After fire, Minneapolis landlord criticized for rundown properties

Barbara Mays is waiting for cabinets to be fixed.
Barbara Mays moved into one of Paul Bertelson's buildings on 31st Ave. N. in Minneapolis in October. The broken kitchen cabinets are one of many problems she's waiting for him to fix.
Curtis Gilbert / MPR News

Every day, Barbara Mays wakes to the sights of decay in the three-bedroom house she calls home.

As soon as she walks into the bathroom, she notices problems.

"The sink was messed up, and then this right here is still damaged as you see," Mays said, pointing to a plastic screen that serves as its door and doesn't close properly. "It's just a lot of stuff that he needed to fix."

Mays couldn't be less pleased with her landlord, Paul Bertelson, who's drawn numerous complaints from tenants and neighbors of the 38 rental properties he manages in Minneapolis.

In the kitchen, one cabinet door is broken in two. Another hangs off its hinges. The walls are cracked. There's peeling paint, and two broken windows.

The federal Section 8 program pays her monthly rent of $1,195 to one of Bertelson's companies. It's the third house Mays has rented since she moved to to the Twin Cities from Chicago four years ago. She said it's also the worst.

"I ain't never lived in a property like this," Mays said. "This is not safe for me or my kids."

When a fire killed five children in north Minneapolis last month, a lot of people began to wonder if that building — also managed by Bertelson — was safe. Troy Lewis, the father of the five children, said Bertelson failed to respond to his complaints that the heat didn't work in his apartment.

Bertelson, who declined several interview requests, refused to answer questions about specific tenant complaints, citing privacy concerns. His attorney, Bill Moran, said in a statement that Bertelson is "committed to providing clean, safe and affordable housing."

Bertelson did speak to reporters in the days following the fire. At that time, he told MPR News he was proactive about maintaining his buildings.

Paul Bertelson manages 38 rental properties.
Paul Bertelson manages 38 rental properties in Minneapolis. Until January, he also worked full-time as CEO of Youth Works, a non-profit that organizes Christian missionary trips for tens of thousands of middle and high school students. According to a tax filing from 2012, Bertelson earned a salary of $172,000 and worked 45 hours per week at YouthWorks and related organizations.
Courtesy of Real Resources

"We monthly are going around to our units and checking in, and also each tenant has a number to call for a maintenance concern or issue," Bertelson said in late February.

MPR News spoke to more than half a dozen current and former Bertelson tenants. Most say he does return their phone calls, but several complain he has been slow to fix problems.

Deonna Sinkfield, who moved into one of his properties in December with her husband and four small children, said her bathtub has never drained properly.

"It'll fill up, like when you're in the shower, and won't go down for days," Sinkfield said of her bottom floor duplex. "And I complained about that like two to three times, and no one came out and did anything."

In Sinkfield's home, the smoke detector beeps, signaling its battery is low. She said Bertelson put down poison to kill the mice that scamper through the walls at night, but hasn't done anything about the damaged deadbolt, the broken storm windows or the roaches.

"I really don't want to be here," Sinkfield said. "I really don't. You know, I have to have a place for me and my children to stay."

Some of Bertelson's other tenants speak highly of him — including Latonya Garrett, whose family lived on the first floor of the duplex destroyed by fire.

After the fire, Garrett moved into her second Bertelson house, along with her children Antonio, Michelle and Nicole.

In the building gutted by fire, Garrett said, Bertelson always made repairs promptly. After the fire, he paid for her family to live in a hotel for two weeks until he found them a permanent home.

"We had two rooms and it wasn't cheap," she said.

The city of Minneapolis has not identified Bertelson as a bad landlord. None of his buildings appears on its list of 50 problem properties.

But over the last three years, city officials have received more than 60 anonymous complaints about Bertelson buildings — from garbage in the yard, to leaky roofs, to malfunctioning electricity. In 2011, a resident told the city the ceiling in one room had "collapsed", sending a child to emergency room. A week later, the tenant said Bertelson still hadn't fixed the problem.

Map: Anonymous complaints made to 311 about properties managed by Bertelson

Data source: City of Minneapolis

Housing Inspections Deputy Director JoAnn Velde said the city responds when renters or neighbors complain. But otherwise, Minneapolis inspects most of its 23,000 rental properties just once every eight years, she said.

"We can't inspect every building all the time," she said. "I'd love to. We'd have to double our staff."

There are about 200 properties that the city does inspect annually — those with chronic violations. City officials have not yet said whether any of Bertelson's properties are on that list.

Hennepin County tax records show Bertelson has owned rental property in Minneapolis for close to 30 years. His portfolio nearly tripled in size during the mid 2000s, when real estate prices were at their peak. He spent nearly $4 million dollars on 24 buildings during that decade. The properties ranged in price from $37,500 to $260,000. They're now worth less than half that.

Bertelson owns Mission Inn Minnesota, a company that aims to provide housing to homeless teens and low-income families, Moran said. Bertelson also owns Renewal Development.

Besides his property management businesses, Bertelson also founded a variety of Christian non-profit organizations.

In December, he stepped down from his role as CEO of YouthWorks, which organizes missionary trips for tens of thousands of middle and high school students each summer. At a retirement celebration, recorded on the group's website, Bertelson described founding the organization in 1994.

"And it was born out of a heart to serve God," he said during the celebration. "It was born out of a desire to serve His church and to serve God's people. It was about trying to live and be a blessing to communities. That's what it was born out of."

In 1995, Bertelson founded Urban Homeworks, which provides affordable housing in Minneapolis and St. Paul. He stepped down from its board 10 years ago, and no longer has any relationship with the organization.

Employees say Urban Homeworks refuses to refer tenants to its founder's properties because of their poor condition.

"This is a painful thing for me, because I actually have a lot of love for Paul," said Chad Schwitters, executive director of Urban Homeworks. "But our community deserves and is demanding better than some of what he is offering us in some of his buildings."

Schwitters, whom Bertelson hired 15 years ago, thinks Bertelson has good intentions, but isn't delivering on them.

Former Minneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels has harsher words for Bertelson.

"This is not God's work," Samuels said. "It is the devil's work."

Samuels' backyard is next to a Bertelson house that has prompted numerous maintenance complaints. Samuels said landlords like Bertelson degrade the quality of life in his neighborhood.

"If you can't provide quality of housing that you would live in, sell the house, and find something else to do with your missionary instincts," Samuels said. "There are other things that you can do besides tear down the quality of life on the northside."

A few years ago, Bertelson tried to do that. He offered to give Urban Homeworks all of this properties and was prepared to sign over the deeds. But the organization determined the properties carried too much debt and deferred maintenance to bring the buildings up to its standards.

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