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Sam Czaplewski’s Unhappy Experience with the City of Minneapolis 

Sam Czaplewski is a former union carpenter and U.S. Army officer who served in Saudi Arabia. He is living on disability income related to his military service. He formerly owned a triplex at 23xx James Avenue North in Minneapolis until the Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA) acquired the property through eminent domain on April 1, 1996. Sam had owned this property for 23 years.

The triplex included a three-bedroom apartment on the first floor and an efficiency apartment and a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor. Sam rented the three-bedroom apartment for $550 per month to a paraplegic man, his wife, and their two children. Altogether, he was receiving about $1,200 in monthly rents from the three units.

In 1989, Sam did a major renovation of this triplex. He installed a new roof with new plywood and cedar shingles. He restructured the building foundation in accordance with plans approved by the city’s structural inspector. He built a new sloping sidewalk to accommodate the wheel chair of the paraplegic tenant. While Czaplewski did most of the work himself, he estimates that the value of this work was approximately $70,000.

In the spring of 1995, Sam heard from neighbors that a tenant in the one-bedroom apartment upstairs might be using drugs. There were two young women and one child living in that apartment. The Minneapolis police raided this apartment doing approximately $3,000 worth of damage . They failed to find drugs. The police did find $700 in cash under the mattress which they confiscated. The tenants said this included money for the rent. Sam evicted these tenants by filing for an Unlawful Detainer. The tenants owed him two months’ rent when they left. One of the tenants had an outstanding arrest warrant but the police did nothing to apprehend her.

Several weeks after Sam filed for the Unlawful Detainer, a fire broke out in the evicted tenants’ apartment. The fire marshal and housing inspector estimated that the fire had caused $10,000 worth of damage. Nevertheless, the city inspector said that there was no structural damage from the fire. She advised Sam to pull a permit to repair the damage. Same began working on the repairs. He spent $3,000 to $5,000 replacing the broken windows and damaged frames.

Several weeks after the fire, Sam noticed that all the downstairs windows had been boarded with plywood. He called the telephone number printed on the plywood and learned that a city inspector had boarded the building because one window was broken. The building was considered accessible to trespass. The boarding had been done without any condemnation notice or posting of the property. Sam was never served any papers.

An inspector later testified in court that he believed the building to be vacant. At the time of the boarding, however, the paraplegic man’s wife and two children were still living in the three-bedroom apartment. The paraplegic man himself was temporarily occupying a bed at the University of Minnesota hospital. The upstairs apartments were vacant because of the fire. A week after the first-floor window boardings, all the windows on the second floor were found broken.

About three months after the fire, Sam received a letter from the MCDA offering to buy the triplex from him for $5,000. Sam considered this to be a ridiculously low price. The tax-assessed value of the property was then $40,000; it had been $58,000 even before the $70,000 renovation. Sam estimates that the building was worth at least the $70,000 in renovation costs and maybe as much as $135,000. Consequently, he ignored the MCDA’s written offer. He did make several telephone calls to the MCDA offices but no one would speak with him or return his calls.

Two months later, an attorney representing MCDA called Sam on the telephone and informed him that he had a court date. He informed Sam that MCDA was condemning the triplex using the city’s power of eminent domain. No one had served legal papers on Sam in connection with this action.

In January 1996, Sam and another landlord appeared before Judge Thomas Carey in Hennepin County district court. Sam was given an opportunity to state why he should be allowed to keep his building. His argument that rents from the building were his sole source of income apart from the disability payment was apparently not persuasive to the judge. Judge Carey ruled that Sam had one month to vacate the property. He granted an extension until April 1, 1996, because winter conditions made it difficult to remove some belongings.

Sam appealed the judge’s decision to a panel of commissioners who held eight meetings on this subject during the summer of 1996. Meanwhile, MCDA had reduced its offering for the property from $5,000 to $1. The law firm of Gray, Plant, Mooty, Mooty & Bennett was representing MCDA. This law firm had hired an appraiser who estimated that it would take $114,000 to renovate the building properly. Since this amount was more than market value, MCDA argued that the triplex had a negative worth and $1.00 was fair compensation for the condemned property. The panel of commissioners awarded Sam $18,566.

Both Sam and the MCDA appealed this award. MCDA sought to reduce the award to $1. The matter was scheduled to be heard in court in the summer of 1997. Unable to learn the precise date, Sam worried that he might miss the court hearing through lack of notification. MCDA’s attorney had often mailed legal notices to him after the fact. He phoned the court house numerous times but failed to learn anything about this case.

Sam contends that the triplex might have generated $1,500 in monthly rents and, on that basis, should be worth $110,000. He also suggests that the building is, at the least, worth $30,000 by subtracting the $10,000 in fire damage from the tax assessor’s $40,000 value. Sam’s own appraiser appraised the building at $26,000. (This was after MCDA had owned the building for three to four months, leaving it open to vandals who helped themselves to doors, stair railings, plumbing fixtures, appliances, and other removable items.) A licensed real-estate broker who did an appraisal for Same came in with a $29,900 estimate. Finally, a neighbor offered him $34,000 for the building as is.

Sam notes the irony that the appeals process has cost the government at least $50,000. Each of the three commissioners is paid $400 for a day’s work, and the appeal required eight days of hearings. In addition, city inspectors and appraisers had to be hired. MCDA’s attorney, Martha A. Holton-Demrick, did extensive work in defending the $1.00 condemnation price. She, of course, had to be paid. Sam points out that the $50,000 spent on the process of taking his property for next to nothing might have settled the case had the money been offered to him in the first place.

Sam represented himself throughout these proceedings. He approached five different attorneys but none would take it because there was not enough money in it. One attorney estimated that, at most, he might receive an additional $18,000 from a court; the 30% contingency fee at this level would not be worth his time. Sam approached ten different appraisers who would not take the case before he found one who would. Most argued that it was difficult to appraise a condemned building because there is no willing buyer in many such cases.

Sam notes that, for its estimate of value, the MCDA is legally required to submit ten different comparative values from properties located within a mile from his own condemned property. He checked the list of ten properties which MCDA had cited. Two were vacant lots and seven were buildings located more than a mile away from his. Only one met the legal requirement for comparative market values.

The MCDA bulldozed Sam’s former triplex in the last week of December 1996; the property is now a vacant lot. Sam notes that three other residential buildings located within a block’s radius of his were razed at the same time. Habitat for Humanity has recently built a house on a vacant lot in this neighborhood. Sam believes that this organization spent $80,000 on the project but that the building’s market value is much less.

The razed lots will probably remain vacant for a long time to come. The two lots next to his former building have been vacant for 20 years as unwitting taxpayers have footed the bill for maintenance and upkeep at $35. per hour.

Sam Czaplewski is a casualty in this process. Middle-aged and impoverished, he has lost a rental property that he had owned and managed for 23 years. The dosage of medication that he takes for high blood pressure has doubled in recent years. Five years ago, Sam took a homeless man off the street and gave him three months’ free rent until he was able to place this man in a treatment program for alcoholics. Today, Sam worries about his own future.

Another casualty is, of course, the paraplegic man and his family who used to occupy the three-bedroom apartment. After the city condemned the triplex, this man called Sam from a shelter begging to be taken back into the apartment again. This shelter was charging $100 per person per night to provide overnight lodging. Two nights of this accommodation costs more for this family of four than the $550 which Sam was charging per month. Now the family has moved on to public housing where it pays at least $800 per month for lodging in a high-rise apartment.

On the other hand, the professional attorneys, appraisers, inspection witnesses, etc. have done quite well for themselves. The neighborhood block club leader, who might have started the ball rolling by informing on Sam about the “drug-using” tenants, now lives in St. Paul.

 

Postscript:

The case was decided in the summer of 1998, with Hennepin County Judge Thomas H. Carey presiding. Sam asked for a jury trial. Judge Carey denied the request. In the end, he awarded Sam $1.00 for his property.

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