Last week, Referee Jason T. Hutchison issued an order in the case of IX of Powderhorn Park vs. Stephen Frenz, the Apartment Shop, LLC and Equity Residential Holdings, LLC. I am a co-founder of Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia, which worked with the tenants and with IX of Powderhorn Park to bring the case court. The goal was to improve living conditions in one Apartment Shop building, but over the course of 22 days in court, deeper systemic failures came to light, as reported by the Star Tribune. Star Tribune.
First, the defendant tried to get the case dismissed by creating false leases. His fraud was discovered, though, and the trial continued. More drama arose when it was revealed that the building’s previous owner, notorious slumlord Spiros Zorbalas who is barred from owning rental property in Minneapolis, secretly owns a majority share in the property. This fraud had gone unnoticed for nearly four years by the City, despite the fact that the city had overseen the transfer from Zorbalas to Frenz. Given this lapse in oversight, how can we trust that other landlords are following the law?
Housing code, dictated by City and State law, is straightforward. It mandates that tenants should live in secure buildings in decent repair, clean of infestations. The Frenz case demonstrates that the powers-that-be cannot ensure code compliance, either through license-driven or complaint-driven inspections; many problems which had been identified by city inspectors months or years previously persisted throughout the trial. Even after nine months in court, we cannot be sure the building is compliant to code. The City and County cannot protect the safety, health and wellbeing of tenants.
Though the court has found in their favor, tenants are not guaranteed justice. Frenz is currently selling 8 buildings in Corcoran, Lyndale and Powderhorn. Residents are facing the possibility of being shunted into another exploitative housing situation if the new owner decides to install new countertops and raise the rent. We are living in a crisis of affordable housing: half of tenants in the city pay more than 30% of their income on rent. This means that low income tenants are forced to accept substandard housing or suffer homelessness. The shortage of affordable housing adds the urgency of life and death to this case.
Inquilinxs Unidxs believes that the tenants most affected by these situations, living in these low-rent buildings, need to be part of the solution. We need to have strong unions of tenants across the city. The unions would change the balance of power between tenants and landlords, so that tenants are no longer forced to accept a bad situation. With a union, tenants would be able to stand up to their landlords to fight against eviction, increasing rent, and to work with the city and court to ensure code compliance. They could also advocate to create changes within the city and the courts.