How One Organization Is Standing Up for Tenants in Minneapolis

Only 2.3 percent of apartments in the metropolitan area are vacant, meaning many renters—especially those with low incomes—have no recourse if they run into trouble with their housing.

Monique Carrillo addresses the crowd gathered at Minneapolis City Hall on September 22 as part of a National Renters Week of Action. Kendra Sundvall

On September 9, Monique Carrillo, a 44-year-old lifelong Minneapolis resident, took part in a vigil held on the sprawling, immaculate lawn of local landlord and Apartment Shop LLC owner, Stephen Frenz. Tenants carried signs and shared stories about how their lives had been negatively affected by renting from the Apartment Shop.

“He turned his sprinklers on us,” Carrillo, who now refers to herself as an Apartment Shop “survivor” after moving out of one of Frenz’s dozens of rental properties in April, told Rewire about the protest. “He doesn’t understand … the type of stuff we deal with [when] living in his apartments. We’re not leaving because of sprinklers. We’ve had to live like this,” Carrillo said.

To illustrate her point, Carrillo shared a story from the year she spent in an Apartment Shop building in Minneapolis’ Corcoran neighborhood. “One day I was laying in bed and heard water running, but I was the only one home. I went into the kitchen and water was backing up into the sink and [falling] out onto the floor. There was so much water that I had to use blankets to clean it up—I couldn’t just use towels.”

Repairing the sink—for which Carrillo says she had called requesting repairs on multiple previous occasions—led to the discovery of black mold while replacing her water-damaged kitchen cabinets, finally providing Carrillo with a reason for why she had been experiencing poor health since moving in. Carrillo shared with Rewire documentation about the process that appeared to corroborate her story about the black mold. According to Carrillo, the repairman that Apartment Shop eventually sent dealt with the mold by spraying white paint primer on it before replacing the cabinets. “I read the can and it didn’t say anything about killing mold,” she noted.

Israel Barney, 28, told Rewire that she had similar experiences while renting from Apartment Shop from early 2012 to mid-2013. In addition to water leaks, Barney battled endless bug infestations. One of the two bedrooms that Barney shared with her husband “was so severely infested with bugs that it looked like a Brazilian forest. The walls were crawling with bugs. I’ve never seen so many bugs in my life indoors,” she said.

Chelsea Hanvy, 30, who lives in what was one of Frenz’s buildings until late August, when he sold the majority of his properties, is still experiencing difficulties today. “My building had a massive leak in the roof. It took three months of calling to get it fixed. The leak stopped, and after almost a year they replaced the carpet, but they never did anything about the floorboards,” Hanvy said. Attempts to contact Frenz or the Apartment Shop for comment about these stories went unanswered.

While the solution to these problems might seem as simple as just leaving, the reality is that it’s not that easy. According to a 2017 Market Analysis conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Twin Cities metropolitan area that includes Minneapolis and St. Paul—as well as the 12 counties surrounding them—has a 2.3 percent apartment vacancy rate. In the area, almost half of new rental construction is concentrated in the areas of the city where rents are highest.

Filling these new units in high-rent areas, according to the 2017 State of the State Housing report produced by the Minnesota Housing Partnership, are the more than 27,000 new moderate- and high-income households that have entered the Twin Cities’ rental market since 2010, creating a severe housing shortage for low-income renters in general and for extremely low-income households—those that earn less than 30 percent of the median area income, as defined by HUD—particularly. Buildings and units like those owned by Apartment Shop are rapidly becoming the only option for lower-income renters.

As of 2015, the region had 102,100 extremely low-income households, of which only 34,000 rental units were available and affordable to these households, according to the report. And overall, households led by people of color earn 41 percent less than their white counterparts in Minneapolis’ Hennepin County.

All of this means that those occupying the lower end of the income spectrum are effectively stuck in the shrinking number of units in buildings that they can afford. Even if they face indignities like extreme repair issues that go unaddressed, there’s little that can ultimately be done without the power to leave.

Although there is technically legal recourse for tenants to follow for any number of offenses from unrepaired maintenance issues to retaliatory behavior (evicting a tenant for reporting an issue to the city, for example), doing so is cost-prohibitive in terms of both money and time for most renters, especially low-income ones. Tenants who lose court cases are often stuck paying not only their expenses but those of the defense as well. Those who work multiple jobs and struggle to pay rent as is hardly have the resources to spend a day in court, and the English-dominant legal system may present additional difficulties for renters without deep command of the language.

And despite existing laws meant to protect tenants—like Minneapolis’ rental license laws and ordinances that claim to be designed to eliminate substandard and deteriorating housing—they’re often so poorly enforced that violations go unnoticed and unreprimanded. A 2016 rental resource guide explains that there are just 48 city inspectors and four managers for 20,878 rental buildings that together house 93,009 rental units in Minneapolis. There aren’t enough inspectors to adequately monitor all of the units that need their attention, or to respond to tenants’ complaints, so violations go undiscovered by the only mechanism designed to find and report them to the city for correcting.

Anain Lozano, a Mexican American who moved to Minneapolis in 2004, recalls what happened when the building she was happily living in was sold to QT Properties a few years ago. “That’s when [the tenants] started to have problems. They raised our rent $70. They sent a lot of different letters and notices that said we couldn’t have door mats in front of our doors or decorations on the front of our doors,” Lozano says. “They said we couldn’t have grills or group tables outside. One day a truck came and took everything that was outside, even our bikes,” even though landlords cannot legally seize their tenants’ property, as repayment for charges or otherwise.

Lozano also remembers QT Properties charging tenants for “violations” like playing in the building’s green space and for kids standing by the windows in the hallways—actions that are clearly legal and not damaging to the building or unit. Yet, in a building largely filled with people whose first language isn’t English, Lozano explains that “no one had the understanding that what they were doing in the building wasn’t proper or legal, so we didn’t think we could fight back. We thought we just had to accept it.” QT Properties did not respond to requests for comment.

Eric Hauge, the director of organizing and public policy at a nonprofit tenant advocacy organization in Minneapolis called HOME Line, sees the city’s rental situation as a social justice problem that is broadly aided by two factors: the shortcomings of local and state laws and resources, combined with a general societal philosophy that views housing as a business investment rather than a human right and community resource. There are “underlying aspects of real estate and corporate law that allow investors in rental properties anonymity, the ability to shield themselves from significant liability, and the freedom to tuck tail when it suits,” explained Hauge.

However, where the city falls short in Minneapolis, tenants are rising up to advocate for themselves. One community organizing group, Inquilinxs Unidxs Por Justicia, is dedicated to creating affordable, dignified living spaces in Minneapolis.

The rumblings of what would become Inquilinxs Unidxs started three years ago when two members of Minneapolis’ Lyndale Neighborhood Association, Jennifer Arnold and Natasha Villanueva, were knocking on doors in the neighborhood to ask residents how safe they felt in the area. They eventually reached Lozano’s building, which is when she and other tenants began recounting their experiences with QT Properties. “They were asking about crime and if we felt safe in the neighborhood. We told them that where we feel unsafe is in our buildings because of the way the management treats us,” Lozano said.

Along with Arnold and Villanueva, Lozano and other tenants began holding weekly meetings to figure out how to move forward, eventually deciding on taking QT Properties to court. Lozano was voted president of the informal group and, when they had to declare a 501(c)3 status in order to move forward with the court proceedings, Lozano became one of its six board members. The group’s court proceedings against QT Properties eventually resulted in mediation and a settlement. Afterward, many of the tenants who received money donated it back to Inquilinxs Unidxs so it could continue doing its work.

In August of 2015, after a few years of organizing, Inquilinxs Unidxs held a community cookout with all of the people they had worked with. A vote was held and it was decided that, with the blessing of the community, Arnold and Roberto de la Riva, another Inquilinxs Unidxs organizer, would quit their jobs and begin working at the organization full time. Arnold and de la Riva funded their work with their personal savings until the organization received its first grant from the Minneapolis-based Headwaters Foundation for Justice this year.

While there are other local resources such as HOME Line, which organizes and works with tenants across the state, Inquilinxs Unidxs develops deep relationships with a smaller number of tenants over time, some of whom transition into formally working for the group, as Lozano did in the early days, and Carrillo did in a part-time capacity in August 2017.

The focus of Inquilinxs Unidxs’ work is to empower tenants to stand up for themselves by bringing them together and connecting them with the resources they need. As tenants learn more about their rights and finding strength in numbers, they begin to share more and more of their stories. When similar experiences begin to stack up, action plans that include everything from protests such as the one on Frenz’s lawn to taking management groups like QT Properties to court are devised to seek justice—all powered by the renters themselves. The organization also pushes for alternative systemic solutions that don’t currently exist in Minneapolis, like rent control.

More recently, Inquilinxs Unidxs has, through methods like securing pro bono lawyers to fight court battles on behalf of tenants, been involved in the Hennepin County housing court ordering Frenz to repay just under $28,000 to six tenants, which is believed to be the largest abatement awarded to multiple tenants in Minnesota housing court history.

Inquilinxs Unidxs’ work has also led to what could become the largest class-action lawsuit regarding rent returns in the country against Frenz and Spiros Zorbalas, a notorious Minneapolis landlord. The case—which concerns more than 1,000 rental units spread across 60 buildings—is being spearheaded pro bono by lawyers from Faegre Baker Daniels, and seeks the total return of rents collected over the course of several years by arguing that Frenz was incentivized by Zorbalas to suppress the cost of repairs.

In 2011, Zorbalas was banned from owning rental property in the city of Minneapolis for five years, and in 2012 Frenz bought all of his buildings. Recently though, the class-action case’s proceedings eventually revealed an operating agreement and emails appearing to show that Zorbalas maintained financial control of his properties after the sale.

It’s likely that, without the committed, relentless work of the tenants that comprise Inquilinxs Unidxs, not only would the apparent Zorbalas-Frenz connection have gone unnoticed, but more renters would still be suffering today.

“If [Arnold and Villanueva] didn’t knock on our doors those days and we hadn’t come together, we’d still be living in fear and would still be discriminated against. It’s important that groups like [Inquilinxs Unidxs] exist. Unfortunately, because of our language or the way we were educated, we don’t feel like we have rights and if we don’t feel like we have rights, we can’t assert our rights,” Lozano said.