Friday, January 14, 2011

Enough of the Empty Houses Already! Editorial Series: 2011 Agenda Part 1

Fine Farview Victorian

Magnetic McKinley Mini-Mansion

Handsome Hawthorne House

I *almost* bought this house in 2002

Parkway Charmer

One of my most favs in all of NoMi

Front yard of 2700 Block of Penn

Happy 2011 and let's jump right into it. Everyone knows the holiday season and the beginning of a new year is a natural time for reflection of the past and looking to the future. Planning and shaping and taking action.  Here at the NoMi Passenger blog a new year is no different.  Let's reflect and plan and shape and take action together; after all we are all passengers on the same voyage through NoMi.

I've got a few thoughts and ideas that I'd like to see move forward in 2011 and it will be a group effort to fine tune them and push them forward to action so I'll do that here.  Consider it my 2011 Agenda.

First up, fill the empty houses, already! It's 2011 and empty houses dot every block in NoMi for various reasons.  We've been experiencing the vacant house disease for how many years now? Four? Five? Many of these homes are already owned by the city (or county) or could easily be acquired, sometimes for pennies on the dollar.

For several years now I've been saying out loud, or in emails and internet postings "SELL THE HOUSES FOR A DOLLAR" or "GIVE THEM AWAY TO CITY EMPLOYEES".

We've seen some benefit from the Minneapolis Advantage program which has given a grant to qualified purchasers of a qualified house.  But it hasn't been enough and it hasn't put a dent in the vacant house disease.  It's time for more widespread, drastic action from the city (and county) to get these houses occupied by homesteaders.

The city needs to get taxpayers back in these homes for the tax and utility revenues they would bring.  The neighborhoods and economic engines need more citizens to populate the neighborhoods, spend their money in the near-by businesses, be additional eyes and ears on the streets in the impacted areas.

The city needs to develop a program to sell or give the homes away for as little as one dollar.  I say start with the city employees.  Write a program to grant the deed to them after a 10 year occupancy, verified periodically by a program director.  I think city employees will be less likely to pull some funny shenanigans and do something stupid like, oh gee, rent out the house for income.

I know the city has done some dollar house give-aways in the past, I have met some folks who are still in their home that they purchased for $1.

However, if the city moves forward on something like this, and I urge that they do, they need to first and also do some immediate and drastic changes to the process of bringing a condemned house back into code compliance.  I have been hearing far too many nightmare stories from folks who have been through the process and are adamant that the hellish process is keeping the average joe from taking on such a daunting tasks.

To start revamping the code compliance process I'd recommend start by using an outside survey analyst to conduct and take in feedback.  Believe it or not I've heard people are actually intimidated to give honest feedback for fear of retaliation in the future, or being labeled as one of those crabby disgruntled people or having it affect anything they might do in the future.

Make it more reasonable to rehab a condemned house and start giving those suckers away to qualified people who will commit to owner occupancy for the next decade or more.

Let's get this done in the next six months so summer can bring a new wave of home ownership in NoMi. Let me hear from you in the comments, whaddya think?


  1. yes!


    If the city thinks they are somehow going to make some money off the actual sales of these houses they are wrong!

  2. Loved your post. It's interesting you bring up the old dollar house program. That program was really big back in the day in Central. I was actually at a Christmas party this year at this fabulous mission style bungalow that was designed by architect Glen Saxton. I had known the owner for years, but never knew until we were chatting at that party that his house had been a dollar house. He said the way the program worked was that the house had to be brought up to certain standards and it had to be owner occupied. And if you could do that, you got the house for a dollar. Simple. Brilliant. And it worked. His house has even been featured on the Minneapolis - St. Paul Home Tour.

    There really is no reason we should be having all of these empty houses by now. It is a failure of how we have dealt with the foreclosure crisis. Basically, the city did not leverage one of the best tools in the tool box - the private market. Instead, they solely focused upon demolition and non profits. It's the People's Republic of Minneapolis mentality - we are so left leaning that we do not understand the importance of (if not outright fear) the private market. And yet the private market is a powerful tool - if we know how to effectively harness it for good. We basically get what we incentivize. And we have not adequately incentivized the private market.

    How is it a good use of money to spend $20,000+ to demolish a house when the only return is a vacant lot that does not add to the tax base and can not be sold even at $1K? The non profits have done some good work, but they simply do not have the capacity to take on every VBR house in this city. And yet our NSP funds are all geared toward non profits and demolition.

    One of the most creative uses I've heard of for NSP funds comes from Indianapolis. The city took control of houses and the money that would have otherwise been used for demolition was used to restore the facade of the house. That way the city gets to control the design and "face" the house puts on the neighborhood. Then the houses are sold (practically given away) to owner occupants who get to renovate the interiors to their liking. Houses without any intact original features in fact are gutted to the studs so the new owners can pretty much work with a blank slate. Another brilliant idea.

    Dollar Houses. Brilliant. Indianapolis model. Brilliant. Why is it we are still slugging though this mess? Because we should not. It's because the most powerful tool, the private market, we did not leverage. We should have and could have solved this by now. But instead we took a path that is wasteful, just logically does not make sense, and has thus far not produced sufficient results (there have been results, just not *sufficient* enough for the magnitude of this crisis).

    Those are my thoughts for tonight!

  3. Amen...

    I too believe that the city needs to come up with better ways to fill these homes rather than destroy them.

    As long as they are homesteaded properties - Not rentals!

    If you look at the impact that Slumlords have on the community and what they get away with in the name of "free market" you can hardly characterize Minneapolis as "left-wing". They just don't get community development!

    And there are lots of great ideas out there how to do it.One community uses section 8 funds towards the mortgage until there is enough equity to refinance.Others allow homesteaders deference from code issues while they are repairing their homes.

    How about some training programs to put unemployed back to work fixing some of these homes?

    BTW...Whats with the special license requirements for contractors mandated by the City? Does this provide any added benefit vs the rest of the State or just drive up consumer costs and limit options?

    BTW...I live in a Glen Saxton home here in NoMi.

  4. Oooh, I'm intrigued by my anonymous commenter in the Glen Saxton home here in NoMi. (Not that I have any idea how many G.S. homes exist and if this is a highly special thing or not.

    Maybe I already know you (and your house)or maybe not?

    Give me a hint? :-)

  5. Yes, we do know each other. I live on Humboldt.

    I would not doubt that there are many more Saxton designed homes in NoMi as Saxton was a very prolific designer in a wide range of styles. His homes were marketed to the burgeoning middle class such as were prevalent in North Minneapolis and he customized plans as needed to tailor homes for the buyer. Brian dug up the documentation on my home because it reminded him of the Saxton home that M. Clinton speaks of, only in mirror image.

    I bet many other NoMi homes have interesting histories if owners took the time to dig them up. This would really help improve the image and self-worth of our communities housing stock.

  6. Thanks for this post! In the mid-70s I tried and tried to get a dollar house, there were so many great homes and also so many of us in the lottery. This is just the thing to do now, with the requirement that they homestead it.

  7. Great plan, I love the 10-year plan for ownership. One expansion on that thought - I think the ownership should vest at 10% per year, so that after 10 years you would be full owner. The difference is that if the owner happened to get a great job opportunity in another state after 8 years, they wouldn't have to choose between losing the entire value of the house, or taking the great opportunity. They would get 80% of the value, since they'd be 80% vested after 8 years. This still prevents people from merely getting the house to flip them, as they'd only own 10% after a year.
    I personally would also support programs that help people transition into homes like this, such as low-interest or zero-interest home improvement loans, funds to help people move in, et cetera.
    I recently bought a foreclosed house in NoMi, and I was fortunate that I had the ability to come up with the money needed for renovation. I've spent the last three years trying to get myself into the position where I could afford to do this, a lot of people just can't manage to get there. I think this would be a great way to get people into homes.
    From what I can see there's still a long road ahead for recovery, but I'm glad I get to be one of the steps toward recovery, as I now have repaired and occupy what was an abandoned house just a couple months ago.
    -NoMi resident

  8. Great commentary and expansion! Thanks for adding to the fruitful discussion!