Some case histories to show how government agencies in Minneapolis treated small property owners prior to the 2001 city election:

Sam Czaplewski's story      Floyd Ruggles' story      James Wu's story David Sundberg's story     Rey Mattson's story    the reality of community policing

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Rampaging Landlords: An example of activism

This concerns a group of landlords in Minneapolis who brought change to Minneapolis city government. This group, Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee, was founded by Charlie Disney (of table tennis fame), Frank Trisko, Bob Anderson, Steve Meldahl and other Minneapolis property owners in 1994 in response to mounting pressure upon landlords by neighborhood groups and Minneapolis city officials which used Inspections as a blunt weapon to fight crime and acquire properties for political friends. Its first move was to file a class-action lawsuit against the city in federal court. The suit was dismissed.

From a handful of landlords who met bimonthly in a rental office, the group grew rapidly in membership. Meetings, which were moved to community centers in south Minneapolis, were videotaped and shown weekly on the Minneapolis and regional cable-television stations. The program has evolved from landlord gripe sessions to a public-affairs show centered in housing and crime issues.

Most memorable have been the group's picketing events whose locations have ranged from City Hall to the northside police precinct station to the sites of city-owned buildings scheduled for demolition. An action in the Mayor's anteroom in April, 1998, forced city officials to be sensitive to the relocation needs of tenants when the city forced apartment buildings to close because of crime. "Crack tours" (demonstrations of how easy it was to buy crack cocaine on city streets) given by the group's leaders in the Phillips neighborhood have forced the city to devote more police resources to that crime-ridden area. Even a U.S. Congressman took that tour. More recently, the group gave the incoming mayor early warning of rising rental-property vacancies and forced heavily subsidized, "cream-skimming" nonprofits to accept their fair share of troubled tenants.

The following describes one of the more memorable events in the group's activist history. While city officials sometimes threatened to come down on landlords whose buildings were linked to crime "like a ton of bricks", this time the landlords turned the tables on their adversaries in Minneapolis city hall:

Russ Erkkila's Rental-License Revocation

Legal Background

In the early 1990s, the City of Minneapolis enacted a rental-license ordinance which requires all rental-property owners in the city to obtain an annual license from the city before they are allowed to rent housing units to tenants. Some time later, a measure was added pertaining to "conduct on licensed premises", which, in effect, holds landlords responsible for criminal activities occurring on their properties. It also provides for a means of punishment.

This city ordinance (244.2020) provides that, where disorderly conduct occurs on the licensed premises, an officer attached to the Community Crime Prevention/SAFE unit (commonly known as "community police') may sent a letter of warning to the license holder noting the violation and directing him or her to take appropriate action. The ordinance provides that, if three such letters have been sent in a year's period regarding the same building, the Director of Inspections may recommend to the Minneapolis City Council that the rental license for the building "be denied, revoked, suspended, or not renewed." In that event, the owner could not lawfully rent any units. The economic value of the building would become zero.

The ordinance states that the Director of Inspections may postpone or discontinue an action to revoke a rental license "if it appears that the licensee has taken appropriate measures which will prevent further instances of disorderly conduct" - i.e., has evicted the tenant(s) responsible for the disorderly conduct. There is, of course, no obligation upon the city police to provide a particular level of police services to the landlord or any other city resident.

It should be noted that, despite its euphemistic title, CCP/SAFE is a political and public-relations unit within the Minneapolis Police Department whose officers are widely perceived to be accountable to individual City Council members. (In September 2000, Council Member Joe Biernat, chair of the Public Safety committee, is reported to have ordered the SAFE officers to lobby his fellow Council members to vote in favor of closing down the "Hard Times Cafe" in southeast Minneapolis because of alleged drug dealing on or near the premises.) About sixty persons are employed in this unit which has had an annual budget of more than $3 million. Half are police officers, half civilians.

Case Background

Russ Erkkila is a former executive recruiter in the computer industry. He retired in 1995 after a head injury which affected his short-term memory. In 1978, Erkkila and a partner, Earl Peterson, purchased a fiveplex apartment located at 2204 Emerson Avenue North in Minneapolis for $78,000. Peterson managed the building between 1978 and 1992. In 1992, Erkkila and Peterson sold the building to Kathy Welch of Minneapolis for $65,000. They financed most of the purchase on a Contract for Deed.

In February 1997, Erkkila received the property back from Welch, who simply walked away. Erkkila found the property in terrible condition. The building was cockroach-infested. Many maintenance repairs needed to be made. The state had filed a tax lien against the property. There were $5,000 to $6,000 in unpaid water bills. Erkkila filled a large dumpster with debris from the building. An appraiser now valued the building at $35,000. Erkkila spent approximately $100,000 in renovating this building over the next two years.

First Warning Letter from SAFE

On or about December 15, 1997, the Minneapolis police did a drug raid on Erkkila's building, breaking down the doors. They found a small amount of marijuana (approximately one -quarter ounce) and drug paraphrenalia in apartment #2, but no "saleable drugs". The police did find drugs in apartment #4.

Erkkila promptly evicted the tenant in apartment #4. She was gone within a week. Erkkila also delivered a letter of eviction to the tenant in apartment #2. However, this tenant argued with Erkkila that he ought not to be evicted because he did not sell drugs and no significant drugs were found on him. Erkkila checked out his story by calling the 4th precinct police station. The head of the CRT unit (community response team) confirmed that the police had not bought drugs in apartment #2 and did not find any significant drugs. Erkkila believed that this confirmed the tenant's story, so he rescinded the eviction notice.

Three or four days after this incident, Erkkila visited the CCP/SAFE offices in downtown Minneapolis and talked with the officer assigned to his area, Hillary Freeman. Freeman showed Erkkila a warning letter that SAFE had written to him about this incident. She also recommended that Erkkila evict the residents of both apartments #2 and #4.

SAFE sent the letter of warning to Erkkila by registered mail. Erkkila did not pick it up at the Post Office because he already knew its contents and had taken appropriate action.

Second Warning Letter (actually, two of them)

(1) Erkkila evicted a tenant from apartment #3. This tenant vacated the apartment on March 19, 1998. However, her teenage son gave an extra set of keys to the apartment to some gang members. After Erkkila's maintenance man had locked the vacant apartment and left the building on March 20th, the gang members moved in and began to party. The partying continued through the weekend. On Monday morning, the maintenance man heard noises and spotted intruders in the vacant apartment. He promptly dialed 911. When the police came through the front door, the gang members went out the back. However, the police did find one gang member in bed, along with some drugs and two stolen guns.

On or about April 10, 1998, Erkkila received a warning letter from SAFE about this incident. He was annoyed. After all, his building had been burglarized and his own employee was the one who had alerted the police to the problem. Over the phone, SAFE officer Hillary Freeman told Erkkila that "it didn't matter" that he, Erkkila, had reported the crime. In a state of agitation, Erkkila went to the SAFE office on April 17th and had a heated argument with Freeman and her partner, Scott Olson. Eventually they agreed that Erkkila should not have received the warning letter and it was rescinded.

(2) Unbeknowst to Erkkila or the SAFE officers at the time of this meeting, the Minneapolis police had done a drug raid on apartment #2 the day before - on April 16, 1998. This time, they found drugs. It should be reported that Erkkila had personally visited the 4th precinct station in March or April 1998 to tell the police of his suspicions that drug dealing was occurring in the buidling. He also gave the police a copy of his keys. This information from Erkkila may have precipitated the drug raid on April 16, 1998.

Erkkila was out of town for about a week in late April. During this time, SAFE sent him the second "second warning letter" related to the April 16th incident. Erkkila's teenage son, Jeff, put this letter in Erkkila's "receipt basket" (for unpaid bills) rather than in the incoming letters basket. Erkkila therefore did not know about this letter until July - after he received his third warning letter. The second warning letter included a request from SAFE that Erkkila develop a "management plan" - something that Erkkila and Freeman had discussed at the April 17th meeting.

Third Warning Letter

In the latter part of July 1998, Minneapolis police officers arrested two men who were talking on the street about fifty feet away from Erkkila's building. One of the men was a known drug dealer. The other was a tenant in Erkkila's apartment building. The police found drugs on the drug dealer but not on the tenant. When Erkkila learned about this, he promptly filed for an Unlawful Detainer against the tenant to vacate the apartment. The case was heard in Housing Court on August 12, 1998. After reviewing the case, an assistant county attorney strongly recommended that Erkkila not evict the tenant. The judge agreed, even after Erkkila explained the situation with the warning letters. So Erkkila signed an agreement allowing the tenant to stay with a restricted lease.

To the best of Erkkila's knowledge, the charges were dropped against both men. The police changed their story. At first, they said that the men had been arrested on the curb of the street near Erkkila's building. Then they said it was on the front steps of his building. (Keep in mind that the ordinance requires that the disorderly conduct take place on the licensee's premises before a warning letter can be sent.) Erkkila's own conversation with the alleged perpetrator revealed that the conversation took place well away from his property. The two men had not been talking about drugs at all.

The Aftermath

Erkkila received, with his third warning letter, a statement that SAFE would recommend that his rental license be revoked. When Erkkila explained what he had done to rid the building of crime, Hillary Freeman replied that it was "too little, too late." Apparently, the main complaint against Erkkila was that he had not responded to the first two warning letters, even though he had addressed the problems raised in one of these letters by prompt and effective action. Also, officer Freeman complained that Erkkila had not submitted a written "management plan". Erkkila had, however, at Freeman's urging, hired Housing Plus in April 1998 to do his tenant screening.

Erkkila appealed the license-revocation recommendation to a committee consisting of landlords which he described as a "kangaroo court". A member of that committee comment that the fact that Erkkila's son had misplaced the second warning letter showed that Erkkila was a "poor manager". The decision next went to a subcommittee of the Minneapolis City Council chaired by Joe Biernat. Erkkila and his attorney, Gary Wood, requested a copy of the findings and notes from the landlords' committee meeting to prepare for this one. They never received anything. The letter from the City Council committee stated that Erkkila would not be allowed to introduce any new information or issues at the meeting.

The City Council subcommittee meeting was held on October 21, 1998. The most memorable event was that, even though Erkkila was not allowed to introduce new material, Hillary Freeman pulled out a letter which she said was written by anonymous "neighbors" alleging that three incidents had occurred in Erkkila's building involving gun shots. Erkkila alleges that this was a complete fabrication. He knows of one gunshot incident that occurred elsewhere in the neighborhood; none in his building. Freeman also said that a number of suspicious-looking cars had visited Erkkila's building. Erkkila later checked this accusation out with his tenants, who denied its accuracy.

The members of this subcommittee appeared to Erkkila to be "inattentive" when he testified but quite attentive when Freeman testified. Chairman Joe Biernat was frank about his preferences. "We consider Hillary Freeman to be a goddess," he stated at this meeting. He also said: "We've never gone against a SAFE unit recommendation." These statements seemed to Erkkila to indicate that the subcommittee would recommend that the full City Council revoke Erkkila's rental license when it met to consider the matter on Friday, October 30, 1998 - which indeed it did.

Sweet Revenge

Russ Erkkila told his side of the story to members of the Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee who were, of course, sympathetic. An MPRAC strike force made preparations for a counterattack against the city if the City Council should vote to revoke Erkkila's rental license. First they called the downtown headquarters of SAFE and said they wanted to talk with the "goddess" police officer Hillary Freeman in person about this matter at 9 a.m. Being the courageous person that she is, Freeman managed to be on vacation at the appointed time.

A group of twenty-five landlords and supporters descended on the SAFE offices on 3rd Street and 3rd Avenue carrying picket signs and a bullhorn. One of the picketers was a tenant faced with eviction if Errkila's rental license were revoked. The group also included candidates for statewide office for several third parties - the Secretary of State candidate for the Reform Party, the gubernatorial candidate for the Grassroots party, Leslie Davis (also a gubernatorial candidate), the State Auditor candidate for the Libertarian party, with his three-corner hat. (Jesse Ventura, the Reform Party's gubernatorial candidate, was also invited to participate but he was barnstorming the state in a motor home.) It was the Friday before the state election.

This "motley group", as it was later called in a newspaper article, stormed into the police building demanding to see Hillary Freeman. Instead, Lieutenant Dias of CCP/SAFE came out to the lobby to talk. It became apparent that the discussions with him were going nowhere. Meanwhile, the group received a report by cell phone that the City Council had already voted on the Erkkila matter. So the picketers marched briskly to Minneapolis City Hall a block away. They crowded into the third floor Council chambers where Erkkila and his attorney were seated. The City Council, predictably, had voted to revoke the license.

At first, being nice Minnesotans, the picketers sat politely in the visitors benches listening to the boring business items left on the City Council agenda. The Council members stonily ignored the seated protesters with their picket signs. After five minutes or so, Charlie Disney (leader of the landlord group) impatiently rose from his seat and urged the others to follow him. Round and round the Council chambers the protesters marched, like union picketers on strike. Still the City Council members ignored the disturbance, though a bit more nervously than before.

Suddenly a northside landlord, Keith Reitman, shouted : "Hey, there's a demonstration going on." City Council President Cherryhomes banged her gavel down on the table demanding order. "This is our meeting," she said. "No it's not," growled landlord Bob Anderson, an ex-cop. The rumble was on. As the noise level increased, the City Council members looked stunned and befuddled. They just sat in their chairs helpless to deal with the uprising. "Legalized extortion!" one demonstrator (Sam Czaplewski) kept shouting over as he taped the scene with a camcorder. Other demonstrators had equally pungent remarks about how the city was treating landlords and tenants. This went on for about an hour.

The Council members individually rose from their seats. Some left the Council chambers, while others huddled with Cherryhomes discussing how to handle the situation. The city police were summoned but never made a move to stop the demonstration. At length, Cherryhomes announced that her colleague, Joe Biernat, would make a statement about the Erkkila case. Predictably, Biernat's statement did not satisfy the demonstrators, especially when, for no reason at all, he called Russ Erkkila a "liar" and sarcastically referred to Erkkila's living in the suburbs. A second round of invectives flowed between the demonstrators and Council members. Then the demonstrators left the Council chambers: Mission accomplished.

A remaining question about this event is why the contingent of city police gathering in the back of the Chambers did not make a move to arrest the demonstrators. One reason may be that the audacity of the landlord assault had left the City Council stunned. Another reason may be that this was the Friday before the 1998 state election. With all the political candidates among the demonstrators and with their usual disgraceful deed in scapegoating an innocent landlord for neighborhood crime and tossing innocent tenants out on the street, the largely DFL (Democratic) City Council felt that it could not afford the bad publicity at this time. (It did, however, subsequently spend thousands of dollars for security equipment in the Council chambers to present such an event from recurring.) The rebellious landlords were exploiting a unique window of opportunity. So the DFL showed special restraint so as not to embarrass their colleagues running for office on the following Tuesday.

In hindsight, they needn't have bothered. In the following week, Jesse Ventura, a third- Party candidate, "shocked the world" in being elected Governor of Minnesota, with the DFL candidate placing third.

The other significant aspect was media attention - or lack of it. The Star Tribune reporter, Kevin Diaz, who was covering the City Council meeting, filed a story about about the disrupted meeting which he called the worst disturbance at Minneapolis City Hall in twenty years. He followed this up with a feature story about Charlie Disney and the landlord group several weeks later. Also, WCCO radio sent a reporter to interview people in the hallway outside the Council chambers. Otherwise, there was little media attention. No television cameras came to cover the event. No commentators or columnists ever referred to it. This type of event went against the stereotypes that are the staple of news coverage in the Twin Cities.

Even so, the rampaging landlords found a way to keep this event alive before the public. They devoted the next several weeks of their cable-television show on Channel 6 (the regional public-access channel) to running and rerunning the videotape of the disturbance at City Hall shot by Sam Czaplewski's camcorder. The public was treated to a recurring spectacle of the mighty brought low, the unjust being hoisted on their own petard. A published letter to the editor of the Star Tribune gave the public the dates and times for viewing this spectacle. "Minnesota nice" was giving way to a new militance led by this most unlikely group of crusaders for social justice.

Three Years Later

It took another three years before the landlords' efforts bore political fruit. They had tried class-action lawsuits but failed. They had done protest demonstrations and crack tours. Most effectively, they held monthly meetings which were videotaped and shown on both the local and regional cable-television channels. These were raucous events self-described as "a cross between a public-affairs discussion and the Jerry Springer show." While each show had one or more guests at the head table, audience members were encouraged to speak out at a floor microphone. Many told of their own unhappy experiences with Minneapolis city government. More and more people in Minneapolis watched this show. It had an authenticity that none of the other television shows could match.

Preparing for the 2001 Minneapolis city elections, the landlords created a large sign which they placed next to the head table. This sign named four City Council member whom the group wished to defeat and four City Council members whose reelection they supported. The sign also indicated that the group wished the incumbent mayor to be defeated. (Even though she had appeared on this show and promised greater cooperation with the city's landlords, her subsequent actions and statements revealed this to be empty talk.) Those City Council members targeted for defeat included President Jackie Cherryhomes, Vice President Joe Biernat, and Joan Campbell, chair of the budget committee.

Attracted by free air time, many nonincumbents who aspired to city office sought out the landlords and were guests on the show. The mayor's principal challenger, R.T. Rybak, whose late step-father had owned rental property in Minneapolis, appeared three times.

On election day, November 6, 2001, all four City Council members listed on the landlords' sign as deserving of support were reelected. Several newcomers had been on the show. Three of the four Council members targeted for defeat were, in fact, defeated at the polls. The lone exception was Vice President Joe Biernat. However, he left the City Council a year later after being convicted in court of accepting free plumbing work from a plumbers union which the city regulated. Biernat spent more than a year in federal prison.

The sweetest victory for the landlords was Cherryhomes' defeat at the hands of a political novice given little chance of being elected. The landlords picketed Cherryhomes' home. More than a dozen worked for her opponent, Green Party candidate Natalie Johnson Lee, on election day. They helped to produce a list of 21 embarrassing questions for Cherryhomes which was circulated throughout the ward. Natalie was elected.

And so, the city's two most powerful officials, the Mayor and the City Council president, were both defeated. R.T. Rybak became the new mayor. A group of landlords, reviled as "slumlords" within the city's political culture, were instrumental in both events. Twin Cities media were silent about the landlords' role in any of this.The only acknowledgment came from Cherryhomes herself, who, in a television interview, complained of being picketed by this reprehensible group.

In the four years which have followed, Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee has settled down, become more respectable, and, after Charlie Disney left, focused exclusively upon the cable-television show. At the same time, it has lost much of its political punch.

In the summer of 2005, however, a few members went over to St. Paul to help their brethren fight Mayor Randy Kelly and his high-handed housing inspectors. Forty landlords and their supporters twice picketed St. Paul City Hall. Mayor Kelly was soundly defeated in November (most likely because he endorsed President Bush's reelection bid) while Mayor Rybak, in Minneapolis, was reelected. So there was still some fight left in the group.

Landlords are a stereotypical villain in nearly every culture - money-grubbing bastards who will do anything to collect their rents from poor tenants. It is beyond existing paradigms to suppose that they could do anything good. But each of us, in our own way, does what we think is right. So it is also with landlords. The lesson here is, whatever your reputation among the elite opinionmakers or the general public, be true to yourself and your beliefs. Don't try always to be seen as the "good guy". Don't expect any credit or praise. Just speak out.

Unlawful acts such as shutting down a City Council meeting are not to be recommended; but such things sometimes happen. Sometimes the perpetrators of such disturbances get lucky and are not arrested. In any event, the act of standing up against a powerful but unjust organization can be infectious. You don't have to be admired to be effective. Stand up for yourself and your values. That's how to bring about real change.

In Minneapolis, in the bad old days, there were dozens of ways to skin a landlord. What happened to Russ Erkkila is one of those. If you’re interested, read also of Sam Czaplewski’s Unhappy Experiences with the City of Minneapolis. (He was the cameraman at the City Hall uprising who kept shaking his fist and shouting “legalized extortion.”) You can also read of Floyd Ruggles’ Experiences with the City. Floyd did not join Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee but the memory of his “skinning” was fresh in mind when the group was started in 1994.

Some other unhappy experiences include: James Wu’s battle with vagrants in his buildings and with nonprofit groups attempting to exploit the state’s nuisance law for private gain; the city development agency’s condemnation of David Sundberg’s building in north Minneapolis by eminent domain and the wierd way it calculated “fair market value”; and the “lawsuit from hell” brought against Reynold and Pat Mattson for racial and several other types of discrimination by a tenant who complained of a malfunctioning furnace but refused to let repairmen in to fix the alleged problem.

Bill McGaughey, who wrote these reports after interviewing the principals, also had a run-in with the city though not on the order of the others in terms of money lost. In February 1995, he endured a property condemnation followed, in April, by a neighborhood meeting addressed by Cherryhomes, somewhat resembling a shaming event staged by the Red Guards. ( See Community Policing: It isn't what it's cracked up to be.) Later in the same month Bill joined Charlie Disney’s fledgling landlord group to become its “chief writer” and strategist for many of the protest demonstrations.

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