Symbiotic Slums: The cycle of problem tenants and landlords in DuluthTenants with problem backgrounds go hand-in-hand with bad rental properties — they need each other to survive. But that relationship means substandard housing for the tenants and blight — and sometimes crime — for the community.
Shaun Himango said he’s lost count of the times he’s asked his landlord to fix the problems at his small two-bedroom apartment at 322 E. Sixth St. Among his complaints: exposed wiring, walls and ceilings that are coming apart, a putrid carpet and a trap door in his pantry that easily gives way when stepped on.
“This place is just nasty,” he said.
But Himango said he has no choice but to live in what, by one measure, is one of the worst apartment buildings in Duluth.
“This is all I can afford,” he said. “And I have a bad rental history.”
Tenants with problem backgrounds go hand-in-hand with bad rental properties — they need each other to survive.
But that relationship means substandard housing for the tenants and blight — and sometimes crime — for the community.
The News Tribune reviewed all complaints filed on rental properties with the city of Duluth over the last five years and found that:
System could be gamed
Most landlords in the city do good work and quickly address complaints lodged against them by tenants or neighbors, said Jim Mlodozyniec, the city’s lead building inspector.
But he estimated that of the several thousand rentals in the city, there are a dozen to two dozen problem properties that take up the majority of his department’s time. The landlords either refuse to clean up and repair their buildings, or they finally comply with repair orders only to allow their properties to again fall into disrepair.
The properties with the highest number of complaints filed with the city are listed in a graphic that accompanies this story.
“The reality is, it’s possible to be a slumlord in Duluth and get away with it,” said Allen Richardson, a community organizer for Churches United in Ministry who focuses on problem rental properties and works to revitalize neighborhoods. “There is very little enforcement. If you get a citation and choose not to pay it, that’s it.”
And in some cases, problem properties make neighbors feel like hostages in their own homes.
When Lance and Jodi Voelker moved in behind the rental at 1603 E. Fourth St. seven years ago, they had no idea the problems they would face. The property has been the subject of nine complaints to the city building safety office over the last five years and eight police calls since January 2009. Even residents of the building call it a “hot-spot for trouble.”
The Voelkers are trying to raise two young children in the midst of what they say are constant fights, disturbances and garbage surrounding the rental. They said they’ve tried working things out with the building’s owner and landlord, Mike Piper, but the problems remain.
“The problems are the tenants,” Jody Voelker said. “But [Piper] obviously allows it. You would think he would want to get rid of the tenants and not have the problems.
“He doesn’t want to work with us,” she added.
Piper has long been known to house problem tenants. He was the first in the city’s history to be slapped with a fine in 2004 for tenant misbehavior. And while he also has had more complaints filed against his properties in the past five years than any other private landlord — 35 — he also has defenders who say that if it weren’t for him, many of his tenants would otherwise be homeless.
Richardson of CHUM said that while apartment buildings like many of those Piper manages, such as the Hillside Laundry, bring down surrounding property values and contribute to neighborhood blight, he also recognizes that they provide a service.
“Sometimes a slumlord is the only person who will put up with people who are difficult to house,” he said.
Piper wouldn’t comment for this story, but his attorney, Bob Magie, acknowledged that Piper will often house tenants with criminal backgrounds.
“Mike is willing to help out,” he said. “A lot of landlords won’t touch those people.”
That did create crime problems that have largely subsided, said Hillside community police officer Barry Midthun. Five years ago, Midthun said Duluth police had to “go after Piper” for housing problem tenants and having open-air drug dealing at his properties. Since then, he said both sides have worked closely to identify and resolve criminal behavior with his tenants.
“Now when I talk to Mike,” Midthun said, “he’s quick to respond and basically does whatever I ask of him.”
Voelker counters that while Piper might respond to complaints, “how many times do we have to call?”
“It’s an ongoing struggle,” she said. “It seems like we’re calling to complain every other week about garbage back there. It’s frustrating that we’re always having to call and look out our window and always see garbage back there.”
It can cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for a landlord to evict a problem tenant, Midthun said, which is why he stresses to landlords that they find out everything they can about tenants before renting to them.
City ordinance requires landlords to do background checks — but it doesn’t require that they refuse tenants with criminal backgrounds.
Many landlords rent to tenants knowing they have criminal backgrounds, said Cynthia Finley, former director of the now-defunct Housing Access Center, which helped find apartments for low-income renters.
So why take the risk?
“My guess,” said Finley, “is it’s easy money. There is money to be had from agencies assisting individuals who are struggling.”
Several agencies in Duluth have been set up solely to find housing for low-income tenants, while others provide money to give them places to live.
The Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority, for example, issues more than 1,400 Section 8 vouchers in the city to help low-income tenants pay their rent. Duluth HRA Director Rick Ball said his department inspects rental properties that get Section 8 vouchers each year, and violations can disqualify a landlord from receiving Section 8 dollars.
Still, over the past five years, the Authority gave more than $750,000 to four landlords who manage properties that are in the top 10 in complaints received at the city’s building safety office.
Piper was atop that list, receiving $429,979.
Landlords who manage many of the problem properties in Lincoln Park and the Central Hillside and give tenants second chances say they’re often frustrated by the damage they do to their apartments. But they also say they often don’t have a choice but to rent to problem tenants.
Kurt Peters, who manages Shaun Himango’s apartment, said government low-income housing construction has taken away the low-risk tenants, leaving a high-risk pool to choose from.
“The biggest challenge is getting quality tenants,” he said. “In order to rent the apartments we have to take people are sometimes questionable with regards to their income and rental history. Often times, that comes back to bite me.”
The alternative, he said, “is leaving the apartment empty, and not making money.”
Learn more about what tools the city of Duluth has to clean up problem properties, and find out what new steps the city and the Duluth Police Department have planned to deal with the issue.