Problem St. Paul apartment buildings re-open with help of private investmentby Sasha Aslanian, Minnesota Public Radio
ST. PAUL, Minn. — An east side St. Paul apartment complex notorious for being unsanitary and unsafe has been renovated and is opening its doors again.
Westminster Court, two 1960s apartment buildings that stand within view of the downtown St. Paul skyline along Interstate 35E is now known as Cornerstone Estates. The buildings are under new ownership and welcome new residents after being closed for a complete overhaul this summer.
Community leaders are hopeful for the new chapter, but it was painful getting here.
The 64 units had racked up 600 housing code violations for bedbugs, roaches, mice, broken plumbing, non-working smoke alarms and a front door that wouldn't lock. One tenant, a mother, heated her apartment by opening the oven door.
St. Paul's Director of Safety and Inspections Ricardo Cervantes sums it up, saying, "This was the — the worst property in the city."
The city took the dramatic step of appointing a receiver to manage the apartments in January because the landlords, Randall and Peggy Chun, were unable to bring them up to code. Westminster Court was in foreclosure, and ultimately passed to new ownership, Pine Ridge Capital. By summer, 60 low-income tenants had to relocate.
Cervantes has come back for an open house, to see what nearly a million dollars in private investment has done.
Property manager Wade Schatzer of Equimax shows off the model apartment in the new Cornerstone Estates.
Schatzer has been working closely with Cervantes' office to earn back the building's certificate of occupancy.
"Should be a nice turnaround when we're all done," Schatzer said.
Schatzer hopes the days of bad publicity are gone for good.
"We put granite countertops in. I don't think anyone really expected that six months ago there'd be granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances," Schatzer said. "We're just repositioning it for a better market."
NEW PLAN FOR MANAGEMENT
Schatzer said the new management wants to attract a new crop of tenants who will keep the place up, and call when there's a problem.
In spite of the upgrades, rents are not higher than they were before. An efficiency apartment costs $495 a month. A three-bedroom unit costs $1,000, slightly lower than the old rate. While four of the previous tenants used Section 8 public subsidies, so far none of the new tenants do.
Chong Moua moved in two weeks ago with her seven-month-old daughter.
"I was looking for an apartment around town, some place affordable and a nice place to have a child, said Moua, 29, a sales manager for a St. Paul non-profit.
Moua remembers visiting a relative at the Westminster Court apartments 16 years ago when she was 13 years old. It wasn't a place she wanted to live.
"I remember the condition of this building. It was very, very bad," Moua said "When I saw the photos online with the advertisement to this apartment, I couldn't believe that this building could look that good."
Moua is happy with her new apartment, but for the previous low-income tenants who had to relocate on short notice, the closing of the buildings was traumatic. At this point, none of the former tenants has moved back.
STRONG STEPS TO REMEDY
St. Paul City Councilmember Amy Brendmoen said the city had to take strong steps to remedy what she called an "undignified living situation."
"It was a very tough decision. Very difficult for us at the time, but I think ultimately, people found places to live," Brendmoen said. "Hopefully this is the mark of a turnaround here."
While the vast majority of landlords do right by their tenants, St. Paul City Attorney Sara Grewing said the situation at Westminster Court spurred the city to re-examine how it deals with chronic problem properties.
"We've kind of revamped our team, and we're looking at policy changes that we can make to add other tools to our toolbox to get at these problems before they become so out of hand that we need to displace tenants," Grewing said.
The city lowered its threshold for nuisance calls in order to nip problem properties in the bud. A landlord whose building draws three complaints over six months could be billed for "excessive consumption of police services." The city threshold used to be four calls in a one month. Police calls to Westminster Court were substantially higher than other properties in the city.
Many are hoping Cornerstone Estates will be a new, quiet cornerstone on the city's east side.
• Follow Sasha Aslanian on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/sashaaslanian
- Morning Edition, 11/28/2012, 11:25 a.m.