The Bell Lofts apartments in North Minneapolis were condemned after a flood on December 28, 2022, displaced about 50 tenants. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Community-led fundraising efforts by two local nonprofits and a corporate donation will help keep Bell Lofts tenants in temporary hotel housing through mid-February, with hopes that everyone will soon find long-term accommodations.

Crowdfunding by the nonprofit organizations It Takes a Village and DocumentingMN will cover hotel stays for Bell Loft tenants until Saturday. On Wednesday, U.S. Bank disbursed $10,000 to It Takes a Village to pay for hotel stays for 18 families still searching for a place to live. Those families are staying in one hotel in downtown Minneapolis.

About 50 people were initially flooded out of the Bell Lofts on December 28; some have since found housing.

Dyonyca Conley-Rush, founder of It Takes a Village, said her plan is for tenants to secure stable housing by February 18. She continues to help tenants find housing. 

Questions still linger for many tenants who were flooded out of the north Minneapolis building after a pipe burst. Some wonder what caused the pipe to rupture, what the city and landlord’s responsibilities are in regards to helping tenants, and whether the building was properly maintained.  

Sahan Journal spoke with Enrique Velazquez, director of the city of Minneapolis’ Inspections Services Division, this week to address several outstanding questions about the incident and aftermath. Flood damage caused the city to condemn the building, which was built in 1906. It has been uninhabitable since the flood.

So, had the alarm system done its job and communicated with the fire department, potentially we could have responded sooner, and maybe not as much water would have gushed into each individual dwelling unit. 

Enrique Velazquez, director of the city of Minneapolis’ Inspections Services Division

Velazquez said a fire suppression system in the building failed to alert the fire department about the flood, which was reported by tenants. About 40,000 gallons of water gushed from a ruptured pipe in the north stairwell on the building’s third floor. It’s unclear how long the water was running, Velazquez said. 

The building’s landlord, Chris Webley, has not returned several messages left by Sahan Journal seeking comment about the flood and tenants’ questions. Webley has owned the building since March 2021, according to a Minneapolis city spokesperson.

Velazquez said Webley took the appropriate steps immediately after the flood by cleaning out the water and helping tenants find housing. However, several tenants have told Sahan Journal that Webley paid for a week of hotel stays for tenants, and then stopped responding to their messages asking him what was going to happen next. 

The following interview with Velazquez has been edited for clarity and length. 

What was the root cause of the pipe burst? Where was it located in the building and could it have been prevented? 

I can’t really say what the root cause of it was. We know that there was very cold weather leading up to that specific date. We know the condition of the pipe, but it was an internal rupture, then it just burst open. 

The fire suppression system is connected to an internal system that talks to the fire department. When there’s a low flow or when you see a rate of flow that dips down, the fire department should be alerted. They were not alerted to the water suddenly escaping from the system. 

Residents had to call to make the fire department aware. So, had the alarm system done its job and communicated with the fire department, potentially we could have responded sooner, and maybe not as much water would have gushed into each individual dwelling unit. 

What can you tell me about the history of the inspection violations and the property profile that explains how well the building was maintained?

So, we do inspections in two different ways. One is the proactive inspection, and that’s the tiering process. So, this building, the proactive inspection happens once every eight years. 

During that proactive inspection we check fire suppression systems, we check the fire alarms, we check access, we check elevators, we check a variety of different areas just to ensure that the property, the property maintenance company, and the property owner are doing their due diligence with respect to preserving life safety, livability for the residents, infrastructure itself is safe, and that the community is not impacted by nuisance behavior activities. 

The second type of inspections we do are complaint-based. In the property profile, we’ll mostly see there are complaint-based inspections where we go do those one offs to address that specific thing. So, if somebody were to report that their stove was not operating properly, or the front door doesn’t latch anymore, that would show up in this property profile. But we’ll see more of those complaint-type issues that might speak to a condition of an individual unit or to a common area, but not so much the entirety of the property. 

By and large, we believe that the property itself was in good condition.

Was the landlord responsive, prompt, and forthcoming about the maintenance history of the building? Is the license of the landlord revoked because of this building’s condemnation? 

I would say that yes, the property owner himself was extremely responsive upfront. As soon as he found out, he worked with residents and found shelter for them, so that they could go to a safe place. Proactively contacted a third-party company to come in and start the cleanup effort to get as much water out as possible so that people were not living in all this water. 

Yes, his landlord license is revoked, and that’s not intended to be a punitive situation, it’s more intended to be closing the loop so the property can’t be rented and trigger any downstream action to renew that license. The license is specific to that parcel, so if he has other properties that aren’t impacted like this, then those will continue. This is just specific to this property, because of the condemnation. 

Is the building going to be demolished or will it be restored? 

So, I walked through that building with fire inspectors and can firmly say that that building is not completely demolished. There’s some wet sections and the property owner is working to remove those panels, flooring, and restore all those pieces in the ceiling, the walls, and the floors. 

All of that comes after repairing the pipe and restoring the fire suppression system. But those are the main components. Otherwise, the bones of the building are in very good shape. The structure is really good. And the property owner responded very quickly to address the water. 

Are there important takeaways about the landlord’s communication and involvement with your department throughout the process of dealing with the aftermath of the flooding? 

I would first say that this property owner has only had the property for a short period of time, so he’s still learning what it’s like to be a landlord or property owner. So, there’s quite a bit of a learning curve there. But that’s one piece. 

And in terms of communication, I guess the one thing I would probably preach is just consistency, making sure that there’s an avenue and an outlet for all of the parties involved—in this case, the 25 families for all these different units that are in this property—to receive the same information and receive consistent information. Whether it’s from the city, whether it’s directly from the property owner, or if it’s from another third-party that’s helping to support them through this ordeal—just making sure that it’s consistent. 

Because of that consistency, then you remove some of that doubt, ensuring that there’s consistency, a transparent message that everybody is receiving. Otherwise, in that void, there’s just doubt—uncertainty on what’s going to come next, what’s gonna happen tomorrow or the next day or tonight.

Tips for Minneapolis renters who want to report problems with their properties: 

  • The non-profit tenant advocacy group, HOME Line, has published a detailed report about a landlord’s maintenance responsibilities, and step-by-step instructions for how renters can report and document violations. The report also includes:
    • A worksheet renters can use to document violations 
    • A list of common questions about damage to rental units
  • Call 311
    • Your information will be sent to an inspector in the Minneapolis Inspector Services Division who will begin an investigation.
    • The division can also facilitate communication between a tenant and their property management or property owner if there’s difficulty reaching the parties. 
  • Submit a Rental Unit Complaint Form.

Katelyn Vue is the housing reporter for Sahan Journal. She graduated in May 2022 from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Prior to joining Sahan Journal, she was a metro reporting intern at the Star...