The Great Saint Paul Land Grab, Part II

As we noted yesterday, there’s a bit of a foreclosure and vacant home crisis in Saint Paul. And while having 1993 registered vacant homes in a stock of about 115,000 residential buildings is a crisis by any measure, the fact that they are (so far) so heavily concentrated in some of the city’s lower-income neighborhoods – Frogtown and the North End, as well as the East Side’s Dayton’s Bluff, Swede Hollow and Payne-Phalen neighborhoods – is its most visible consequence so far. And that’s just the registered ones. It’s likely there are hundreds more that aren’t in the system yet.
A bus ride down Thomas Avenue in Frogtown, or a bike ride down Front Street between Western and Rice, takes you past rows of blue “Vacant Building” placards taped to front doors. It’s depressing.

So how does the city plan to respond?

It went past pretty much without notice. The Saint Paul City Council adopted ordinance 07-1194 4 (“Green Sheet” number 3046791) at its June 25 meeting. It passed unanimously. It went pretty nearly un-covered in the media, and escaped notice elsewhere.

Including by me. While I live in Saint Paul, and am among the thin film of Republicans who tries to keep the hard-left City Council  honest, it’s one never-ending job among many.

But I got an email last week about this. I cited the writer yesterday – he’ll remain anonymous for now, as the information comes from his wife, and she’d like to remain under the radar.

Ordinance 07-1194 4 is the city’s response to the vacant building crisis. My emailer writes:

There are three categories of buildings: cat 1 is pretty good shape (350 of them); cat 2 needs work (1400 of them); cat 3 is pretty tough (200 of them).

None of these houses can be occupied without City permission. Cat 1 is simple – pay a fee and you’re in business. Cat 2 and 3 is tougher – pay a fee, develop a rehab plan, make a deposit to cover inspections, develop a timetable to get the work done. Oh, and you can’t live there while you work on it, the place has no Certificate of Occupancy.

What does this mean?

So it’s not clear that you, as owner, can do the work since you’re not the owner-occupant. You certainly have to pay to live somewhere else while you work on the place, you may have to hire contractors who have the special City-issued licenses to work in St. Paul and yes, that means they charge more.

You might be thinking “no biggie”. You’d be thinking wrong. We’re not talking a coat of paint and and some Murphy Soap here:

Here’s where the new ordinance comes in. When the City says it wants you to bring your vacant building up to code, they mean ALL codes. Building code for wall stud spacing (rip off the siding to add studs, then replace siding). Energy code (rip open the walls to insulate, replace windows and appliances). Wiring code (replace old wires with new plastic-coated wires pulled through the walls to the outlets). Plumbing code: replace lead or galvanized plumbing with copper or PVC. Building code: tear off shingles and lay new plywood to cover gaps in roof boards before reshingling. Jackup the floors to level them. Re-landscape for drainage.


I’ve seen the work order – it’s more expensive than building a new house because you have all the demo work first.

You might be thinking “So what? We make sure we have decent housing stock”.

Well, perhaps not so much.

If the city seriously makes all the Cat 2 and 3 houses go through this, who’s going to pay for it? The foreclosing lenders? They’re not stupid. They already know they’re upside down on those houses, that’s why they took them back in foreclosure. Throw in another $50,000 of repairs before the lenders can sell the foreclosed houses, and the lenders would be complete fools to bother.

So what is the motivation behind the new ordinance?  I mean, everyone can agree on sticking it to the lenders that got us into this mess in the first place – right?
More on Monday.

(Read the whole series: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V)

8 thoughts on “The Great Saint Paul Land Grab, Part II

  1. Wow, I know guys in other cities who bought run down but liviable houses (meaning they have okay wiring, heat, etc) for small bucks. Then worked on them in evenings and weekends over the course of a year to get them in good shape. They could not have done this if they would have had to maintain a second home elsewhere. So instead of getting a hundred year home in a lower income neighborhood rehabbed, the house would have sat vacant.

    To show how building codes work, one of my co-workers bought a house, then got transferred about 3 years later. During that time, so many new rules were put into place…such as he couldn’t have a bare lightbuld in his bedroom closet ceiling.

  2. Both papers covered the ordinance changes, not huge articles, but they were there.

    Furthermore your friend’s claims are not quite correct since I have worked on a few registered vacants. First off, the homeowner CAN complete the building code work by themselves. However, the City does require licensed trades to do the plumbing, electrical, and heating work and that is specifically noted on the code compliance report.

    His statement – “Building code for wall stud spacing (rip off the siding to add studs, then replace siding). Energy code (rip open the walls to insulate, replace windows and appliances.” – is completely false as well. For the items listed above (and the houses worked on were 90-120 years old) we have only had to address windows when: a) they were in operable or; b) to install tempered glass per code (usually in bathrooms and stairways)

  3. Ya know, I’m told by others that a number of municipalities ARE requiring home renovators to comply with ALL codes as they do their work–it can generate some big improvements in the home, but in doing so it can also deter people from renovating homes to a place where they are habitable.

  4. Pingback: Shot in the Dark » Blog Archive » The Great Saint Paul Land Grab, Part III

  5. Pingback: Shot in the Dark » Blog Archive » One Day At Mickey’s Diner

  6. Pingback: Shot in the Dark » Blog Archive » Chanting Points Memo: Targeting The Cities

  7. Pingback: The Great Saint Paul Land Grab | Shot in the Dark

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.