May 20, 2014
Lexington-Hamline, Summit-University 10.3 Miles
Today was as close to perfect as you can get. The temperature sat just shy of 80 degrees with low humidity and the air filled with a delightful bouquet of violets, crab apple and choke cherry blossoms occasionally mixed with the enticing scent of barbecue ribs and burgers. Even better, the nemesis of warm weather-mosquitos-hadn’t hatched yet.
I set off to meet Kris Kujala and Paul Scharf of Ramsey County’s Tax Forfeited Land Division, for a 6:15 p.m. tour of a tax forfeited house in Summit-University that had been renovated and was about to go on the auction block. The ride, unusual because of the pre-arranged meeting, led me to take the most direct route so as to be on time. Despite that, I hit the brakes at 1482 Concordia Avenue (the south frontage road along I-94) for some unusual signage.
I made it to 869 Fuller about 15 minutes ahead of schedule which gave me time to take exterior shots of the stunning 1887 Victorian.
The charming look of the home belies the troubled history that brought it within days of demolition.
The reclamation of 869 Fuller is the result of Ramsey County’s innovative “Reuse, Recycle and Renovate for Reinvestment”, or 4R Program. According to Kris, Ramsey County commissioners created the 4R Program in response to the dramatic escalation in tax forfeited properties from 2008 through 2011, brought on by the recession, “Their (Saint Paul’s) vacant building list went from 400 to 600 to 900 to 1300. I mean they were seeing numbers just going crazy,” which she emphasized by snapping her fingers. Kris added, “They didn’t have the staff to address it. They didn’t even know what buildings were vacant. With mortgage companies frequently out of state, they wouldn’t have any idea that homeowners left, stripped the house…”
Prior to 4R, a Saint Paul ordinance made it almost impossible to sell the worst of the City’s tax forfeited properties. The so-called Bostrom ordinance (authored by Council member Dan Bostrom) was conceived to protect unknowing home buyers from unscrupulous sellers. Those sellers frequently made just enough cosmetic improvements to hide major problems, then sold the property to an unknowing buyer. Instead of forcing sellers to correct major code violations, the ordinance usually led to ‘Category 3’ properties remaining boarded up, blighting a block until they decayed to the point of City-ordered demolition.
The 4R program gave Ramsey County, the eventual owner of tax forfeited properties, the authority to make major repairs, sell the properties and return them to the tax rolls. As far as Kris can determine, the 4R Program is the only one of its kind in the country.
Paul and Kris explained that taxes on the renovated homes and those sold “as is” are up to $5,000 a year each. In contrast, to clean out, remove asbestos and lead and demolish a house, and properly dispose of the remains (including recycling) costs between $30,000 and $35,000. The empty lots that remain are valued for tax purposes at about $7,000 which generate between $200 to $300 in property tax a year.
Paul explained the 4R program caused some friction with Saint Paul, “The program wasn’t welcomed with open arms by the City of Saint Paul, partially because they do the development in their city; even though that city is in Ramsey County, we’re sort of stepping on their turf.”
“There are some homes that, given the market today, unfortunately, we’re not going to get that back in full. But it’s getting taxable again, it’s getting a hundred more years out of it and helping the neighborhoods, increasing their values.”
The seed money used to start the 4R Program came from Ramsey County’s solid waste disposal budget. Kris said, “As long as we were salvaging, reusing the products or the materials or using sound recycling, green practices, they (Ramsey County Commissioners) felt that it fit the same mission as the solid waste department.”
Renovations use salvaged and green materials when possible. For example, new windows must meet a specified level of energy efficiency; reduced flow faucets and toilets are installed and high-efficiency appliances replace energy hogs.
As for 869 Fuller, Paul said some City of Saint Paul and Minnesota Historical Society staff asked that it be put into the 4R Program because of its architecture and stature on the block. After the demolition order was revoked, renovation work began.
The restoration should have taken 90 days from clean out to completion, an ambitious deadline. Kris and Paul requested bids only from contractors who could meet that, but between the tough winter and contractor issues, the house wasn’t finished and ready for auction until May 2014, about 60 days later than planned.
The stench is what Kris remembers most vividly from her first visit. “You can’t even describe the smell. It’s a combination of mold, dirt, dead animals, garbage, sewer. So take all that and put it in a room and that’s what it smells like when you walk in. You can barely stand it.”
The home’s five bedrooms had been split into 10 using curtains, there were holes in the walls, and bars on the windows. Mouse feces sat on floors and counters from one end of the house to the other, spoiled food festered in the refrigerator, used condoms and drug paraphernalia, including needles, littered the floor and clothing accumulated in piles four feet high.
Despite all that, it took very little time before Kris said they began to see signs of life. “The boards come off (the windows) and then there’s light. And then things start getting swept up. And we start taking things out. And you start taking the bad things out. It’s like the house starts breathing again. It’s got life again. And then it becomes this,” she said emotionally, gesturing in all directions.
Perhaps unexpectedly, a few neighbors became irate when they learned the house wouldn’t be torn down after all. One next door neighbor was the most upset because, according to Kris and Paul, he and his family were subjected for years to the drugs, prostitution and the other horrible things that went on at 869 Fuller. For a long time, the neighbor pressed City officials to declare the house a ‘Category 3’ nuisance and schedule it for demolition. Said Paul, “Living next to that for so long and when you have children growing up in your home and putting up with I could only imagine the horror stories… “…his hopes and dreams were dashed and he was very upset and he let me know that. And it was very hard trying to explain our motives and what the final finished product that we’re going to leave here in this neighborhood to better it, will be like. And I can see it was hard to envision the dramatic change that took place here…”
Kris added that the neighbor very clearly expressed his anger multiple times to Paul and her about the decision to move forward with the renovation, “But when we had our first open house he was the first person to come in the door, and introduced himself and took a walk through, then thanked us.”
The exterior of 869 Fuller is close to original but the main level floor plan has been opened up for today’s lifestyle and a first floor laundry area was added. Many of the aesthetics and characteristics remain from when it was built more than 135 years ago.
Kris and Paul agree that 869 Fuller was their most difficult and most satisfying rehab to date. Both got emotional almost to the point of tears when talking about it. Paul explained it this way, “I put a lot of time beyond my work hours because I love what I do so much and the time that was spent on getting this house to be where it is now and the issues and the arguments and the contractor babysitting all play a part in what I’m going to miss on this property and how it all happened.”
A few closing thoughts;
The 4R Program is a very creative and successful response to the vexing problem of tax forfeitures and how they can lead to neighborhood decay. Imaginative solutions to community issues like this deserve praise and encouragement.
The 4R Program is more than a job to Kris and Paul. They believe so strongly in what they do and the positive effect it’s having in Saint Paul (and other parts of Ramsey County) that they willingly work 60 to 70 hour weeks and more to make the program succeed.
The rehabilitation of 869 Fuller Avenue cost about $225,000 and it sold for $190,000 at the May 23rd auction. Several other properties, both houses and vacant land, sold for more than the minimum bid price. Click on this link for full results of the May 23rd auction: http://www.co.ramsey.mn.us/NR/rdonlyres/59EA071A-2A9F-442E-8F47-6644D3113767/37758/AuctionResultsList_052314.pdf
This is the fourth year of the 4R Program, during which time about 14 structures have been rehabbed and more than 30 have been demolished.
Additional details on the Tax Forfeited Land department are here: http://www.co.ramsey.mn.us/prr/tfl/index.htm
Here is the map of the entire May 20 ride: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/468912562