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How the State Nuisance Law was applied to James Wu


James Wu was a Minneapolis landlord for 25 years. He once owned ten buildings with a total of 100 units. Wu began selling off his properties in the 1980s until today he is down to three buildings. One is on First Avenue and two are adjoining properties on Portland Avenue across the street from the Ebenezer Society, a provider of government-subsidized housing for the elderly associated with a church.

Wu’s building at 2504 Portland Avenue South contains ten efficiency apartments on three floors. There is at least one bathroom adjoining the hallway on each floor. The other building, at 2508 Portland Avenue South, has five two-bedroom apartments, each with its own bathroom.

In January 1996, Wu began having problems with homeless vagrants in his building at 2504 Portland. They may have been attracted to that building by the accessible bathrooms. Homeless people were sleeping in the hallways and stairways almost every night. Drug dealing and prostitution went on in the bathrooms.

A tenant was regularly calling the Minneapolis police about the vagrants. When the vagrants found out who that person was, they wrecked his apartment. They broke down his door, smashed the telephone, and threatened his life. As a result, the tenant was afraid to call the police. He called Wu instead.

Wu installed new security locks on the front door but, almost every week, the vagrants broke them. Wu was himself now calling the police almost every night.

In April 1996, Wu made a personal visit to the 3rd precinct headquarters of the Minneapolis police department on Hiawatha Avenue. He gave several sets of keys to the front door to the officer at the desk. The police visited Wu’s apartment building and kicked all the vagrants out. Many were back in the same building two hours later.

Wu did not know what to do. He called the police station to ask for advice. An officer said there was not much that the police could do. He should just keep calling whenever there was a problem. When Wu did call the police, the police would kick in the door and break the security lock if no one came to the door. Wu complained of this practice at the 3rd precinct headquarters. The police said they could not find the keys to the front door of his apartment even though Wu had given keys to the police many times.

This went on for several months. Almost every night, Wu would call the police, the police would kick vagrants out of the building, and the same people would be back the following day. Some might have been taken to jail; but they were released within 24 hours. Others were simply escorted out of the building. They were all back in Wu’s building a short time later.

One vagrant, a man named Preston, lived in Wu’s apartment building for the better part of a year. He must have been arrested and released at least 50 times.

In the late summer, Wu installed a second security door at the front entrance. He evicted half of his tenants, suspecting that they might be in league with the vagrants. He also hired a new caretaker in September who was quite diligent in policing the hallways. This strategy seemed to work. Fewer vagrants camped out in Wu’s building at 2504 Portland Avenue South.

Unfortunately, Wu started to receive calls about vagrancy problems in his other building at 2508 Portland. The same pattern developed as at 2504 Portland earlier that year. Again, a tenant regularly called the police. Again, the vagrants threatened the tenant’s life. Again, the tenant felt intimidated and stopped telephoning the police. Again, Wu himself assumed police duties.

In January 1997, the CCP/SAFE (“community policing”) officers in this neighborhood, Charles Gust and Don Greeley, telephoned Wu to complain that Wu’s properties were attracting too many police calls. There had been hundreds of calls during 1996 at 2504 Portland alone. Wu had to do something about the problem. What? The officers had no suggestions. Just clean up the problem, he was told.

In the same month, Wu received another telephone call. Mary Pauluk, a housing development specialist with the Ebeneezer Society, told Wu that her organization was interested in purchasing both his buildings across the street. She asked Wu to call a vice president of the Ebeneezer Society to set up a meeting.

In preparation for the meeting, Wu contacted two realtors for an estimate of a selling price for comparable properties in today’s market. On January 16, 1997, he met with the delegation of Ebenezer Society officials at the organization’s headquarters on Park Avenue. How much would he sell his two buildings for, Wu was asked? Wu mentioned a dollar figure close to what the realtors had suggested. He was told that someone from Ebenezer Society would get back to him in a week or so.

Several weeks passed. Wu called the Ebenezer Society offices to ask if a decision had been reached. Not yet, he was told; they needed to do an appraisal. But it would cost $5,000 to appraise Wu’s two buildings, and the Ebenezer Society could not afford to spend that kind of money. Nevertheless, Wu was encouraged to be patient and wait for an answer.

The next move came from Andrew Lefevour, an assistant county attorney in the Hennepin County Attorney’s office. His specialty was cracking down on “nuisance properties”. In early February, Lefevour telephoned Wu to ask for a meeting at his office. Arriving at this meeting on February 5, 1997, Wu found Ebenezer Society’s Mary Pauluk sitting in the office, along with Lefevour and two Minneapolis police officers.

Lefevour came quickly to the point. The County Attorney’s office had received a complaint from a resident of the Ebenezer Society concerning problems in Wu’s buildings. He needed to do something fast. Wu tried to explain the problems that he had been facing for the past year. Lefevour indicated that he didn’t care about that. He wanted the problem solved. If Wu did not solve the problem, the county would board up his buildings.

Facing imminent condemnation, Wu hired a private security firm the very next day. This firm signed a contract with him to patrol the buildings regularly and write reports of disturbances. Its monthly charge was $700.

Wu received another call from Lefevour in the next week, requesting a second meeting on February 11th. The same cast of characters were there. Wu, accompanied by a representative of the private security firm, explained the arrangements that he had made.

Those arrangements were not good enough, Lefevour informed Wu. He had to have private guards stationed in each building for at least six hours per night between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. There was no choice. Either Wu went along with Lefevour’s demands or he would lose the two buildings.

In mid February, Wu finally received the Ebenezer Society’s offer. It came to him in a letter. The letter asked Wu if he would consider donating the buildings to this organization for a tax writeoff. Wu delivered his response straight to Mary Pauluk as they sat in Lefevour’s office. It was a firm “no”.

Now confused, Wu started contacting other landlords in the neighborhood. It seemed that the Ebenezer Society was holding meetings with its 70 elderly residents to discuss James Wu and his “problem properties” across the street. The residents were being encouraged to write letters to the County Attorney requesting that Wu’s buildings be declared a public nuisance and be condemned. A new law gave the Hennepin County Attorney power to take those buildings away from Wu if he failed to bring the crime-related problems under control.

In the meanwhile, Wu was stuck with an agreement which Lefevour had forced him to sign to avoid condemnation. Wu had to station the two guards in his buildings for six hours a night for an entire month. The private security firm charged $3,000 per month for that service. That was more than the total rents received from the two buildings during the same period. After paying for private security, there was nothing left over for utilities, taxes, or repairs. But at least Wu still owned the buildings.

The last statement is not quite correct. James Wu transferred ownership of all his rental properties to his son, Joe, as of March 1997. He himself has retired. The homeless people may have gone from his buildings but Wu is left with an enormous headache. Literally, he has suffered from recurring headaches nearly every day for the past several months.

At any moment now, thought Wu, the crowd of homeless vagrants could return to the buildings. Any moment now, the County Attorney’s office could pounce on the two properties which - who knows? - could wind up in the hands of that benevolent institution across the street. He himself is considered a notorious slumlord, reviled by indignant neighbors newly empowered to rid their community of his kind.

I’m too old for this business, James Wu thought to himself. Let’s hope that the next generation can do better.

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