City goes after neglected properties as neighbors rally

Twenty city inspectors spread across Minot Thursday in a one-day blitz to record the condition of more than 400 neglected properties.

The activity came as a group of northwest Minot residents concerned about so-called “zombie homes” met with Congressman Kevin Cramer and city engineer Lance Meyer outside an abandoned, flood-damaged house in their neighborhood.

Meyer told residents that he released 20 staff members from the engineering, planning and inspection department from their other duties to spend the day photographing and surveying properties for 24 nuisance violations listed in city ordinance. The 436 properties on the list will be catalogued and prioritized as well as graphed on a mapping system that will bring all the information on the property, including ownership, into one place.

The inspectors performed drive-by reviews of neglected houses because they weren’t authorized to enter properties. They were able to get closer views only when neighbors invited them onto their properties.

Meyer said a court order would be required to go onto the premises.

The Minot City Council met in special session Thursday to declare an emergency, allowing staff to forgo bidding and obtain quotes from contractors to abate nuisances that pose imminent threats. A contractor would fill in basements, clean up debris, put up fencing, board windows and doors and take other temporary measures to secure property.

The city identified 32 properties that it believes need emergency abatements.

Those addresses are: 422-1st Ave. NW; 2-5th St. NW; 6-1/2-6th St. NW; 111-15th St. SE; 23-6th St. SW; 108-8th St. SW; 438, 501 and 509 West Central Ave.; 417-4th Ave. NW; 420-3rd St. NW; 215-6th St. NW; 117-7th St. NW; 201, 316 and 519 on Eighth Street Northwest; 503-19th St. SE; 1015-1017 and 1116-1118 on Second Avenue Southwest; 301-15th St. SW; 3 Cortland Dr.; 806-2nd Ave. NE; 436-1st Ave. NW; 19-5th St. NW; 900-1st Ave. NW; 412-5th Ave. NW; 523-3rd St. NW; 506-4th St. NW; 524-8th St. NW; 609-11th St. NW; 310-18th St. NW; and 2-19th St. NW.

“There are a lot of these blighted homes that remain in differing states of disrepair,” resident Nathan Mugaas told Cramer. However, he added that they represent only about 10 percent of the properties damaged in the valley by the 2011 flood.

“Ninety percent were rebuilt so that’s a great thing to celebrate,” he said. “Unfortunately, the 10 percent that are left are the most challenging ones.”

He described an abandoned house near his home that still contains moldy clothing and furniture and the rotting food left in the fridge when the renters fled the flood. Although the property is in a hazardous state, the owner, a military member now living out of state, hasn’t the means to repair it nor does his lender want to take over the deed, Mugaas said.

Cramer was interested in knowing how many homes have become the responsibility of the Veterans Administration. He said there may be some action he can pursue with federal agencies that hold mortgage portfolios on abandoned houses.

Resident Bob Thomas said the city needs to apply pressure to owners who have the ability to clean up properties but have chosen not to. He said the city could get their attention by enforcing its zoning against against just one. A violation of the zoning code is punishable with up to a $1,500 fine and/or 30 days in jail for each day of violation.

Although the city can assess costs of cleanup to the property owner, upfront money is needed to take immediate action. Earlier this month, the city council authorized spending up to $74,000 to get started.

Concerned residents have been researching grants and trying to find other ways that they can help the city.

Cramer said he would have his office look into the possibility of deploying National Guard members to assist in abating hazards on properties owned by military members. He also plans to look into whether there are any federal programs that have funding guidelines that fit Minot’s situation.

Resident Ron Bieri said another piece that is missing is a designated city employee to oversee the cleanup and provide a liaison with neighbors.

“We are behind the eight-ball by at least two years way behind the eight ball,” he said. “Maybe things are happening, but we don’t know what. It hasn’t been enough of a priority.”

Meyer, who has been the city’s point man on the issue, said the city hasn’t had the resources to keep up with inspections on new and rebuilt houses and also track neglected houses.

“The sad truth is we only have six inspectors in our department so we try to prioritize our workload,” he said.

Getting displaced residents back into homes has been the more pressing need, but on Thursday, the priorities shifted. The city inspected no new construction that day but focused on the zombie homes.

“It needs to happen,” Meyer said. “They need to get taken care of.”