Renters go on strike

Advocates rally in support of a rent strike Jan. 31 in Whittier. Photo by Steel Brooks

A group of Minneapolis renters is on strike.

“The heat hasn’t been over 45 degrees since mid-February,” said a resident of 3116 22nd Ave. S., who declined to share her name.

She said her nine-month-old son was hospitalized in January with the flu, and the hospital won’t allow him to return to the cold apartment that’s infested with mice, roaches and black mold.

“I shouldn’t have to live with this,” she said.

In response to her complaints, she said Bison Management maintenance workers added plastic to her windows, and the man vying to remain the landlord, Rickey Misco, offered her a cat to handle the mice. Misco said he helped give a cat to a tenant who wanted a pet, but that’s not his method of pest control.

More than a dozen renters in Whittier, Stevens Square and other Minneapolis neighborhoods have filed petitions to demand immediate repairs at buildings previously operated by Stephen Frenz, whose rental licenses were revoked late last year.

So far they have paid more than $27,000 in rent into court, rather than pay an interim administrator of the apartments.

The administrator, Lighthouse Management Group, has been appointed by the court to manage some contested properties until ownership is solidified. Lighthouse Director Alex Dybsky said apartment temperatures that drop below the mid-60s require immediate action, while issues like window replacement take a lower priority.

“We don’t have the ability necessarily to completely rehabilitate buildings, but certainly bringing things up to code and addressing livability concerns — those are all pretty clearly stipulated in the court order,” he said.

Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid is representing rent strikers. Court documents allege issues including mold, leaks, mice, cockroaches and broken windows. One renter showed a photo of ice inside her windowsill at 3112 22nd Ave. S. When the heat doesn’t work, she said she boils water to keep warm.

“I think the city needs to be held accountable too,” she said, wishing for more city inspectors.

A housing court referee will decide how to proceed in the coming days.

Photo by Steel Brooks
Photo by Steel Brooks

Ongoing litigation

The rent strike is the latest of many legal actions on properties that were owned by Spiros Zorbalas, a landlord with a history of housing violations. City officials revoked the rental license at three of his properties in 2011, and celebrated a purported sale of his 38 buildings to a new owner, Frenz, a move that allowed all of the renters to remain in place. Court proceedings later found that Zorbalas retained an ownership interest, and the City Council responded by revoking Frenz’s 60 rental licenses in December.

Frenz is appealing that decision, alleging that the city never properly revoked all of Zorbalas’ licenses.

“We believe we moved forward in good faith,” Frenz told a Council committee last fall, explaining that he believed he was the true owner of the licenses.

A Feb. 21 court order opens the door for punitive damages in a class action case. Hennepin County District Court Judge Mary Vasaly said the landlords created Minneapolis companies that gave no outward indication they were affiliated with Zorbalas, saying in 2012 they would “throw the city off the trail.” The order describes allegations that most Apartment Shop workers were not qualified to perform lead and asbestos work. Children living at 1816 Stevens Ave. S. and 3325 Nicollet Ave. were found to have elevated blood lead levels, according to the order. And the order said that despite about 3,000 instances of pest treatment, a piecemeal “band-aid” approach reduced the effectiveness of treatments. Net operating income targets financially incentivized lower maintenance expenses, according to the order.

Frenz did not respond for comment. He defended his record on maintenance before council members in November.

“For the last five years, we’ve spent over $100,000 a month on capital improvements on these properties. I’ve worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the past 25 years. This has never been about maintenance,” he said.

Frenz has sold off properties in recent months, although the city is withholding rental licenses to some of the new buyers.

Mayor Jacob Frey said in November that while contract for deed purchases are legal, such “rent-to-own” arrangements can become problematic if new owners can’t afford major fixes or balloon payments, causing properties to revert to the original owner.

Misco, one of the people who purchased apartment buildings from Frenz on contract for deed, said he should be allowed to become the landlord. He called the current rent strike a conspiracy.

“If you destroy the income to the property by convincing the tenants that you have the worst landlords in the world, then you get to destroy the original deal of the sale,” he said. “And innocent people like myself and other people who invested in these properties, [and] had an opportunity, are the ones that are getting hurt.”

Rent strikers await a ruling

At a March 5 hearing, Housing Court Referee Mark Labine said he may consider releasing some of the rent strikers’ money to help fund repairs. He asked Lighthouse Management Group to detail the cash flow of the buildings and estimated costs. He said he wants to give Lighthouse a chance to work.

“If the administrator doesn’t have the funds, I don’t see how the property is economically viable,” Labine said. “I don’t think there are any other options.”

Lighthouse staff maintains that they need all of the rent money in order to make repairs.

“Our whole goal here is to understand any of the issues that people are identifying and triage those so we’re making the situation better as much as we’re able to,” Dybsky said.

A follow-up court hearing is set for April.

“I think it’s bullsh-t,” said the 22nd Avenue mother. “They don’t deserve that money for a job that isn’t being done. … It’s hard for me to find a new place. What’s going to be the outcome? What are we getting out of all this?”