A landlord let squatters take over. Tenants are paying the price.
The federally subsidized apartments at Ridgeway Court are getting condemned, making Bemidji’s affordable housing shortage even worse
Rachael Greene stands in the apartment next to hers, which squatters broke into months ago. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.
BEMIDJI — The apartment building where Rachael Greene has lived for 14 years has nearly been taken over by squatters.
Every day, she leaves her apartment not knowing what to expect. The hallways are filled with graffiti. The windows are smashed out. Shirtless young men, high on meth or opioids, wander in and out of the unlocked doors.
“It’s sad because I’ve been down that road,” Greene, 41, said. “But I didn’t destroy anything … They destroyed my home. And with no care.”
Greene is one of just a few holdouts still living in the 16-unit brick building in Bemidji, one of four buildings owned by North Dakota-based NETA Property Management in an affordable housing development called Ridgeway Court.
The apartment next to hers on the second floor was condemned weeks ago. Inside, the floors are littered with used needles, squares of aluminum foil burnt with drug residue and bottles filled with yellow liquid.
The apartment has been stripped of its appliances. Someone ripped out the pipes, too, which caused the apartment below to flood and then fill with mold. Afterward, that apartment was also condemned, and the elderly woman who lived there was forced to move into a hotel, abandoning sopping-wet clothes and the rest of her belongings.
The buildings called Ridgeway Court I and II just north of downtown Bemidji have been slowly declining for the past two years, residents say, ever since the last caretaker quit. NETA, which owns apartment buildings across northern Minnesota, never hired another caretaker, nor did much to keep out trespassers or maintain the properties — even after a judge ordered the company to fix the locks on the doors earlier this year.
The residents at Ridgeway Court are among the poorest in Bemidji — mostly Native American, elderly or disabled — and live there because they have nowhere else to go.
The situation has become a political quagmire for a city whose citations go unheeded by an absent landlord.
The Bemidji mayor, city manager, police chief and city inspector either did not return multiple calls and emails or else declined to comment.
The city’s last resort — condemning the buildings — threatens to force the remaining tenants into homelessness in a city short on affordable housing and shelter space.
One of the buildings was already deemed uninhabitable by the city, forcing out 10 families. The building remains boarded up, collecting more graffiti.
The best-case scenario: a non-profit organization secures enough funding to buy the properties and makes them habitable. Otherwise, the remaining tenants will likely be forced out — either through foreclosure or the city declaring the buildings too dangerous to live in.
Residents say it doesn’t have to be like this. They point to the other half of Ridgeway Court, on the other side of a chain link fence, which is owned by Walker, Minn.-based D.W. Jones Management.
They operate Ridgeway III and IV, an affordable housing complex where squatters have not been allowed to take over.
Greene, a member of the Red Lake Nation, would like to stay in her apartment if a new owner took over, fixed it up and did something about the cockroaches and bedbugs she’s constantly fighting to keep out.
She would also move if she and her partner could find a landlord that accepts Section 8 housing vouchers and would look past their years-old criminal convictions from their drug use days. Greene has a stalking conviction and her partner has a weapons conviction.
She’s turned her life around since then with the help of counseling and suboxone, a medication that helps people quit opioids. She’s been in recovery for six years, and is now in college studying to be a counselor.
Her recovery is challenged daily at Ridgeway Court, where drug use is rampant. If she loses her apartment, she fears she’ll lose everything — including her sobriety.
“It’s scary to think that if I go back on the street that I might end up like them again and be an addict all over. And I don’t want that,” Greene said through tears.
The shortage of affordable housing is particularly severe in Bemidji and the surrounding area. And even though rents are lower than in larger cities, wages are even lower.
People in Beltrami County have among the lowest incomes in the state — half of renters earn less than $26,000 a year. Renters in Beltrami County are among the most likely to be cost-burdened, with over half spending more than 30% of their income on housing. Nearly one in three renters pays more than half their income on rent.
Ridgeway Court was supposed to help. The U.S. Department of Agriculture financed the construction of the buildings through a program aimed at increasing affordable housing in rural areas.
The USDA gave developers $1.7 million in loans with an interest rate of 1% for 50 years. In exchange, the apartments had to be rented to low-income tenants at affordable rents and adequately maintained.
However, the main tool the federal agency has to enforce the rules — foreclosure — would hurt residents most, forcing them to leave while the properties would likely sit vacant for months if not years.
A spokesperson for USDA Rural Development said in a statement that the department “is continuing to work with the property manager of Ridgeway Court 1 and 2 Apartments to ensure all residents continue to have access to safe, affordable housing.”
NETA manager Reed Sabbe declined to comment, saying in an email, “We are in discussion with USDA Rural Development regarding the properties. Once discussions are over with, we will be able to provide a statement.”
Conditions in Greene’s building, Ridgeway Court II, began to deteriorate quickly in January after someone threw a rock through the window of the mechanical room one night.
The freezing temperatures caused a waterline to rupture, which drowned the boiler, causing residents to lose both water and heat for several days.
Temperatures dropped lower than -20 degrees.
“We stayed here and had to tough it out because we didn’t want squatters coming into our apartment,” Greene said.
NETA Property Management gave residents one small space heater each, which could barely keep one room warm. Many turned on their ovens, causing their electric bills to soar.
Residents had to buy cases of bottled water to cook and clean. Some melted snow to flush their toilets. They say NETA did not reduce the rent or cover the cost of the water or utilities.
The incident caught the attention of Reed Olson, a Beltrami County commissioner and executive director of a nonprofit that runs two homeless shelters in Bemidji. He began getting to know the tenants and connected them with pro bono attorneys at Legal Aid Services of Northwest Minnesota and the St. Paul-based Housing Justice Center.
Olson urged Bemidji City Attorney Alan Felix to sue NETA to force the company to comply with the city’s housing code. So did Larry McDonough, an attorney at the Housing Justice Center, who was friends with Felix in law school back in the 1980s.
“His response, to be honest, was kind of disappointing,” McDonough said. “(He said) there’s a lot of gang issues there and he thinks the landlord is doing the best that he can.”
McDonough then filed a lawsuit on behalf of Annadine Houle to try to force NETA to make repairs.
Houle, 67, and her grandson rented a two-bedroom, first floor apartment at Ridgeway for the past three years, paying her portion of the rent not covered by a federal voucher — about $320 a month — with her Social Security.
Houle, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, is disabled from arthritis in her shoulders and neuropathy in her legs, and sometimes needs a walker to get around. She’s also recovering from a stroke.
Still, she commanded some respect from the squatters. Enough to leave her alone, but not enough to prevent them from breaking into other apartments and not enough that she felt safe letting her 10-year-old grandson play outside.
Houle was the only tenant willing to put her name on the lawsuit: Other residents feared retaliation from both NETA and the squatters.
“I’m an elder, and I said, ‘If they do something to me, well … that’s what was meant to be,’ ” Houle said during a recent interview at the casino and hotel on the Leech Lake reservation, where she moved after her apartment was condemned earlier this month.
Houle said even after NETA apparently replaced the broken boiler in January, the heat in her apartment did not work. She cranked the thermostat as high as it would go and kept the oven running with the door open, but it never approached warmth.
Then there were the broken laundry machines, which squatters smashed open to get the quarters inside. NETA never replaced the machines, forcing residents to go to laundromats.
All the problems stem from the lack of security, residents say. The locks on the doors were always broken. Windows were seldom repaired. The security cameras were spray-painted over. And the nearest NETA representative was in Fargo, more than two-and-a-half hours away.
Emma Nisly, a Ridgedale resident until two weeks ago, said she wouldn’t leave her apartment unless someone was there to guard it against squatters.
Nisly sent email after email to Sabbe and another NETA employee, alerting them to broken windows and graffitied walls and units taken over by squatters.
Sabbe or the other manager would respond sympathetically, saying they were sorry for the inconvenience and would see what they could do. But Nisly said they seldom did anything. One time, they suggested she and the other residents try to take the building back themselves.
“Really? That’s not our responsibility,” said Nisly, who is disabled.
She did call the police. She and other residents begged police to remove the people doing drugs in the vacant units. But when officers arrived, sometimes after more than an hour, they would tell residents they needed a manager from NETA to tell them who was trespassing.
“We were looked at as the low-income or the ghetto people, so we must be all bad. But we’re not all bad,” Nisly said.
In March, Beltrami District Court Judge Jeanine Brand ordered NETA to fix the heat and security door.
But the repairs didn’t last, and conditions at the properties continued to decline — a slow-moving crisis that city officials and the courts watched get worse and worse.
Around the end of April, after Houle’s apartment was flooded from a leak from the abandoned unit above, she thinks the squatters ripped out the copper pipe to sell. Soon mold was growing on the walls and carpet.
NETA sent a repairman who cut out the moldy carpet and drywall, but didn’t replace it.
In May, the city condemned the NETA building next to Greene and Houle’s at 2830 Ridgeway Ave. It was the most extreme action city leaders could take against NETA, which ultimately hurt the remaining 10 families the most. Four families moved to other units NETA owned at Ridgeway. The remaining six were forced to find new homes.
“I feared that without action, we may have disastrous situations on the horizon,” Bemidji City Inspector Ben Hein told the City Council in May.
Bemidji City Council Member Audrey Thayer lamented that the city hadn’t acted sooner during a May council meeting.
“It’s sad, and I’m personally upset that we’ve waited this long to address the issues of people who need to be heard in this community,” Thayer said. “We ought to be ashamed of ourselves.”
NETA sent a letter to residents alerting them of the notice to vacate, and that they were going through the foreclosure process with the USDA. Foreclosure would be a long process in which the federal agency would take ownership of the properties and try to find a buyer.
A representative from NETA also offered to buy tenants out of their leases for a few months’ rent. It’s a good deal for NETA since it wouldn’t have to honor the rest of the leases and provide housing for the residents.
Since then, McDonough said attorneys have lost contact with the families that moved away. The building remains boarded up.
Houle continued her lawsuit with McDonough and attorney Rebecca Stone at Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota.
In June, Judge Brand ordered NETA to fix the security door for a second time and install a security alarm. But in the same ruling, she dismissed the rest of the case, including consumer fraud claims for failing to provide services like on-site laundry and security cameras the company promised.
Houle didn’t receive any restitution for the days without heat and water, soaring electric bills, or damage to the building.
McDonough said he was surprised by Brand’s order, and hoped there would be another hearing to verify that the work was actually done.
“Because every other repair they’d done seemed kind of like Scotch tape and cardboard,” McDonough said. “And then if something goes wrong, (they) blame it on the high-crime area.”
In late July, Houle’s apartment flooded again. Houle returned home from a medical operation to find water coming in through the ceiling.
“I cried. I cried because it was terrible,” Houle said. “It was everywhere — in my bedrooms, in my bathroom. I have never, ever had to live in a place like that.”
That’s when she and her grandson moved to the hotel in the Leech Lake casino with financial assistance from a non-profit called Village of Hope.
She said they still feel sick from living with the mold for months.
NETA didn’t help with Houle’s relocation or pay for her damaged belongings. Houle filed another complaint in court, hoping a judge might force NETA to repair her apartment or find her another place to live. Instead, the next day NETA terminated her lease.
The company cited a provision in the lease saying they can terminate if the property is significantly damaged. Houle and her pro bono attorneys continue to fight that in court.
Houle spent a month searching for another place to live. She doesn’t have any evictions or criminal convictions on her record. But few landlords are willing to accept federal housing vouchers, and she can’t afford a place without one.
Recently, she found a trailer park that accepts vouchers and moved there with her grandson.
One recent weekend in August, Olson, the county commissioner and shelter manager, went into Houle’s former building through the unlocked door to install smoke detectors and vacuum the hallways. The cleaning crew also included Bemidji City Council Member Emelie Rivera and Village of Hope Executive Director Sandy Hennum.
The goal was to prevent the city inspector from having to condemn the entire building before the remaining residents can find other places to live.
Olson says it’s “self-interest” because he runs one of the few overnight shelters in town.
“This shelter system just can’t absorb that many families, so that’s really why we’re trying to stabilize them so that they don’t end up homeless,” Olson said.
McDonough and Olson fear if the properties are foreclosed on, the USDA subsidies will be reallocated to other rural projects in the country — eliminating desperately needed affordable housing from Bemidji.
Olson says at least one non-profit organization is considering taking control of the properties. It would be a bailout for NETA but would maintain precious affordable housing.
Despite all the problems with the buildings, Nisly said she paid her rent every month, right up until she moved out because if she got evicted, she’d have nowhere else to go.
Nisly hasn’t been able to find another affordable apartment that accepts federal housing vouchers. She was only able to move out two weeks ago when her son got a place nearby and invited her to live with him.
NETA offered to reimburse her three months’ rent to terminate her lease, which she accepted. Her son took a video of the unit before they left to prove that there were no holes in the wall and the appliances were still in the unit, at least until they drove away.
That leaves Greene and two other households in the two-story brick building at 2910 Ridgeway Ave., searching for somewhere else to live.
“I wish I could find a good home,” Greene said.
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