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Abandoned Houses Invite Crime in Minneapolis

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Abandoned Houses Invite Crime in Minneapolis

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Abandoned Houses Invite Crime in Minneapolis

Abandoned Houses Invite Crime in Minneapolis

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/91400652/91415061" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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First of a two-part report

Minneapolis Police Sgt. Richard Jackson seals up an empty house where drug dealers had set up shop. i

Sgt. Richard Jackson of the Minneapolis Police Problem Properties Unit seals up an empty house where drug dealers had set up shop. Jim Zarroli/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jim Zarroli/NPR
Minneapolis Police Sgt. Richard Jackson seals up an empty house where drug dealers had set up shop.

Sgt. Richard Jackson of the Minneapolis Police Problem Properties Unit seals up an empty house where drug dealers had set up shop.

Jim Zarroli/NPR

Part 2 of this Report

Minneapolis foreclosure map i

Foreclosures have been concentrated in Minneapolis' North Side, shown here as Wards 4 and 5. City of Minneapolis hide caption

toggle caption City of Minneapolis
Minneapolis foreclosure map

Foreclosures have been concentrated in Minneapolis' North Side, shown here as Wards 4 and 5.

City of Minneapolis
This empty North Minneapolis house exploded and burned after vandals stole copper pipes. i

This empty North Minneapolis house exploded and burned after vandals broke in and stole the copper pipes without shutting off the gas. Jim Zarroli/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jim Zarroli/NPR
This empty North Minneapolis house exploded and burned after vandals stole copper pipes.

This empty North Minneapolis house exploded and burned after vandals broke in and stole the copper pipes without shutting off the gas.

Jim Zarroli/NPR

As a crime prevention specialist for the Minneapolis Police Department, Tim Hammett knows firsthand the toll that the mortgage foreclosure crisis has taken on the city's North Side. Sometimes it even follows him home.

One day not long ago, Hammett pulled up in front of his house to find a woman ripping the aluminum siding off the empty house across the street, which, like hundreds of North Minneapolis properties, was in foreclosure.

"I walk up to her and I said, 'What the heck do you think you're doing?' " he recalls. "And she gives me a look that's like, 'This place is empty. Nobody's living here. Who cares?' "

Rampant vandalism is only one of the problems facing North Minneapolis these days, as it struggles with the aftermath of the mortgage foreclosure crisis.

Foreclosures Concentrated

Minneapolis as a whole has seen the number of foreclosures rise from 1,600 in 2006 to what's expected to be about 3,000 this year. But the foreclosures have been greatly concentrated in a few working-class neighborhoods, especially in the lower half of the city's North Side.

Drive around North Minneapolis these days, and you see numerous houses with boarded-up windows, dandelion-choked lawns and bright yellow auction signs taped to the doors. On some blocks, it's possible to find seven or eight foreclosed properties.

About 300 of the 2,100 houses in the North Minneapolis neighborhood of Folwell are now vacant, says Roberta Englund, executive director of the local neighborhood association.

"Unfortunately, when America catches a cold, neighborhoods like North Minneapolis get pneumonia, and foreclosure hit much harder there than other parts of town," says Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

Changing Neighborhoods

North Minneapolis — especially its lower half — has long been rougher and poorer than the rest of the city, and the area has one of the highest concentrations of African Americans in the heavily white city. But when the real estate boom struck earlier this decade, investors began descending on the area, buying up houses to rent out. They liked the quiet, tree-lined streets close to downtown, and the huge supply of inexpensive old bungalows and Tudor-style houses.

As the boom continued, house prices soared, and many longtime residents drifted away, to be replaced by a tougher and less stable crowd of renters, says Joel Breggemann, a block club president on Dupont Avenue North.

"We were seeing blatant drug dealing," Breggemann says. "We were seeing residents who spent their entire day out on the front step of the house drinking, from 8 in the morning to 2 o'clock in the morning, and would have their car parked out in front of the house with music blaring.

The situation got so bad, Breggemann says, "I wasn't able to even enjoy my own screened porch, because the music was so loud in the house behind me that you couldn't hear yourself think."

Many of these houses ended up in foreclosure when interest rates reset and property values returned to earth.

Fraud Brings Abandoned Properties

The troubles have been greatly aggravated by an unusual amount of mortgage fraud, says Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Dixon. In one of the most notorious cases, a suburban real estate company, T.J. Waconia, bought numerous houses throughout North Minneapolis, using fraudulent appraisals, federal officials say. The firm's founders pleaded guilty to mail fraud this year, and 141 of its houses were placed in the hands of a court-appointed administrator.

Those houses now sit empty, contributing to the huge glut of abandoned properties and compounding the crime problem.

If not sealed up adequately, many of these vacant properties get taken over by gangs, who use them for drug-dealing and prostitution, says Sgt. Richard Jackson of the Minneapolis Police Problem Properties Unit.

"It brings a lot of the criminal element into the area," Jackson says. "People have to travel in just to get their dope, or they have to travel here to get their prostitution."

In many cases, vandals strip the houses of built-in furniture, appliances and copper piping. At least three vacant North Minneapolis houses have exploded in flames because thieves took the pipes but neglected to shut off the gas, Jackson says.

City Struggles to Refill Houses

Working with several nonprofit and neighborhood groups, the city is attempting to reclaim and renovate as many of the vacant properties as possible. The aim is to encourage stable families to repopulate the area by selectively buying empty houses from lenders and providing financial incentives to buyers.

"We know these neighborhoods, which have very good housing stock, can attract good, solid homeowners," Rybak, the mayor, says. "The problem is that we have been dealing on such a large scale, because we have so many of these foreclosures."

But the collapse of real estate prices in North Minneapolis threatens to undermine the city's efforts. Some foreclosed properties are now selling for a small fraction of their peak price, which is drawing a new generation of investors to the area.

City officials fear that an overwhelming number of these houses will end up as low-income rentals, making it that much tougher to bring the neighborhood back.

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