Post and photo by the Hawthorne Hawkman, photo originally appeared on a Johnny Northside blog post about phone books.
Mahmood Khan's property at 2222 4th St N has, for the time being, taken a step back from demolition. John Hoff and I have covered the house's course quite extensively, from when Annshalike Hamilton was found murdered there, to its path towards possible demolition. (more links found here, here, here, and here)
The ruling that pulls 2222 4th back from the brink only gives it a temporary reprieve. The document can be found here, and from a policy wonk standpoint, it is quite fascinating. I'm reminded of a vignette in the book "The Year of Living Biblically." Two people are having a very polarizing argument, and go to their rabbi to help resolve their conflict. After listening carefully to each side, the rabbi turns to the respective parties, saying, "You are right AND you are right." Another friend witnessing the discussion said, "Wait a minute, they can't BOTH be right," to which the rabbi responds, "And you are also right."
The court ruling is like that, except each side tends to get at least a little bit wrong. We'll start with Khan, who of course...
...is a noted slumlord primarily in north Minneapolis (although a murder suspect was also arrested at his apartment complex in Northeast). Neighborhood groups have complained about his tenants dealing drugs from a property, and I've done several photo tours of various landlords. At the time I looked at Khan's properties, they were easily in the worst shape - and that's no small feat. So while Khan's rights should be upheld just like anyone's, neither this court nor the city council should give him any slack.
According to the city staff findings, Khan "has not restored the property to almost new, and has elected to install mismatched windows, used carpeting, and at least two different colors of styles of siding. In addition, interior walls have been poorly finished, including badly taped sheetrock, sprayed drywall compound to cover imperfections, and poorly installed trim boards."
2222 4th St N, the property was in an extreme state of disrepair for an extended period of time. It was during that time that the city appropriately issued an order to have the structure demolished. Khan entered into a restoration agreement and did not fully comply with the terms and timing of that agreement. Part of the understanding of that agreement was that even 99% compliance was not sufficient to avoid demolition.
It would be absurd to, hypothetically, demolish the house if it was missing proper landscaping, so clearly there would be some degree of interpretation there. The court interpreted both the ordinance and the agreement in such a way as to delay demolition for the time being. The judge's findings are based on her statement that Minneapolis failed to establish that the property was a nuisance at the time that demolition was ordered (the second time, after Khan failed to comply with the restoration agreement).
On the one hand, I have to say that reading those findings, I agree with the judge - almost. Her ruling is based on a strict interpretation of Minneapolis nuisance ordinances, that "(1) the doors, windows, and other openings are boarded up, (2) the values of neighborhood properties have diminished as a result of the deterioration of the subject building, and (3) the cost of rehabilitation is not justified when compared to the after rehabilitation resale value." And the judge ruled that the city failed to make a claim that the property was a nuisance under those definitions at the point when the most recent order to demolish was issued.
(One problem with item #3: Given the abysmally low property values in parts of north Minneapolis, especially Hawthorne, we may want to reconsider whether this is an appropriate way to determine whether a property is a nuisance or whether it ought to be saved or demolished.)
On the other hand, the pending demolition is merely the result of Khan's failure to abide by the terms of the restoration agreement. One could quite legitimately claim that the property was already considered a nuisance, and Khan failed to correct that status in the time set forth for restoration. Wouldn't it be incumbent upon Khan to fully abate the original nuisance status? Furthermore, this would appear to set a rather low bar for reversing an order to demolish. Could it be possible for an owner to remove boards from openings, secure the property, and do just enough repairs to keep the backhoe of doom at bay?
Thankfully, this ruling does not set a legal precedent around such matters, but it does hamper the city's ability to enforce demolition if a restoration agreement is not fulfilled. There appears to be too much gray area here.
In a final twist of irony, Khan's track record of renting to problem tenants is not respectable. There is a decent chance that he could be successful in fully removing the legal definition of a "nuisance," only to rent to a series of problem tenants, thus creating what many in the neighborhood would consider a nuisance property.
The one thing this court order does NOT do, however, is save the house from demolition long-term. The judge merely states that the city may not demolish without first establishing that the property in its current condition is indeed a nuisance. The city could go back, review their ordinances and the condition of 2222 4th St N, and then determine a nuisance status. At that point, they could proceed with a demolition, although Khan would likely still challenge it in court.
This whole process makes one wish that Khan was this aggressive in maintaining all of his properties instead of just one.