The ongoing court saga which has recently been covered by this paper demonstrates the lack of oversight Minneapolis Regulatory Services exercises over rental businesses, while bringing to light the structural barriers, economic realities, and racial injustices renters face when trying to meet their most basic housing needs. We find ourselves in a dire position where the practices of landlords create continuing harm to the neighbors who live, work and raise families in apartment communities throughout Minneapolis.
Three years ago, the city stripped notorious landlord Spiros Zorbalas of all 39 of his rental licenses. The apartments these licenses governed were affordable, but plagued by long-term neglect, landlord intimidation and infestations. The city, tenants in the buildings, and public officials breathed a huge sigh of relief when Stephen Frenz of the Apartment Shop stepped up to buy the 39 buildings.
The city led us to believe that the problem was resolved. Only through direct resident engagement and expert legal work has the truth come out.
Over the past year, more than 300 tenants from the buildings have worked with organizing groups, neighborhoods, and the city to reveal that no meaningful improvements have been made to their homes. They still deal with incomplete or improper repairs, infestations, and retaliatory and intimidating conduct when they invoke their rights.
The tenant association IX of Powderhorn Park brought this lawsuit on behalf of one 17-unit property. This property was rated “Tier 1” by the city; it was considered in good standing and only inspected on an 8-year cycle.
How has a building with some of the worst landlord conduct–both historically and presently–been effectively ignored by regulators? To make matters worse, according to Frenz’s own testimony this week, Zorbalas owns a majority share of the company that bought the properties from Zorbalas. How is it that Zorbalas, a landlord barred from doing business in Minneapolis, continues to be enriched by these properties?
One factor that contributes to this crisis is that Minneapolis has two systems governing the licensing and inspection of rental units. One is Housing Inspections Services, where 30 inspectors oversee the licenses for 26,293 rental units in buildings with three and fewer units. The second, Fire Inspections Services, has 18 inspectors overseeing 79,800 units in buildings with four or more units. Most of the units in these large buildings house the working poor, families with school-age kids and a majority of people of color. Both groups have other responsibilities, but the numbers make it clear: Fire inspections Services cannot, and does not, inspect all the units it is assigned to.
We demand a deep investigation of these policies to solve the racism that is plaguing our city. The city council must enact solutions that put tenants first, including:
- A budget increase for Fire Inspections Services to provide, at minimum, 10-15 more rental inspectors to enforce state and city housing code, and prevent abuse and retaliation by landlords. This investment must be dependent upon the inclusion of tenants in the enforcement of regulations.
- Rent control. This can be accompanied by public investment in repairs and energy efficiency updates for distressed naturally occurring affordable housing, especially in buildings where tenants pay heat.
- A Rent Escrow Account Program (R.E.A.P) where inspectors can issue tenants a 10-70% rent discount until landlords complete required repairs.
- Incentives for landlords to recognize tenant unions with collective bargaining rights so that residents can enforce the law.
- “Just Cause” protection from retaliatory eviction and lease non-renewal so that tenants can advocate for the improvement of their homes without fear of losing their homes.
- Giving tenants the option of buying their distressed buildings if their landlord’s license is revoked.
There must be accountability for these violations of the human right to housing and shelter. The future of the quality of life in our community is at stake. Instead of carrying out flawed plans without involving tenants, the people living in these situations, we must prioritize tenants and build a solution with them. We want everyone to have a place they can be safe and healthy; a place they can be proud to call home.