How did that place pass Section 8?

A friend on Facebook was alarmed when saw a picture of the house Barbara Mays rents from Paul Bertelson, who’s been under scrutiny since a fire at one of the other 38 buildings he manages killed five children.

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

“I want to know how that property you had pictured in the story was cleared for Section 8 assistance,” wrote Jeffrey Arnold, a St. Paul landlord.

I had the same question, when Mays told me Section 8 had paid her $1,195 rent since she moved to the house in October. In addition to the broken cabinets pictured above, the house had no bathroom door — just a plastic screen that didn’t close properly. I also saw cracked walls, peeling paint and two broken windows.

Section 8 mandates an inspection before it will pay rent. Those inspection records aren’t public under Minnesota state law, but looking at the instructions inspectors follow when approving properties for federal assistance, it’s not clear the problems at Mays’ house would disqualify it.

For instance, when it comes to cabinets, the instructions say:

“If there are some minor defects, check ‘Pass’ and make notes to the right. Possible defects include: marked, dented, or scratched surfaces; broken shelving or cabinet doors; broken drawers or cabinet hardware; limited size relative to family needs.”

The instructions also say the bathroom must be “private,” but doesn’t specify there needs to be a real door. Broken windows are a no-no, but Mays says the glass shattered after she moved in.

The city housing code is stricter than the federal standards, but there are no inspections required before a new tenant moves in. Most properties are inspected just once every eight years, although Mays’ place used to be on a more frequent rotation.

It was one of two Bertelson properties flagged for frequent violations in 2012, and placed on an annual inspection schedule. But as of 2013, it was no longer considered a chronic offender, according to city records.