Six months after Minneapolis pressured one of its worst landlords to sell 38 apartment buildings, city inspectors report a dramatic drop in tenant complaints and maintenance violations. But problems persist in some of the worst properties, where low-income tenants and a community leader are still waiting for a turnaround.
Over five years, city inspectors logged 2,131 code violations against landlord Spiros Zorbalas before a deal was announced last January to transfer the properties. So far this year, the city has issued 61 violations for the properties, now owned by developer Steve Frenz.
“The indicators are showing that Steve is actually making good progress,” said JoAnn Velde, the city’s housing inspections services manager. “And that’s what I’ve heard from the inspectors, too.”
In poorer neighborhoods, however, six tenants interviewed by the Star Tribune said that they still have problems in their buildings, including cockroaches, mold and lack of heat. Many of those residents speak only Spanish, but Frenz’s office has no one taking calls who is fluent in the language.
“In checking in with some of the tenants in the properties, we don’t really see any change so far,” said Eric Gustafson, executive director of the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization. Among the seven former Zorbalas properties in Corcoran, Gustafson cited examples of peeling paint, exterior exposed wiring and a faulty front door.
Taking on some of Minneapolis’ most notorious rental properties was a big undertaking for Frenz, who runs the Apartment Shop management company. Frenz said in mid-June that he had completed more than 4,200 work orders, worked through 289 leftover from the Zorbalas era and had only 68 outstanding. “We’ve done a fantastic job of addressing [issues] on a real-time basis,” he said.
Frenz now oversees about 1,400 units, twice what he had before. That includes the 750 former Zorbalas apartments scattered across south Minneapolis, from solid and elegant Uptown buildings housing twenty-something professionals to newer but more rundown apartments further east that cater to working-class immigrants.
Tenant Yojana Solares said she hasn’t seen any change in the upkeep of her building on 22nd Avenue S., a street that is home to five former Zorbalas buildings. She said she has complained about cockroaches, a broken stove, mold growing in her bathroom and heating failures.
“They say, ‘We’ll be there soon,’ but in what year? Because they never show up,” Solares said in Spanish, near crumbling concrete steps. After the Star Tribune inquired about Solares’ concerns, the steps were repaired.
In another building on the same block, Isabel Arias echoed Solares’ frustration. She and her husband live in the apartment with their 1-year-old daughter. “We didn’t have heat in the winter and we have to constantly buy poison to kill the roaches,” Arias said in Spanish. Neither Solares nor Arias knew they could file complaints with the city.
Frenz countered that city records show no work orders for heat issues. “There is no one that has spent the winter without heat,” he said. He said some immigrant tenants expect the buildings to be heated to nearly 80 degrees. “I’m not going to heat a building to that temperature. It’s not responsible,” Frenz said, although he said his workers did have to fix long-broken heating systems in other buildings.
The Apartment Shop operates out of an airy, high-ceiling office at 25th Street and Nicollet Avenue S. Clad in shorts and a polo shirt, Frenz issued orders at 6:45 one recent morning to a cadre of maintenance staffers amid the din of rock music.
Frenz said he received a stack of leftover work orders when he took over the properties, replacing entry doors, repainting hallways and installing intercoms. He found fewer systemic problems, such as broken boilers and shoddy roofs, than he expected.
“Overall, it has not been that bad,” Frenz said.
City records reflect some of the troubles that persist. At 3325 Nicollet Av. S., city inspectors documented broken glass, buzzer problems and holes in the bathroom of one unit — Frenz said the unit was trashed by a tenant he evicted. At 3105 22nd Av. S., city inspectors issued citations for rotten wood, peeling paint, broken buzzers and torn screens.
In the Stevens Square neighborhood, tenant Natalie Jones is on a quest to fix problems in her apartment and the building. The building’s mailboxes have been ajar and unable to be locked since at least April (a violation was issued on April 15). Frenz said ordering new mailboxes is a lengthy process and the new ones are on their way.
Jones regularly complains directly to the city about maintenance shortcomings. “When you are paying your rent and you are having problems, the landlord should get right on that,” Jones said she told a mayor’s aide recently. “It shouldn’t be that you have to contact the mayor’s office.”
Frenz said tenants bear some responsibility for the pest infestations. Sometimes he sends an exterminator into an apartment only to find that the tenants haven’t removed food from cabinets, cleaned the range or done other necessary prep work.
Frenz said the lack of Spanish-speakers in his office doesn’t present any obstacles for communication with Spanish-only tenants. Some of the maintenance workers speak Spanish, and Frenz speaks a little. “You can walk in and talk to me,” Frenz said. “I’ll understand what you’re saying.”
He sends letters to the tenants explaining what needs to be done, but the letters are only in English.
“They usually have someone who can translate it for them,” Frenz said. “They can ask their neighbors.”
Velde said language barriers are one reason why the city requires landlords to post multilingual city notices in common areas directing tenants to report problems to 311. Reporters could not find the posters in a recent walk-through of two Corcoran buildings.
Council Member Gary Schiff led the council’s effort to evict Zorbalas from the rental business and touted that fact in his now-abandoned campaign for mayor. In response to a Star Tribune inquiry, Schiff asked city staff for more information on Frenz’s record and said the city should have an online app to better track violations.
“I believe our city’s rental property records need [to be] more transparent,” Schiff said in a statement. “It’s too difficult for renters, neighborhoods and City Council members to view this data and take action.”