Like I told you, I was a volunteer attorney for the St. Paul Tenants Union so I knew the landlord/tenant laws pretty well. Well, while out campaigning the first year I was running for office, I knocked on Jim Lewinsky’s door on Ashland and asked my usual question: What would be a good thing to do if I get elected? He points to the house across the street and says, “Do something about that.” What he pointed to was an absentee-owned, run-down, poorly managed rental property, that was not just an eyesore, but something he said was driving down his property value and on the brink of tipping the whole neighborhood into decline.
Well, right in that instant it occurred to me that all I had to do was change the existing Tenant Remedies Act law to allow a city to stand in the shoes of a tenant and bring a legal action to get the landlord to fix the place up to code. “I got an idea about that,” I told Mr. Lewinsky, and sure enough it was one of the first laws I got passed (in 1989). Problem is that it’s now 2002, thirteen years later, and the law still had not been tried once in the City of Saint Paul despite lots of pleas by me, on behalf of my neighbors dealing with problem properties, to the 1989 Mayor George Latimer, the new 1990 Mayor Jim Scheibel, and the new 1994 Mayor (the guy who beat me). It was only finally in 2002 that the incoming Mayor (Randy Kelly) put me in charge so the law might actually get used.
Well, I used it and it worked! Problem was it worked too good. Within weeks of becoming Director of Housing and Neighborhood Improvement, I had the Number #1 worst slumlord in the City in my office. #1 based on his having had 1,131 police calls, code enforcement calls and other service calls to his 18 properties in the past year. I walked him through the ceiling to floor chart on my office wall. “Here we are,” I said, pointing to the top of the chart: ‘Meeting with the Director.’ “Now you can choose this path, the path of voluntary compliance, and take advantage of the laws I wrote to help deal any problem tenants,” I told him, “or we can go down this path which leads to the City taking over your property, getting the necessary repairs made, and charging the entire cost to your tax bill.”
I heard from an Inspector later that upon leaving the building and lighting-up he was heard to remark, “That Fucking Dawkins, who does he think he is #!#?!”
Well, he chose the path of non-compliance and sure enough, with the skids greased at the Courthouse, the Judge took his property away from him, appointed a receiver to take over the property, temporarily relocated his tenants to the downtown Embassy Suites while emergency repairs were being made, and told him he could have it back once it was up to code. I heard later through the grapevine that our landlord actually went to the Embassy Suites himself and saw his tenants enjoying the free happy hour that comes with the room he was paying for.
Apparently feeling grievously wronged by me, he organized 14 other landlords (mostly other slumlords) to pony-up the money to hire two lawyers to work full-time to stop me in my tracks. A suit was filed in federal court alleging, among other things, that the new Mayor and I had conspired in the back rooms of the Capitol to rid the City of Blacks and other minorities. After three years of endless depositions and poring through every document I’d ever written, the case was thrown out of court with the Judge saying there was not even a scintilla of evidence that Dawkins was discriminating against minorities.
Tomorrow: Nevertheless, the Case Goes On