Flames billowed out of a window on the third story of a vacant building just up the hill from Loring Park one crisp autumn morning.
To fight the fire inside the Oak Hill Apartments, a pale brown brick-clad building complemented with green-trimmed windows located at 200 Oak Grove, fire crews deployed a chainsaw and cut across a third floor window sash.
While no one was hurt, first responders said they saw a group of people running out of it.
The building has long been a nuisance to its neighbors. Although it’s been vacant for almost a year, its troubles go beyond that. It has 128 code violations, the bulk of which were flagged in the past year and include building, fire, electrical, and plumbing violations. With the building boarded up, the city, frustrated neighbors, landlords, and business owners are trying to put an end to a real estate empire run by a reclusive lifelong Minneapolitan.
200 Oak Grove is owned by a Whittier resident named C. David George, who bought it in 1978. This was where he began his real estate empire. He bought his first apartment building while he lived in the Oak Hill in 1969. He went on to buy eight more apartment buildings in the Whittier and Uptown neighborhoods.
His buildings are mostly vacant and falling apart to some degree. Locks on entry doors to his buildings don’t work well. Locks on the building’s mail slots are missing. Residents, who avoided using the washers and dryers and mostly had to make fixes on their own, lived among cockroaches and mice. In one of his buildings, people cut wires, stole plumbing pipes, and threw bricks into the windows. Two of his buildings have amassed close to 100 police calls in the past three years.
Southwest Voices connected with former tenants who lived in his buildings going back to the 1970s to understand who he was and the conditions they lived in. The gist: C. David George took advantage of people who loved the area but otherwise could not pay the market rents to live here.
“He was gonna build an empire,” said William Thomas, who rented a different unit in a different building George bought in the 1970s while he lived there. “He was pretty determined to get his money’s [worth].”
First, Who is C. David George?
We don’t know much about C. David George other than what we’ve heard from former tenants and what is available online through Ancestry.com and records from the U.S. Census, Hennepin County Recorder, Hennepin County District Court, and historic local directories. Efforts to reach George at his Edina and Minneapolis addresses in person and by U.S. Mail, as well as his three phone numbers, were unsuccessful.
C. David George was born in Sweden in January 1940 to Nils and Isabell George. Nils was born in Sweden, Isabell in Minnesota. They moved to Minneapolis later that year, settling at 27th and Blaisdell, according to recently-released 1950 Census rolls and passenger ship records. Nils worked at nearby Honeywell as an electrical engineer, while Isabell stayed at home.
George, who went by Dave in high school, graduated from West High School, now the Kenwood Isles Condominiums, in 1957. He was a part of the Money Making Committee, performed in the senior play, involved in the student newspaper and the French club, and competed in football, hockey, basketball, and track. He was voted “big optimist” in his class and also served as student council treasurer.
Shortly after he graduated, he and his family moved to Edina. He eventually went to college, and followed in his father’s footsteps to become an engineer at Honeywell. Historic Polk Directories found at the Hennepin County library showed he lived at 200 Oak Grove from as early as 1965 to as late as 1977.
It was during his tenancy at 200 Oak Grove where he began his real estate empire. He bought his first building at 2621 Pillsbury in 1969. About seven years later, he bought - and moved into - 2515 Blaisdell, where he would live on and off for the next four decades.
Two years later, he bought the Oak Grove building and 2312 Lyndale Ave. S. The following year, in one fell swoop, he bought five buildings that comprised the Lagoon Apartments at the northwest corner of Lagoon and Hennepin right behind the Walker Library. It was these buildings where his troubles began.
George proceeded to raise rents on longtime Lagoon Apartments residents shortly after buying them, recalled William Thomas, who rented an apartment in one of the apartment complex’s five buildings from 1979 to 1980.
“It was a fairly substantial rent increase [from] what I remember,” said Thomas, who along with several other tenants contacted the Minneapolis Tenants Union, who helped them organize a rent strike.
Thomas, however, doesn’t remember what became of the rent strike. He believes George may have moderated the rent increases, but he also believes the rent strike petered out. Thomas, along with some tenants, moved out by 1980, although Thomas did so to live with a partner.
Despite raising rents, George kept the rents generally low. Before the last tenants at 2312 Lyndale were forced to move in July of this year, they paid close to $750 per month for an apartment with a small kitchen, bathroom, living room, and a closet-less room that had French doors.
But former tenants from the past decade, as well as court documents, show he was rather inconsistent with deciding how rent was due. George successfully sued nine of his former tenants, including one who was being hospitalized, over the last decade, for back rent.
One tenant at 2515 Blaisdell, who we are not identifying to protect their privacy, recalled being hit with a surprise rent increase.
“After the first year, he would not give us a lease until well into the next term, and didn't mention that he had raised the rent,” said the tenant.
Another tenant at 2312 Lyndale, who moved out about a year after the pandemic began, remembered George was slow to cash rent checks. The tenant thinks it’s because they rarely asked for George to address building issues.
“Because I barely ever asked for anything … I noticed that he was cashing my checks later and later and later. What would happen was he would be cashing a [rent] check for September in the middle of October or the end of October,” said the tenant. As a result, they said they did not bother to pay rent some months.
Neglect in his buildings became apparent as early as the 1990s. Although Thomas recalled George purchased new carpeting for the Lagoon Apartment complexes, his other buildings began to show signs of deterioration. The appliances were old, the buildings rife with pests, and tenants found it easier to fix what was broken themselves than to call their landlord, who they often had to call repeatedly to get anything fixed.
Management may have been slow to respond because of the lease tenants agreed to. A tenant who lived in one of his buildings in the 1990s presented me with a copy of the lease they signed, which requires tenants to bear maintenance costs if they or their visitors, intruders and trespassers were responsible. The same clause appears in a lease obtained through court documents executed with a different tenant in November 2012.
Utilities in the 2312 Lyndale building began to deteriorate after the building’s property manager moved into the complex in 2012. Many tenants said the property manager, who at one point was living with their two children and partner, repeatedly cut internet and electricity cables.
“He would cut our wires for our internet to where we had to have CenturyLink coming out every month,” said a 2312 Lyndale tenant, who moved out when the building was condemned in July. “And then [the internet provider] instituted a new policy, adding a fee if they gotta come into your building.”
The same property manager also dissuaded another 2312 Lyndale tenant, who moved out in 2021, from calling a plumber.
“I did get a plumber because I’m desperate, [and] the person came over and they said, ‘I have never seen pipes and things are in such bad shape, no wonder that this guy didn't want you to call a plumber,’” said the former tenant who moved out in 2021. “The plumber actually took pity on me and charged me like $100 less because he was like, ‘Damn, this is f*****.’ I just never told the landlord, it was easier to just pay out of pocket.”
The tenant’s bathroom wasn’t the only one that didn’t work. A neighboring tenant also had a bathroom that did not work, so George let her use the bathroom in another vacant unit.
Chuck Olsen, who lived at 2621 Pillsbury in the mid-1990s, was one of many tenants who we spoke with who recalled George was unresponsive when it came to fixing things unless pressed. Many of the tenants had to take initiative to fix what was broken in the building. “If anything was broken [it] wouldn’t get fixed unless I did it. I remember lights burned out in the hallway that I replaced myself,” recounts Olsen.
Robert Erickson, who also lived at the Pillsbury complex in the mid-1990s, remembered having to threaten George with legal action to replace an old stove. “The pilot kept going out, causing gas to leak. We complained multiple times, and they finally replaced it after an angry letter [threatening legal action] with another ancient stove,” said Erickson.
Both Erickson and Olsen recounted how unsafe they felt living there, with both recounting the building was not secure. “The main doors didn't lock very well,” said Olsen. “Somebody got jumped taking trash out in the back and I don't think there was a light out there.”
“As the building was not too secure — you could easily follow someone in — I was always watching over my shoulder,” adds Erickson. To date, 2621 Pillsbury amassed 68 violations dating back to 1998, which address hallway cleanliness, plumbing, mailboxes, windows, doors, electricity, and trash.
At 2515 Blaisdell, one of two of his building complexes that have off-street parking, one of the tenants’ vehicles could not leave the garage because the entrance and exit was icy. 2515 Blaisdell has 82 fire, electrical, and inoperable vehicle violations dating back to 1998.
Vermin such as cockroaches, mice, rats, and bats were common at the 200 Oak Grove, 2312 Lyndale, and 2515 Blaisdell buildings, recalled tenants who lived there from the 1990s up until the past year.
“I love bats, but not on the inside. And when I tried to talk to management about it, they … crickets nothing, nothing at all,” said Andrea Hamilton, who lived in 200 Oak Grove in the mid-2000s. The 2515 Blaisdell tenant recalled seeing mice, including a dead one decomposing in the building hallway, towards the end of his tenancy in the early 2010s.
Kate Clarke, who lived at 2312 Lyndale from 1995 to 2000, also recounted seeing bats and mice in the hallway.
“I remember … coming home from a trip one time I was gone for a few days. And I opened my kitchen cupboards and they were full of mice droppings … and an actual mouse sitting on top of the pasta,” recounted Clarke. “They didn’t really do anything to help. [I remember] having to buy my own mousetraps.”
“I Don’t Feel Safe Living Here”
Ultimately, what drove most of the tenants we spoke with away was because they did not feel safe living in the buildings he owned.
Hamilton, who lived at 200 Oak Grove in the mid-2000s, recalled having to move because she did not get along with a couple involved in an abusive relationship. “One night, it was really bad, but they had turned the music up so loud that it was like in front of the speakers at First Avenue,” said Hamilton.
“I kept filing complaints with the management company, and they didn't do shit about it,” said Hamilton. “So I stopped paying rent, and I said, ‘You're not getting any more rent from me until you fix this, all of these issues.’ And they said, you have to pay us rent no matter what. And I said, ‘I am not physically safe.’” Hamilton recounts that the building supervisor continued to call her at work for rent until she threatened legal action.
How squatters began to occupy 200 Oak Grove and 2312 Lyndale is unclear. But tenants recount George decided to stop renting units in his apartment, some hearing from George that he wanted to stop conducting background checks on prospective tenants.
“Very few people lived in the building. I saw around five other people total coming and going from the building during the entire three years I lived there. That's not an exaggeration,” said the former tenant of 2515 Blaisdell.
At 2312 Lyndale, only seven units out of 25 were inhabited by residents by mid-2021. The rest of the building was either abandoned or inhabited by squatters. “I had a big, giant rock thrown through my window and glass shattered everywhere. I’d had a lot of people who were squatting across the hall, I’d had my packages stolen, I’d had people jiggling my door handle, people just walking in on the door all the time,” said the 2312 Lyndale tenant who left in 2021. The property manager also slipped notes under her door that made her feel uncomfortable.
The final straw for the tenant was when squatters broke into her unit and stole some of her belongings. “Two people [who] I'd seen around [in] the building before had kicked my door down and had stolen a bunch of stuff,” said the tenant. “I packed up all of my stuff in one night, and never officially told the landlord that I was leaving. A bunch of my belongings are probably still in that condemned building.”
Last year, the city began to cite George for building code violations at his 200 Oak Grove and 2312 Lyndale buildings, which included heat, plumbing, electrical, and fire safety issues. Then the city condemned both buildings: 200 Oak Grove in October 2021, 2312 Lyndale this past July. Both buildings had three tenants remaining when they were condemned.
At 2312 Lyndale, one of the three remaining tenants recalled the condemnation happened rather hastily. The city finally condemned the building in July after a botched attempt. Although the city put up notices that tenants had to be out, one of the tenants who was displaced suspected squatters removed those signs.
“They just put signs on the building that were torn down by the people that were breaking into it,” said one of three remaining tenants who were displaced. “The experiences between the time that nothing happened, and the time that cops banged on my door and threw me out of the building, the city didn't notify us any differently.”
The tenants lost their belongings because of the condemnation, in part because they could not get movers to help in time but also because no matter how much work the city did to board the building up, squatters found a way back in.
“The city’s solution to that was to throw us onto the streets, and then go through the pretense of boarding up the building and not do a, you know, a job that actually keeps anybody out so that the legitimate tenants were without a place to stay. And the criminals went into the building and ransacked everything and I lost everything that I own,” said the tenant.
A spokesperson from the city said they had renter liaisons connect with 2312 Lyndale residents about the rental assistance process, although the tenant who we spoke with was unaware who the liaisons were.
“I do not feel safe where I live. I do not feel safe sleeping not 15 feet away from a major fire hazard. And when winter comes and they start trying to keep warm? And who is making sure the gas is off? Explosion or fire is my biggest fear,” said the tenant next door. 2312 Lyndale has amassed 96 police calls, seven EMS calls, and 12 fire department calls from 2019 to 2022.
Although the landlord of the building north of 2312 Lyndale and the owner of Leaning Tower of Pizza have complained as well, neither responded to requests for comment.
At 200 Oak Grove, Minneapolis Fire responded to at least three instances of fire in the last four months, with the last large one on September 19. Minneapolis Police also responded to 99 calls in the building from 2019 to this year. One week later, crews retained by Minneapolis Police and Fire began to cut vegetation and trees from and near the building in their efforts to fortify it.
The next day, crews began to board up windows. Each window received a wood board painted gray, with windows on the two lower stories receiving cut frames, another wood board panel, and metal fencing. They eventually plan to surround the entire building with wire fencing.
Deputy Fire Chief Rita Juran said they are hesitant to board the building up, because it makes it much more difficult to see if a fire is happening and if anyone is inside. But they believe boarding up the building is the best and safest option for the building and those who live near it, because people would technically not be able to enter it anymore.
What’s Next For A Crumbling Empire?
For now, his remaining buildings remain undisturbed, both by the city and by squatters. Nonetheless, they are still in poor shape. At night, a room on the fifth floor of 2515 Blaisdell — presumably George’s abode — is lit up. The rest of the windows are dark. The lock on the door connecting the foyer to the lobby is removed, but the door remains locked somehow. In the back, the doorway to the garden is boarded up, the garden fenced in with barbed wire. Two seemingly abandoned vehicles are parked next to the garage entryway, one of which is covered in graffiti and broken into.
Two blocks away, the front door of 2621 Pillsbury is ajar, but the two doors leading into the building are boarded up. The hallway light remains lit.
At Lagoon Terrace, feet from where people party in bars and nightclubs, get on buses, or check out library books, the first floor windows are boarded up; glass on some of the storm doors are broken. Supposedly residents remain — two vehicles and a motorcycle are parked on the central parking lot — but we were unable to reach anyone for comment.
The main entry doors have two different signs. A sign affixed to the first door said “Private Property / Do Not Enter / Please Read Sign Ahead.” The sign affixed to the door behind the first one said “Smile! The building is protected by multiple security cameras both inside and outside. Illegal entry will be punished to the maximum extent of law. Police will be given video, enhanced photographs, and sworn statements.”
The Lagoon Apartments complex in Uptown have a total of 265 violations, which include “building open to trespass” violations on three of them. Police have been called to the complex 184 times in the past three years.
The city and some Loring Park neighbors have reportedly met with George concerning his buildings. However, the city, as well as Loring Park neighbors, are mum about what the meetings may have accomplished.
An affordable place to live in Uptown
Nonetheless, former tenants recall how affordable, convenient, and neighborly it was to live in a C. David George building, despite their frustrations. For one of the three tenants who were displaced when 2312 Lyndale was condemned, they liked the convenience to transit as well as a way to get back on their feet after a bad experience with a corporate landlord.
“I don't drive, so I'm very [much dependent on] the bus. Metro Transit factors into my choices quite a bit,” said the tenant. “I [also] just came out of a bad experience with the big corporate [landlord]. So just going to something that was kind of smaller and more low key had a lot of appeal.”
Both Erickson and Olsen, the former 2621 Pillsbury tenants, lived there because it was affordable. “Ultimately, for someone just out of college, it was cheap and not too bad to live in for a year,” said Erickson.
Olsen agrees, and adds they liked the neighborhood and the living situation that allowed him to keep to himself. “Lots of people and families of color lived around there, generally lots of street activity of all kinds, from kids playing to less wholesome stuff,” said Olsen. “I liked that it was a weird old building, [and] at that time I preferred to have cheap rent and a hands-off landlord.”
For the 2312 Lyndale resident who left in 2021, who lived there also for the cheap rent, it was a precarious yet humbling experience because they and their neighbors had nowhere else to go and were subject to the whims of an unstable landlord. “It was a glimpse of humanity. Like, it was this great equalizer where everyone was living in this space, out of necessity, and almost everyone was turning a blind eye, because to not turn a blind eye would mean that they would be displaced from their living situation,” said the tenant.