When the fire alarm went off, Joan Riley Hassan’s first thought was, “Who sounded the alarm again?” It happened so often in the historic Bell Lofts apartment building in North Minneapolis that she became numb to the sound.
But this time, something He was Actually wrong. In the hallway, Riley Hassan saw a torrent of dirty, stinking water flowing like a creek toward the apartment. Inside, she hurried to her daughter, Chantelle Riley Hassan, and her three grandchildren — ages 2, 6 and 9.
“The place is overflowing,” Joan Reilly Hassan recalls saying. “We have to go.”
That night, December 28, 2022, a freezer pipe exploded on the third floor of the building on the 21st.street and Bryant knocks north, hurling an avalanche across the building. Joan and Chantelle Riley Hassan grabbed the two children and splashed them outside into the water at least a half foot deep. Soaked and shivering on the sidewalk with the other tenants in the 25-unit building, Chantelle Riley Hassan called her sister, Deonica Conley Rush.
“I immediately jumped in my pickup truck,” said Conley-Rush, who runs It Takes A Village, a nonprofit serving north Minneapolis. “I got there, and there were people standing outside in the street, wet babies crying… We were putting people in the truck to keep warm.”
Bell Lofts tenants are in a terrible predicament make news: The flood displaced 22 families – many of them low-income and dependent on housing vouchers or rental assistance – just three days after Christmas.
Building owner Secured hotel rooms for families With the help of many local organizations. Conley-Rush—known to her friends as “Ms. D”—was one of several community activists and charities who campaigned for food and supplies, raised more money for residents’ expenses and solicited donations to extend their stay at the hotel.
But behind the human drama, another layer of the story has received less attention: The Bell Lofts case was the biggest test yet of the unique, city-backed program that provides financial relief to renters who lose their rental housing through no fault of their own. .
What is resettlement assistance?
Since June 2020, city ordinances have required Minneapolis rental property owners whose rental licenses have been revoked, or whose property has been condemned, To pay displaced tenants the equivalent of three months rent Enough money to theoretically cover the costs of moving to a new place.
If the landlord doesn’t pay, city officials tap a $100,000 fund to cut a check for the tenants, then charge the landlord or pay a special fee on their property tax bill. The Minneapolis ordinance is the only one of its kind in the state, according to the Minnesota Multiplex Housing Association, which represents homeowners.
The idea behind the program: To allow city inspectors to hold rental property owners accountable, while minimizing collateral damage for renters, according to Jessica Stone, Minneapolis’s director of alternative housing enforcement.
“People are homeless because of the things we do,” Stone explained. “So we were trying to figure out how we could enforce tenant safety without having this question of, ‘Should we be doing this if we know the end result is going to be homeless families and not knowing where we’re going next?'” “
The Bell Lofts flood became a major milestone in the city’s program, marking the first time officials had used the city’s relocation assistance program on a larger apartment building.
The city provided resettlement assistance for 22 families in Bell Lofts.
Compare that to the 17 families who received assistance in the last two years of the program combined — most of whom lived in single-family units or duplexes, Stone said.
The tenants received relief checks, but the city is still waiting for landlord payments
Stone noted that even though Bell Lofts was a 25-unit building, all but three of the families accepted resettlement assistance because it shows up as income on their taxes, which could affect their eligibility for other benefit programs.
In the months since the accident, Conley Rush said 19 of those 22 families have since found new homes. Among them is her sister, Chantelle Riley Hassan, who has moved into a three-bedroom home on a quiet street north of Minneapolis. She thinks it’s much nicer and for the same monthly price as a Bell Lofts place.
Without this law, said Conley Rush, “the Bell Lofts families would have gotten nothing.” According to city requirements, property owners have to “make sure these residents are okay.”
However, the case for Bill Lofts is not entirely restricted.
The building’s owner, developer Christopher Whibley, said the city could not hold him responsible for the pipe explosion, which he said “An act of nature.” By late January, it was clear he planned to appeal a city decision that required him to pay rent to help with the move.
With many Bell Lofts families staying in donated hotel rooms at the time, Stone said the city decided it would take too long to wait for an appeal. So Webley and the city Sign an agreement: Webley will pay the city $22,000, which is roughly the equivalent of one month’s rent at the Bell Lofts. The city will pay the full three months of resettlement assistance directly to the renters. Webley will also pay all tenants’ security deposits, in full, notwithstanding any arrears of rent.
City checks cashed for all tenants who applied. Webley also paid off security deposits for tenants, Stone and Conley-Rush can say.
But as of this week, Webley has yet to turn in his $22,000 payment to the city of Minneapolis. He did not respond to multiple emails and phone messages from MinnPost seeking comment.
Officials may need to request a special appropriation from the Minneapolis City Council to completely replenish the $100,000 resettlement assistance fund, Stone said, “as needed” — but she also added that “we’re not overly concerned” about that fund being depleted.
history of problems
Bell Lofts has been a troubled property for years, surrounded by suspicions of criminal activity either nearby or on the premises.
In the decade before Webley assumed control of the building in March 2021, city inspectors cited the previous owners for 102 housing and fire code violations. Before the flood, the city Puebli and company were cited 21 times For problems ranging from maintenance of smoke alarms, to water damage, to problems with heating facilities in the building.
Riley Hassan’s family moved to Bell Lofts nine months before the flood. Although Chantelle Riley Hassan—then a grocery store clerk, now a certified nursing assistant—liked the building at first, maintenance issues began to pile up.
“Things started to fall apart,” she said. “As if you pull out the dresser, it falls apart as if someone glued it back together.”
Later, cockroaches appeared in force. When did they alert the building management? “No response. Hasan,” said Chantelle Riley.
For Chantelle Riley Hassan and Conley Rush, it was all a precursor to the Flood. Webley had owned the building for about two years at the time of the flood—enough time, they argued, to work on his goals for improving the property.
“I feel like he was in over his head,” said Conley Rush. “You have no problem taking money for rent. It doesn’t take much to fix a doorknob. I guess.” [if you] Show an effort that you’re trying to change something, a lot of people will applaud because you’re not doing anything more than what you’re doing.”
In light of this, Chantelle Riley Hassan has argued that the city agreement allows Bell Lofts owners to move out easily.
If the city allowed Webley to rent again, Chantelle asked, “Who said it wouldn’t happen to another family?”
The city of Minneapolis has yet to lose a landlord appeal in the resettlement assistance case — Stone said — but city officials also said the settlement with Webley was just a way to get money for the renters quickly. The appeal process may take another two weeks.
“We didn’t want to prolong the granting of this money,” Stone said. She added that the city settled in part because of the admission that Webley had paid for some hotel stays. (Landlords also worked to raise money for tenants and helped guide tenants toward permanent housing, According to the Bell Lofts website.)
The City Trust may have replaced Chantelle Riley Hassan but she is still considering suing Webley to replace the things she lost: a bed, a sofa, a table, and clothes.
Then there are the things she can’t replace — sentimental items, like the clothes that belonged to her father, who died in 2021.
She said, “Clothes that smell like it.” “I can’t take his scent back.”