Being a housing inspector in Minneapolis is not getting easier – not in a city where more than 8,000 homes were foreclosed in the last three years.
Inspectors are the ones who keep abandoned properties from becoming a bigger blight. They make sure houses are secure, that squatters don’t move in, that drug dealers and other criminals don’t take over, and that the properties don’t become dumps for junk cars or junk, period.
Maintaining public health and public safety is the core of what inspectors do, says Local 9’s Sarah Maxwell, a housing inspector for 16 years. By preventing houses from becoming dilapidated, the city’s two dozen inspectors preserve the city’s livability, preserve its tax base and preserve home values overall.
“I grew up here,” says Robin Utto, a senior inspector who has been with the city 30 years. “I don’t want it to fall apart. To me, I still feel like I’m making a difference.”
Making that difference is not without its challenges. When inspectors crack down on violations, not everyone sees it their way.
“If we have to issue an order, there’s a reason for it,” Utto says. “People don’t really want to hear the reason; they just believe we’re picking on them. We’re the government and we’re here just to pick on them. That’s really how people feel. And they don’t want to hear what we’re saying.”
“We deal with a lot of unhappy people,” Maxwell says.
Evictions, ‘garbage houses’ make the job tougher
Dealing with disgruntled property owners is routine. Dealing with “garbage houses” isn’t as easy. “There’s houses cops won’t even go into that we end up going into,” Maxwell says.
“We do things that other people can’t even fathom,” Utto says. “The garbage houses take a lot of time. The TV show ‘Hoarders’ – that’s how they are. You have to deal with the person or the people living there and kind of deal with the issues going on there, besides trying to get the house cleaned up.”
Mice and roaches are common in garbage houses. That’s a problem that can spread quickly to neighbors’ houses, Utto says, “so we try to prevent that.”
Similarly, condemning a house and putting a tenant on the street is never easy, Maxwell says. But the alternative is worse.
“It’s not because I hate you that I’m putting you out. It’s because I don’t want you to die in the house,” she says. “I couldn’t look myself in the mirror if I found out I didn’t have the backbone to kick them out, and something happened, and they died in there.”
“If you usually get to talk to them after the fact, then they will come back and tell us, ‘I’m glad you did it. I’m in a much better place now’,” Utto says.
“Then you feel like it was worth it. But at the time, we’re not their best friend.”
In Minneapolis, housing inspectors don’t deal directly with construction permits or mechanical codes. Day in, day out, they focus on the basic upkeep of residential properties. That means:
In the office, in the field
Inspectors spend about half their day in the field – driving through their territories, giving the once-over to home exteriors, or responding to specific complaints.
Paperwork and legalities eat up the other half of the day. It’s a nonstop parade: issuing orders, writing letters, making court appearances, and simply dealing with the voice mails and questions from landlords and homeowners.
When the city does area-wide sweeps, each inspector can easily issue more than 3,000 orders. “So you’re going to get a lot of phone calls,” Maxwell says.
Due to budget cuts, inspectors lost clerical support this year, meaning they’re now doing more of the desk work themselves. “There’s just so much paperwork, I couldn’t tell you,” Utto says.
Plymouth building inspectors Jessica Archer and Erik Noraas both have two-year technical degrees and a state license. In order to keep their licenses, they must keep up with continuing education requirements each year. That means attending classes and seminars to stay up to speed on ever-changing code and building standards.
“It’s not like you have to know it all,” Noraas says. “But you have to know where to look it up, where to find it and how to interpret it.”
Minneapolis inspectors enforce their own code, so they don’t need state licenses. Still, the city typically requires a two-year degree in building technology. Robin Utto received her training through a now-defunct city program that trained city staff and promoted them from in house. Sarah Maxwell actually has a degree from the University of Minnesota.
“We have to know a little about a lot,” Maxwell says. “We have to be able to look at a system and say ‘Something’s wrong here’. We might not be able to say exactly how to fix it, but we need to be able to see whether it’s dangerous or not.”
Adapted from the July-August 2010 issue of Council 5's Stepping Up magazine.