One frosty December morning, a condemned Lyndale Avenue apartment building went up in flames. Fire crews from throughout the city raced there to put the fire out, their ladder trucks blocking Lyndale for hours.

By the time the fire stopped burning, the building, owned by notorious Minneapolis landlord C. David George, was hollowed out. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was brought in to investigate the fire.

The building, which suffered $1.8 million in damages, had to be demolished. But the rubble would sit on that piece of land for another ten months. George was reportedly working with his insurance company to handle removing the rubble, before the City took matters into its own hands and hired a contractor to do it for him after multiple delays.

George owns eight other apartment buildings in the area, totaling 187 units. But only seven or eight of the units are occupied, according to a recent tenant familiar with the buildings.

“The fact that David George thinks it's not a problem to have an existing historic walk up, brownstone, unoccupied when we have a housing shortage is deplorable,” said former Ward 7 Councilmember Lisa Goodman during a video interview with Southwest Voices last December. Goodman represented the area where six of George’s properties were located until her retirement earlier this year.

George wants to sell his buildings but area landlords have tried to purchase his buildings from him without success. People who have successfully contacted him say he wants to offload his entire portfolio at once to one buyer, and for that buyer to use those buildings to serve the demographics of those who live in the neighborhood.

“He wants to make sure that whoever makes the purchase has an understanding of the neighborhood and doesn’t want them to be converted into, like, luxury apartments or something,” said Ward 10 Councilmember Aisha Chugtai, who represents the area where George’s remaining three properties are located.  

It’s a tall order. His portfolio is worth just over $13 million and it could cost much more to build anew at 2312 Lyndale Ave. and to rehabilitate the remaining buildings.

Continued complaints

George’s properties saw a total of 25 complaints to 311 last year. Complaints about 2621 Pillsbury Ave. S. slowed down when the City boarded up the property last April but a landlord who owns property next to 2621 Pillsbury called 911 about people breaking into the building again in early March.

A boarded-up and condemned building owned by George, located at 200 Oak Grove St. in Loring Park caught fire multiple times in 2022. Since 1998, the building has amassed 134 violations as of April 30.

“It is dangerous and very frustrating to have that boarded building there for years,” Citizens for a Loring Park Community Executive Director Jana Metge said.

That building saw two complaints to 311 last year. One detailed overgrown weeds. The other, filed in November, complained about people coming in and out, sometimes with suitcases, as well as fires happening inside, despite the building being boarded up by the City. These break-ins happen because people who may be unhoused are looking for a warm place to stay.

“People don't have access to stable and consistent housing, and don't have a place to go. Our shelter system is overrun and beyond capacity. It's not meeting people's needs, and people need a place to be,” said Chugtai in an interview with Southwest Voices about George’s properties.

After years of reporting about fires and break-ins at vacant and condemned buildings, Southwest Voices turned the spotlight onto City and State law. We wanted to know what the City and State could do to encourage landlords like George to give up their vacant or dilapidated properties. We were also curious about the challenges the City encounters in doing so.

Vacant building registry

When the City has identified a building as a nuisance or condemned, it ends up on the City’s vacant building registry. Through the program, the City is supposed to work with property owners on bringing their buildings into compliance with City code. Property owners have to pay $7,087 annually for each building enrolled in the registry.

There are over 300 buildings on the vacant building registry as of April 30, with 39 of those properties being owned by a City, County, State, or Federal entity. The amount of buildings entering and exiting the program have decreased slightly, according to a November 2023 presentation.

The City is open to working with property owners as long as they are making an effort to get their buildings up to code.

“If we're fully engaged with the property manager, and work needs to be done by a contractor, and they are taking efforts and making plans and everything, we will work with them on timelines,” said Interim Director of Operations at Regulatory Services Patrick Hilden.

But the City’s attempt to work with property owners only goes so far. Some property owners can’t afford to do the work on the buildings they own.

“Sometimes it costs too much to repair the property, but yet they don't have the money to tear down the property,” Hilden said.

In George’s case, he couldn’t get his insurance company to pay for demolishing and removing what was left of 2312 Lyndale Ave. S., after it burned down in December 2022, leaving the City to pick up the tab.

The death of the property owner can also impact whether the City can force the owner’s family to bring a property into compliance.

“Sometimes it's a family member [who] owns the property and died, and the other family members don't want to deal with it,” Hilden said. “I have one property in north Minneapolis [where] a person died with absolutely no heirs. And unfortunately, that house is going to sit for three years until the county takes it back.”

Director of Regulatory Services Enrique Velasquez said that some owners aren’t in a hurry to do anything with their empty buildings.

“We see a fair number of individuals or organizations that see real estate as investments. They will basically park their money in the buildings and not really do anything to them,” Velasquez said. “If they choose to actually park their money in the house, that's their right to do so.”

Other times, property owners won’t work with inspectors.  A property owner doesn’t have to grant permission to let inspectors into their buildings. City ordinance requires officials get permission from the property owner to inspect their properties.

“As part of the education-forward inspections process, walking through the property with the owner or their representative allows each to ask questions, provide guidance on how to repair or identify what specifically is deficient with a certain system,” Regulatory Services spokesperson Blair Loose said.  “The education component makes it easier to gain willful compliance when property owners are able to view systems from the inspector’s perspective.”

But inspectors can still condemn a building without going inside. That is what happened to three of George’s buildings, at 2873, 2877, and 2883 Holmes Avenue, in May of 2022.

“In those situations, we were not able to get in to do the inspections,” said Velasquez. “So as an alternative, we put do not occupy orders on the buildings to make sure that those units do not get rented until we have an opportunity to come in and do a proper inspection.”

Can the City take over the buildings for housing?

It’s possible the City can take condemned properties through eminent domain, which allows the government to take on private property to serve a public use. Minnesota’s current eminent domain law, Minnesota statute Chapter 117, allows government agencies to use eminent domain to “mitigate a blighted or environmentally contaminated area” and “remove an abandoned property or public nuisance,” pending a hearing.

But the law has limitations. Statute defines a “blighted area” as more than 50% of the building is structurally substandard. A building can be considered blighted if it has unaddressed building, fire, and utility code violations. The law was last updated in 2006.

If a building is not structurally substandard, government agencies cannot take it, unless there is no alternative and they have exhausted all options.

George’s properties aren’t necessarily abandoned, even though some may appear to be. The law defines “abandoned property” as being “substantially” unoccupied or unused by someone who has the legal or equitable right to it for at least the preceding year, the property has not been maintained, and that the property’s taxes haven’t been paid for the two preceding years.

George’s properties still have at least one tenant remaining, except for the 200 Oak Grove St. and 2621 Pillsbury Ave. S. buildings, and he is current on his taxes for all of his properties.

The City is also unlikely to pick up George’s buildings using eminent domain.

“I explored [eminent domain] with our attorneys and it just wasn't a viable path,” Chugtai said. “The concern there was, ‘The city doesn’t own residential property, we’re not in the business of being landlords.’ Not all of his buildings are condemned, some of them still have rental licenses. There are a bunch of conditions that have to be met in order for eminent domain to be a possibility, and the conditions were not met with this specific portfolio.”

Public agencies like the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority could utilize eminent domain to “serve its mission.” Because the Housing Authority’s mission is to provide deeply affordable housing to its residents, theoretically, the Housing Authority could take George’s properties and convert them into public housing if his buildings met the definition of substandard.

The Housing Authority’s predecessor agency did this before in the 1960s when it condemned properties in Northeast Minneapolis and Elliot Park to build at least two public housing high rises.

But the Housing Authority is strapped for cash and struggling to keep up with its maintenance backlog. Though it lobbied for funding at the legislature, to fill gaps in funding, it transferred ownership of its properties to a nonprofit it oversees. It’s unclear if agencies can use eminent domain to acquire, then transfer properties to nonprofit entities they directly oversee. The Housing Authority has also said it’s not looking to add properties to their portfolio at this time.

Higher fines for having a condemned building

Shortly before Ward 7 Councilmember Lisa Goodman left office, she said she wanted landlords to face higher fines for neglecting their buildings to the point where they can’t be safely inhabited.

“We can’t slap them with a $100,000 fee because we have a state law prohibition, [but] we should do whatever is allowed legally to ensure that the cost to the community for having these boarded vacant buildings is borne by the people who allow it,” Goodman said in December, citing George’s handling of his buildings as an example.

It’s not clear how much the City can raise the vacant building registry program fee because they don’t know how much running the program costs the City. The City Council issued a legislative directive for staff last year to research how much it costs. A presentation on the legislative directive will be presented at the June 18 City Council Business, Housing & Zoning Committee meeting.

“Part of the legislative directive is figuring out and documenting what actual components are needed to run this program successfully, so that we can increase those fees to recuperate the costs,” said Ward 2 Councilmember Robin Wonsley, who introduced the directive. The City said it hopes to update its fee schedule by Sept. 1.

The City Council also directed staff to develop a strategy to address buildings that have been vacant long-term. At the same November meeting, City officials presented a strategy to address buildings that have been on the vacant building registry for over five years without any permit history or proactive actions taken by a property owner. Their strategy involves collecting up to a $2,000 monthly fine in lieu of collecting the $7,087 annual vacant building registration fee. A landlord could be forced to pay $24,000 annually to have a vacant, derelict building with this new strategy.

Neighbors still frustrated

Abandoned apartments such as 200 Oak Grove St. remain an eyesore and hazard to some Loring Park neighbors. State law could potentially allow nonprofit organizations such as Citizens for a Loring Park Community to do something about the building. Although Metge, the organization’s leader, was told by the City attorney that there was nothing they could do, Minnesota Statute 504B.395 says a “housing-related neighborhood organization” can sue a landlord if they have an unoccupied residential building that is in violation of building codes.

A “housing-related neighborhood organization” is defined in Minnesota Statute 504B.001 as a nonprofit that “promotes community safety, crime prevention, and housing quality” in a “specific geographic community.” Citizens for a Loring Park and other neighborhood organizations fit this definition.

“If the landlord is in violation of the Minneapolis Housing Code, by not complying with maintaining this vacant building, or other problem in the building, the neighborhood organization could file the case without the cooperation of the City,” said University of Minnesota Law Professor Larry McDonough.

Such a lawsuit could compel George to act or face jail time.

“They can order the landlord to remedy the violations. It could appoint an administrator to run the property,” said McDonough. “And if the landlord [doesn’t], the court could hold the landlord in contempt and contempt powers [are] a pretty big deal. Sometimes people go to jail for violating court orders because they're in contempt.”

But Metge doesn’t want to sue.

“A lot of money and a lot of time. Property rights usually always win in court,” said Metge. She said she is more interested in working with George to sell.

Metge is aware of two people who want to buy the 200 Oak Grove St. building from George to rehabilitate into affordable housing, but not his entire portfolio. Neither have been successful in connecting with him.

“We’d like to offer affordable housing and have the owner at least talk to the individuals interested and hopefully agree to a sell,” Metge said. “A boarded building is not good for the neighborhood or that building. It presents a hazard if no one is in there and keeping an eye on it.”

Chugtai also said Regulatory Services connected George to affordable housing providers who could buy his buildings.

“Obviously these conversations haven’t gotten anywhere,” Chugtai said.