There's a lot of finger-pointing about hundreds of code violations found at rental properties owned by Wayne Pelhank and contract-for-deed purchaser Ed Duran. And while the criticism is justified, it's worth pointing out that dozens of people and several agencies likely knew of the problems long before they made headlines.
The 12-unit apartment building at 1101 Gettysburg Drive, which had 226 violations before it was destroyed by fire on Feb. 10, is within eyeshot of one of the busiest intersections in the Twin Cities.
Turns out, the people in that Bloomington apartment house couldn't afford anything safer. In a white-collar community with lots of six-figure houses, there's not enough safe, affordable housing — much less affordable housing that isn't infested with vermin or lacking heat or working smoke detectors.
City inspectors and people in the city's legal system knew what was inside. In trying to provide due process to the owners who were ordered to fix the problems, the issues instead festered until the fire.
Allowing that time was a balancing act between justice and the unknown. To condemn the building outright would be to throw seven families into homelessness. They lived in bad conditions, but it was better, maybe, than nothing at all.
Pelhank and Duran have racked up almost 600 violations at another group of rental properties they own. The city says the pair are the worst offenders on a list of landlords whose properties are in violation of city code.
The office in charge of building inspections is overwhelmed and the workers do their best. The city probably could triple the staff numbers and inspections still would lag at the 12,000 properties they are expected to oversee. People who work at other city agencies — utility workers, contractors, social service agencies, — anyone who had contact with families in that building, or contact with the building itself, likely knew or suspected the failings.
And yet, without an alternative program in place to help, little could be done without throwing those families into the street.
Some in the community have talked for years about the need for more affordable housing and for a "living" wage. For the most part, the cries have been met with lots of nodding but little action. There are empty buildings throughout the Twin Cities that could be renovated into usable living space available at a reasonable cost, or land that could be used for a new community of "tiny houses" that are affordable to build. A closer relationship with federal housing agencies or nonprofit Habitat for Humanity also might help.
The fire at 1101 Gettysburg laid bare a sickening truth in Bloomington-Normal: that we, who have so much, failed to serve those who needed help.
Our community must find a way to provide clean, affordable housing for those who need it. And our elected officials must find a way to fund the departments whose duties include making sure Twin City families can live in a safe and secure place.