The city of Minneapolis is on the verge of putting North Side landlord Ronald Folger out of the rental housing business.
The pending revocation of the licenses on 17 homes that Folger owns will represent the third-largest action of its kind by the City Council since 1999. Once again, the city is grappling with the dilemma of its crackdown on negligent landlords -- that it disrupts the lives of tenants in a bitterly tight rental market, especially people with low incomes.
Janine Atchison, district manager for the city's housing inspection services, acknowledged last week that it is a "very difficult situation" for Folger's tenants. She says the city will help them find new places to live.
"We are certainly not heartless and don't want to make people homeless," she said. "But if the alternative is to allow landlords to operate properties in a substandard way, we need to protect the general public, which includes the tenants, and the neighborhood."
According to city records, Folger has had 368 code violations on 15 of his homes since 2009, which Atchison said is "unusually high." She said 32 of the violations led to administrative actions against him.
That's not the reason he may lose all of his rental licenses, however. The city has already revoked licenses on two of Folger's properties, and under city ordinance, that means he must lose all of them for five years.
The first revocation came after a man was arrested for selling drugs in one of Folger's houses. "You can imagine what impact this has on the neighborhood," Atchison said. Folger was supposed to give the city a plan within 10 days to prevent any future drug dealing from the property, but he didn't do it.
In the second revocation, she said, Folger was ordered to correct code violations on a house, and appointments were set up with the city to reinspect it. She said he did not show up for the appointments. The city revoked his rental license on that house as well.
In an interview, Folger dismisses the city's claims against him. "I fight them all because 99 percent of them are ridiculous," he says. Housing inspectors, he said, "nitpick me to death."
Folger, 50, lives in Oakdale and said he recently retired from the Star Tribune, where he worked in the mailroom, operating machines that bundle the newspapers.
He says he started buying houses in sheriff's foreclosure auctions in 2005 and was sometimes "overwhelmed" by responsibilities taking care of them. He said if he knew then what he knows now, he might never have bought them.
"It is nothing but a money pit," he said of his efforts to repair the homes. "My house is almost in foreclosure, I am so far in debt."
But he calls the two license revocations that triggered the 17 revocations "bogus." He said that his wife forgot to mail in a management plan on the first home that lost the license and that he cannot remember missing appointments with license inspectors on the second home. He said he sometimes waits for inspectors who don't come.
Folger says he has already evicted some of his tenants and has sold six of the homes on a contract for deed. He's said he's in the process of selling the homes on seven others, and hopes the City Council will allow him to keep six homes to rent out.
"If we lose our housing, I don't know what we're going to do," said Tira Jones, 34, who rents a two-story, white stucco home from Folger on the 3300 block of Newton Avenue N., where she lives with her four children. She said he was a good landlord who made repairs when asked.
Peter Brown, a volunteer attorney with the Minnesota Tenants Union, a tenant advocacy group, said the city should have done more to keep tenants in those homes.
"It's a misuse of political, governmental power to basically work up solutions that totally kill housing opportunities in a tight market," Brown said.
He said the city should have asked the county housing court to put the 17 homes in receivership under the state Tenant Remedies Act, appointing an administrator to manage the properties, collect the rents and make repairs.
Assistant City Attorney Lee Wolf said that the act does not apply because Folger's license was being revoked for having two prior revocations, not for housing violations.
Brown said if that's the case, the city should have sought to invoke the Remedies Act before revoking the second license.
Wolf said it was a city housing policy decision and he could not comment on it.
If approved by the City Council's regulatory, energy and environment committee on Dec. 12, the revocation of Folger's licenses is expected to be acted on by the full council Dec. 16.
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