrage that the neighborhood association was rejecting a businessman’s proposal to use a vacant building on Glenwood Avenue for what I regarded as capricious reasons. Glenwood is conspicuously lacking in commercial activity. An ethnic funeral parlor, which occupies the structure of what used to be a supermarket anchoring this corridor, symbolizes to me that the street is dying.

Believing that the neighborhood association was blocking legitimate business development, I wrote one of its principal funders, the McKnight Foundation, as well as another funder, the City of Minneapolis, complaining of its negative influence in that regard. I may not sufficiently have appreciated the fact that neighborhood associations are also important constituencies and sometimes political allies of incumbent City Council members. The Harrison board voted on January 10, 2011, to remove me from the board for disloyalty to the organization.

Whether or not this had a bearing on subsequent city action, I received a letter from the Minneapolis Fire Department dated January 4, 2011, to the effect that Fire Department inspectors would be inspecting my rental units at 1702 Glenwood Avenue on February 1, 2011. Both tenants needed to fill out and sign consent forms so that the inspectors could legally gain access to their living quarters.

On February 1, the Fire Department inspectors, led by a tough-talking female captain, Shari Pierzina, showed up at the house around 9:00 a.m. and immediately remarked that there were “lots of problems” with the building. The old couch, spare stove, and building materials on the porch, among other things, had to be removed.

Captain Pierzina asked to take a look at the basement and I allowed access. Now in high gear, she expressed dissatisfaction with what she saw. At least six months of work would be needed to clean this up, she said. It would be best to bring in experts from the Inspections department to evaluate the situation.

On the same day, the city sent me an order to abate the “nuisance condition” on my porch by February 8, 2011. Specifically, I needed to remove “boxes, couch, upholstered chair, washing machine (it was a stove), sheets, plastic and miscellaneous debris” from the porch. The work was completed by February 8, and no further orders were issued.

my wife gets me evicted

My wife and I had been discussing divorce during this period. On February 18, 2011 - three days before my 70th birthday - I was arrested for domestic assault and taken to jail. My wife had taken my checkbook from a table as I sat at a computer. She started asking me about particular checks that had been written. At one point, I grabbed the checkbook out of her hand. My wife then bit me and I pulled my wrist away from her mouth, causing an injury. My wife called 911. I was promptly arrested, no questions asked.

The practical effect of this incident was that, upon my release from jail, a judge had ordered that I was forbidden to have any contact with my wife, directly or indirectly through a third party, by any means including email communication or telephone calls except when a Minneapolis police officer was present. I was also forbidden to set foot on the property at 1702 Glenwood Avenue. The judge’s order was dated February 23, 2011. It would remain in effect until my case was resolved. In the meanwhile, I stayed at the house of a friend, Alan Morrison, in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.

inspector Azmoudeh commences an inspection

Around this time, I received a letter from a Minneapolis housing inspector, Farrokh Azmoudeh, informing me that a complete rental-license inspection would be done on my house at 1702 Glenwood Avenue on Monday, February 28, 2011, at 10:00 a.m. Evidently, this man had taken over the assignment of inspecting my house from the Fire Department. I was again instructed to gain consent forms from the two tenants allowing the inspector to enter their units.

There was a problem. My house was to be inspected and, presumably, I was expected to be present to open doors and show the inspector around, yet a court order forbad me to come near the house. Fortunately, my friend, Alan, at whose house I was staying was available to be with the inspector on February 28th. I sat in Alan’s car half a block away.

When inspector Azmoudeh arrived, I explained that, because of the court order, I could not accompany him on his inspections but that Alan would. I noticed that the inspector was driving a car marked “Problem Properties Unit”. When I asked him if he was assigned to that unit, he denied it, saying only that he was on loan to help out with inspections. However, I once saw a list of Minneapolis housing inspectors with “PPU” (presumably “Problem Properties Unit”) next to Azmoudeh’s name.

The Problem Properties Unit is a special division within the Minneapolis Inspections Department targeting landlords that city officials don’t like. Various bureaucratic maneuvers are used to make life difficult for those landlords, sometimes driving them out of business. Was I one of those property owners whom the city now wished to target? After all, I was co-director of a landlord group that in the past had been critical of Minneapolis Inspections practices.

It was interesting to me that on March 1, 2011 - the day after my house was inspected - the Star Tribune newspaper published an article about the city’s plan to inspect all rental properties in the city that had not yet received “rental-license inspections”. Mine was one of these. The article, however, disclosed that there was more at stake than completing a backlog of inspections. The headline stated the theme of the new policy: “Worst Minneapolis rentals to see most scrutiny from inspectors.”

The article quoted an Inspections official: “JoAnn Velde, the city’s housing inspection director, said the most scrutiny would go to about 450 buildings. They rank highest on a city scale that assigns points according to their records for police calls and criminal activity, nuisance conditions, housing code violations, and cooperation with the city.”

Here it was in print: The city was deciding to do unequal inspections enforcement. The “worst” landlords were not necessarily those who owned property in the worst condition but also those whose building were linked to the most police calls or who showed unsatisfactory levels of cooperation with the city. In other words, political factors would enter into the selection. As if to confirm that impression, a Legal Aid Society attorney who served on a city advisory board characterized the new policy: “It’s essentially to target the worst landlords.” The owners of buildings rather than the buildings themselves would be “targeted”. It would be, at least in part, a political operation.

Casting a wary eye on inspector Azmoudeh’s car marked “Problem Properties Unit”, I introduced the inspector to Alan as I returned to wait in the car. It seemed that the inspector was in the downstairs unit for an unusually long period of time. Then he went into the side unit. The entire procedure took about an hour and a half.

the inspector decides to condemn my house

I later met Alan and the inspector on the sidewalk only to learn that the inspector had decided to condemn my house. Not to worry, I was told. The condemnation was based on a point system related to the total number of work orders related to the building and their respective weights. If enough work was done to reduce the point total sufficiently, the building might avoid condemnation.

A yellow day-glo poster was placed on my front door several days later: “NOTICE In accordance with Chapter 244, Section 244.1450 and 244.1470 and/or Chapter 249 of the Housing Maintenance Code of the City of Minneapolis, the premises, building and structure hereon located at 1702 Glenwood Ave. N. are hereby declared unfit for human habitation and dangerous to life and health because of: LACK OF MAINTENANCE. You as owner are hereby ordered to abate the conditions above cited by 10-APR-2011. Failure to bring the building into compliance will result in the building being condemned.”

On the face of it, this placard was displaying erroneous information: Normally buildings are condemned for “lack of maintenance” when the water bill has not been paid and the water is turned off, or when the furnace is not working, or when the roof is severely leaking. However, all major systems were functioning in my house. The terms “unfit for human habitation and dangerous to life and health” were used recklessly in this case. Nothing was different from the situation in past years except that a city inspector had spent lots of time running up a point total related to housing-code violations.

We had until April 10, 2011 - about six weeks - to complete the work orders and, hopefully, reduce the number of points sufficiently to avoid condemnation. How did that square with the Fire Department captain’s declaration that she could see six months of work in the basement alone? How did it square with the fact that I was legally forbidden to set foot on the property that needed to be repaired for much of the time given to complete the repairs?

If Alan Morrison had not been willing to work on completing the work orders and if I had not pled “guilty-continuance” to the trumped-up charges brought against me in the domestic-abuse case so that the no-contact order would be lifted and I could again live in my home, the condemnation might have stood. I would have been ordered to vacate my home, along with the tenants, and the house might have been forfeited.

In the second week of March, 2011, I received five separate letters each containing about seven different work orders - 37 in total - all needing to be completed on or before April 10, 2011. Among other things, I needed to install four 20-minute fire doors to replace some that had previously met Fire Department approval, repair all gaps in the basement ceiling, repair the porch floor, extend the gutters in front of the house, ensure that there was no peeling paint in the building inside and out, install a new metal handrail, and clean out the basement. Curiously, the letters said that the initial inspection had been done on February 25th rather than on February 28th, perhaps to suggest that three more days had been given to do the work than was actually the case. Alan tackled the major jobs first and hoped he would have time for the rest.

By April, I was back in my home. I received a letter that the re-inspection would take place on April 13th. We were quite not finished. I called inspector Azmoudeh to ask for an extension of time. He denied my request, saying that he could not change his schedule. Not surprisingly, the inspector found that some of the work had not been completed. He levied a $200 fine for orders pertaining to the large downstairs unit: “repair walls, paint window, repair/replace interior door, service equipment, fire doors, hall door closers.” These alleged deficiencies were all within a tenant’s unit to which I did not have normal access. A number of other violations were also cited for which fines were not levied. I appealed the $200 fine, intending to argue that the inspector had not given Alan and me enough time to complete all 37 workers orders.

Now came two re-inspections of the rented units. Again, I needed to return signed consent forms to the inspector giving him permission to enter the units. At least one of those re-inspections took place at noon on June 16, 2011. Alan accompanied inspector Azmoudeh on his rounds. My recollection was that the outstanding work orders passed. Among them was an order to install a new metal handrail outside the entrance to unit #2 and have the tenants of that unit switch their bedroom and living room so as to satisfy a requirement of two exits from each bedroom. (Actually the interior unit which had served as a bedroom did have an exit to another room through a closet in addition to a door, but that did not count.) I thought we were making progress.

On June 17th, however, I received a letter with three additional “Administrative Citations”. One carried another $200 fine. The first deficiency was indicated by the order “paint exterior trim”; and the second, “paint exterior doors”. The third work order said “Repair/replace fire door”, referring to the fact that the fire door in the basement would not completely close and latch.

This time, because I could inspect the alleged deficiency, I decided to compare the original work order with what I could observe. The work orders sent after the initial inspection on February 28th gave the number of the Minneapolis city ordinance which the inspector believed had been violated. I read each ordinance in the Housing Maintenance code with care. To my great surprise, I learned that none of the three citations given to me on June 17th represented a violation of the city ordinances. Instead, they violated what inspector Azmoudeh thought I ought to have done.

With respect to the unpainted trim, the work order stated: “Properly preparer and paint the exterior wood trim of the main dwelling structure ... which is blistered, cracked, or flaked away.” The alleged violation pertained to Minneapolis ordinance 244.500. I had scraped and repainted trim on around fifteen different windows on all sides of the building along with wood work beneath the room of the front porch. The alleged violation pertained to one small window on the west side of the building above the back entrance door which was higher than the others. I had not repainted the entire trim. What might have attracted the inspector’s attention was the fact that the bottom part of the trim was painted dark brown, which contrasted with the light-brown paint in the rest of the window. In other words, the color scheme clashed. Ordinance 244.500 does not address color schemes in painting buildings. Its main focus is upon flaked or chipped paint which might possibly contain lead. I concluded that the inspector had exceeded his authority in writing this up as a code violation.

With respect to the exterior door, the work order stated: “Repair or replace the exterior door(s) of this dwelling in a professional manner to be reasonably weathertight, water tight and rodent proof.”

Specifically, the exterior door that exposed the staircase leading to the second story where my wife and I live was not painted. This was supposed to be a violation of Minneapolis ordinance 244.530. Nowhere in this ordinance is there a requirement that exterior doors be painted. This particular door, which was sturdy and thick, had evidently been varnished at some time in the past. After some caulking was done to make the door more water tight, the Fire Department inspectors had passed it in a previous inspection. Again, there was no code violation.

With respect to the fire door in the basement which did not completely close and latch when inspector Azmoudek looked at it, the original work stated:

“Repair the existing required fire doors or replace with approved, fire labeled doors. ... Provide one hour fire rated door with self closer for boiler room.” The non-latching door supposedly violated Minneapolis ordinances 244.960 and 244.963. I looked at both ordinances. The key requirement in the first was: “Every habitable unit shall have a safe unobstructed means of egress.” In the second, it was: “Every required exit door from dwelling units .... shall be provided with an approved door-closing device.” In this case, the basement did not fall under either of these ordinances because it did not contain any “habitable units” or “dwelling units”. It did have a one hour fire-rated door which did not completely close and latch. If latching doors were a requirement of uninhabited basements, the inspector should have cited a pertinent ordinance.

I appeal the orders

In conclusion, I decided to appeal the $200 fine for these citations as well. The appeals would go before a hearing officer selected by the city. I received a letter dated June 10, 2011, from the city’s Legal Process Coordinator informing me that my appeal was scheduled to be heard by Mr. Fabian Hoffner of the Hoffner Firm Ltd. on June 28, 2011, at 1:00 p.m. in room 310 at the Minneapolis City Hall.

The name, “Fabian Hoffner”, rang a bell. A fellow landlord with much experience in Minneapolis inspections appeals told me that Fabian Hoffner has been paid $175,000 by the city of Minneapolis over a three-year period and is a close friend of one of the City Council members. Therefore, he consistently sides with the city in inspections appeals. Fortunately, landlords are allowed to exclude hearing officers whom they suspect are biased. I requested that another hearing officer besides Fabian Hoffner be appointed.

On June 28, 2011, I received another letter from the Legal Process Coordinator informing me that my appeal would be heard on July 19, 2011 at 1:30 p.m. by hearing officer James Gurovitsch, attorney at law.

Approaching the day of the hearing, I took another look at this letter and realized that Mr. Gurovitsch was the attorney whom I had hired to represent me in a divorce proceeding. He is a competent and honest man, in my opinion. However, it would be an obvious conflict of interest for Gurovitsch to decide my appeal. I again requested another hearing officer.

In the meanwhile, I had filed an appeal of the second $200 fine. I suggested that the two cases be heard together. Subsequently, a letter dated August 8, 2011, informed me that Mr. Jack Vigoren, attorney at law, would hear my appeal of both cases at 1:00 p.m. on September 21, 2011. My landlord friend told me that Jack Vigoren was only slightly less biased than Fabian Hoffner but I did not object to his appointment.

Suddenly, around August 6, 2011, I received a letter from inspector Farrokh Azmoudeh which stated:

“ Dear Mr. McGaughey:

By letter of July 18, 2011, an inspection of the above referenced property (1702 Glenwood Avenue) was scheduled for Thursday, July 28, 2011 at 1:00 p.m. I was present at the property to meet you at the appointed time; however, you did not appear nor advise me that you would be unable to keep that appointment.

I have rescheduled an inspection of the property for Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 11:00 AM. Unless I hear from you to the contrary, I expect to meet you at the property at that date and time. For your benefit, I want to stress the importance of keeping this appointment. Failure to allow the inspection is grounds for license revocation or denial per Minneapolis code of Ordinances 244.1910(8).

If you fail to allow the inspection, license revocation or denial proceeding will be commenced. You will also be subject to to criminal prosecution. A one hundred dollar ($100.00) inspection fee is charged for each missed appointment. Again, I am providing this explanation to stress the importance of cooperating with me in this matter.”

Now, I had never been informed of an appointment to meet with inspector Azmoudeh on July 28th. Normally Inspections sends letters to property owners. I promptly wrote a letter to the inspector, copying the supervisor of inspections, requesting that he send evidence that I had been informed of the re-inspection on July 28th.

Several days later, I received a copy of a notification letter dated July 18, 2011. It was addressed to me at 1335 93rd Ave. N., Brooklyn Park, MN 55444. This was Alan’s home where I had lived between February 18th and March 18th, 2011, when under court order to stay away from my own home in Minneapolis. Alan was unaware of having received such a letter. In any event, he had not informed me that Mr. Azmoudeh wished to meet with me on July 28th.

I wrote the inspector another letter, again copying the Inspections supervisor, pointing out that I did not live in Brooklyn Park any more and had not been properly notified of the July 28th appointment. I requested that the alleged “missed appointment” be stricken from my record. I knew that Inspections follows a policy of levying increasingly stiff fines and penalties for the second, third, or fourth infraction of a similar kind. In this case, Mr. Azmoudeh’s letter itself indicated that, if I failed to keep another appointment, the city might revoke my rental license and even prosecute me criminally. In other words, the consequence of having such an offense on my record (standing up a city inspector) could be draconian.

Inspector Azmoudeh did not respond to my letter. Instead, I had a discussion with him after he had concluded his inspection on August 10th. (This time, the fire door in the basement latched.) Azmoudeh said he would not strike the missed appointment from my record. He said I had informed him that I was living in Brooklyn Park during the first inspection on February 28, 2011. I had failed to inform him later that I had moved back into my home in Minneapolis. (However, Inspections continued to send notices to me at 1702 Glenwood Avenue. Even the inspector himself used that address in his August 6th mailing to me.) He said he had sent the appointment letters to me in Brooklyn Park as a courtesy, and he was tired of people “turning on” him after he had done them a favor. However, if his supervisor agreed to expunge the missed appointment, he would go along with her decision.

As of this date, I have not had time to write the supervisor, Janine Atchinson, requesting the expungement. I have instead received another letter dated August 23, 2011 that inspector Azmoudeh was imposing a $400 fine for my failure to repaint the window on the west side of my house. He had done a re-inspection on the previous day. This fine I have again appealed. I intend to argue before a hearing officer that the Minneapolis housing code does not include a violation for window sills painted in two different shades of the same color.

Other inspections-related news during the past month or two are that the Minneapolis Fire Department inspected my nine-unit apartment building at 1708 Glenwood Avenue on July 19, 2011, adjacent to 1702 Glenwood Avenue. Although several code violations were found, there has not so far been a punitive follow-up such as what I have experienced with inspector Azmoudeh. Perhaps it was felt I had already paid my dues.

Also, on August 17, 2011, the city billed me $100 for a “re-inspection fee” for the work which Mr. Azmoudeh did in my absence on July 28, 2011. I paid this after being told that the fee could not be appealed.

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