Rachael Greene stands in the apartment next to hers, which squatters broke into months ago. Photo by Max Nesterak/minnesotadigest.com.
BEMIDJI — The apartment building where Rachael Greene has lived for 14 years has nearly been taken over by squatters.
Every day, she leaves her apartment not knowing what to expect. The hallways are filled with graffiti. The windows are smashed out. Shirtless young men, high on meth or opioids, wander in and out of the unlocked doors.
“It’s sad because I’ve been down that road,” Greene, 41, said. “But I didn’t destroy anything … They destroyed my home. And with no care.”
Greene is one of just a few holdouts still living in the 16-unit brick building in Bemidji, one of four buildings owned by North Dakota-based NETA Property Management in an affordable housing development called Ridgeway Court.
The apartment next to hers on the second floor was condemned weeks ago. Inside, the floors are littered with used needles, squares of aluminum foil burnt with drug residue and bottles filled with yellow liquid.
The apartment has been stripped of its appliances. Someone ripped out the pipes, too, which caused the apartment below to flood and then fill with mold. Afterward, that apartment was also condemned, and the elderly woman who lived there was forced to move into a hotel, abandoning sopping-wet clothes and the rest of her belongings.
The buildings called Ridgeway Court I and II just north of downtown Bemidji have been slowly declining for the past two years, residents say, ever since the last caretaker quit. NETA, which owns apartment buildings across northern Minnesota, never hired another caretaker, nor did much to keep out trespassers or maintain the properties — even after a judge ordered the company to fix the locks on the doors earlier this year.
The residents at Ridgeway Court are among the poorest in Bemidji — mostly Native American, elderly or disabled — and live there because they have nowhere else to go.
The situation has become a political quagmire for a city whose citations go unheeded by an absent landlord.
The Bemidji mayor, city manager, police chief and city inspector either did not return multiple calls and emails or else declined to comment.
The city’s last resort — condemning the buildings — threatens to force the remaining tenants into homelessness in a city short on affordable housing and shelter space.
One of the buildings was already deemed uninhabitable by the city, forcing out 10 families. The building remains boarded up, collecting more graffiti.
The best-case scenario: a non-profit organization secures enough funding to buy the properties and makes them habitable. Otherwise, the remaining tenants will likely be forced out — either through foreclosure or the city declaring the buildings too dangerous to live in.
Residents say it doesn’t have to be like this. They point to the other half of Ridgeway Court, on the other side of a chain link fence, which is owned by Walker, Minn.-based D.W. Jones Management.
They operate Ridgeway III and IV, an affordable housing complex where squatters have not been allowed to take over.
Greene, a member of the Red Lake Nation, would like to stay in her apartment if a new owner took over, fixed it up and did something about the cockroaches and bedbugs she’s constantly fighting to keep out.
She would also move if she and her partner could find a landlord that accepts Section 8 housing vouchers and would look past their years-old criminal convictions from their drug use days. Greene has a stalking conviction and her partner has a weapons conviction.
She’s turned her life around since then with the help of counseling and suboxone, a medication that helps people quit opioids. She’s been in recovery for six years, and is now in college studying to be a counselor.
Her recovery is challenged daily at Ridgeway Court, where drug use is rampant. If she loses her apartment, she fears she’ll lose everything — including her sobriety.
“It’s scary to think that if I go back on the street that I might end up like them again and be an addict all over. And I don’t want that,” Greene said through tears.