In Northeast Minneapolis, a crew is dismantling what's left of a cluster of vacant homes. One worker uses a hose to wet the debris and keep it from creating dust, then they load it into a line of waiting trucks and haul it away.
Vacant homes like these are easy targets for vandalism. Copper thieves make off with the wiring, causing gas explosions and water leaks. And the longer they sit empty, the more hazardous they become. That's why Tom Deegan, who runs the demolition program, said they've got to come down.
"We don't want kids coming in here and possibly starting a fire, which actually happened on this site," Deegan said. "We don't want prostitution and drug activity, which happens quite often with these properties."
Jo Brose lives across the street. Standing outside watching the demolition, she said she's been dreaming of this day for more than a year now.
"I can't wait," she said. "I can't wait to look at the vacant lot and enjoy that for a change, versus looking at bad houses that are falling down."
Brose was home one night a few weeks ago when one of the buildings on the lot caught fire, police suspected arson. Brose said the fire was just the latest in a string of break-ins that made life on her block a living hell.
"None of it's been good, it really hasn't," Brose said. "They had a lot of parties in there and windows getting broken. Kids would get in there in the middle of the night and of course by the time the police would come the kids would run, or teenagers, whatever they are. A lot of vandalism, a lot of windows breaking all the time and you could see people running in and out of the windows. It got a little scary at night when you're here alone. I worried."
Once the lot is cleared, grass will be put in and the city will fence it off.
Four years ago, there were 230 vacant boarded buildings in Minneapolis. Today, there are about 950. That number has spiked in recent years as a result of the foreclosure crisis.
Studies show vacant homes are expensive. Taxpayers pick up the tab for inspections, 911 calls, cutting the grass and removing trash and snow. Vacant homes also depress property values and cost the city money in lost property taxes.
But the demolitions aren't cheap either, at an average of $17,000 each.
Jeff Skrenes is Housing Director with the Hawthorne Neighborhood Council, which helped the city identify properties for demolition. He said expensive demolitions are not a perfect solution, but vacant lots are better than multiple boarded homes, especially in areas like North Minneapolis that have been hard hit by foreclosure.
Skrenes says boarded homes also scare away potential new buyers.
"You drive through a neighborhood and you see two houses on each side of the street on one block that are boarded and vacant," Skrenes said. "If instead of these houses you had vacant lots, psychologically it's a little easier for someone to take that in and still envision living in that neighborhood than it is to look at those ugly burned out shells of houses and try and picture yourself living on that block."
Skrenes said removing vacant homes is the first step toward attracting new homeowners or developers.
Jo Brose said she's hoping many of the city's vacant lots could become housing for people who need it. In the meantime, she said things are already starting to look up.
"I've lived watching these houses day after day for a year, waiting and waiting for this to happen," Brose said. "I don't think it does good for a neighborhood to have a vacant lot, no, but it certainly doesn't do good for a neighborhood to have a home that is empty and so have to worry about what goes on in that house. I hope it doesn't sit vacant too long because that isn't going to be good for the neighborhood, but none of it has been good for the neighborhood. It's been a big eyesore all along."
The city estimates the demolition program will cost $1.7 million. Hennepin County is contributing more than a million dollars to help pay for it. Officials say they hope eventually to recover about 70 percent of the cost by charging fees to delinquent property owners. They say they are planning on knocking down houses at a pace of at least one a day in October.