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Three months ago, new managers took over the upkeep of an aging 40-unit apartment building facing Minneapolis's Stevens Square. They fired the on-site caretaker after noticing seven burned-out lightbulbs in the hallway. They tossed out a tenant whose dirty dishes swarmed with cockroaches and then fumigated the entire building. Tenants whose maintenance calls previously went unanswered say problems are now getting fixed.
Yet the arrival of property manager Contract Services Group LLC may have come too late for the landlord, Spiros Zorbalas. Last week, a Minneapolis City Council committee voted unanimously to revoke rental licenses for 1830 Stevens Av. S. and two other south Minneapolis apartment buildings owned by companies controlled by Zorbalas and his wife.
The action follows years of tenant complaints, maintenance problems and non-permitted repairs that posed a "danger to the health and safety of the citizens of Minneapolis," Janine Atchison, district manager for housing inspections, told the council committee last week. The city also determined that spreading the properties' ownership among various corporations registered by Zorbalas was an attempt to avoid responsibility, something he denies.
Zorbalas said he will fight the action, so the council won't enforce its decision until the Minnesota Court of Appeals rules. But if the revocations go through, the city would displace the residents of 128 apartment units, according to city housing officials. That could jeopardize Zorbalas' rental licenses for at least 29 other properties, potentially affecting 2,000 tenants in Minneapolis.
"This is a major action by the city," said council member Elizabeth Glidden, who asked staffers to study how it would relocate tenants from 1830 Stevens, 905 W. Franklin Av. and 3725 Cedar Av. S.
Glidden said forced relocations are an unfortunate consequence of Minneapolis's stepped-up enforcement of negligent landlords.
In an interview last week, Zorbalas disputed many of the city's allegations. He acknowledged that his properties weren't perfectly maintained, but said he's not the villain he's been portrayed to be - most notably in the leering caricature over the word "slumlord" on a City Pages cover in 2008.
"We're not the best, but we're certainly not the worst," said Zorbalas, who lives in Naples, Fla. Zorbalas said he's the victim of a political vendetta sparked by his decision to raise rents in some buildings. He said that move "pissed off a number of people on the city council," in particular, Gary Schiff.
Schiff's response: "The long history of tenant complaints at Zorbalas' properties speaks for itself."
Among the complaints against his properties: apartments without heat or hot water, neglected trash piles and damaged plumbing, city records show. In 2005, Zorbalas lost his rental license for 3121 Cedar Av. S. after the city determined he didn't evict drug dealers after being notified of several narcotics busts.
In 2008, a city inspector shut down the boiler system at Zorbalas' building at 905 W. Franklin Av., which had been installed illegally and improperly, with "asbestos chunks scattered all over the boiler room," according to a report from city hearing officer Fabian Hoffner. City inspectors also encountered non-permitted repair work at 3725 Cedar Av. S. and 1830 Stevens. All three properties have had numerous housing code violations.
Zorbalas, according to Hoffner, "has failed miserably" as a landlord.
To show that things have changed at his properties, Zorbalas invited Whistleblower to tour the three buildings whose licenses are in jeopardy. My guide was Lesa Anderson of Contract Services Group, which now manages more than 40 properties associated with Zorbalas. Anderson makes no excuses for how the buildings were managed before her arrival, but she said the approach has changed. She fired seven members of the office staff and doubled the number of maintenance workers, from four to eight.
"The one thing I've told employees, if I can't eat off the floor, it's not done," she said.
At 1830 Stevens, a worn but stately three-story building, tenant Matt McGrath said the building manager seemed to "vanish" about two years ago and did a "pretty poor job taking care of the building." McGrath said things are better since Anderson's company took over.
Anderson calls 3725 Cedar Av. S. a "work in progress." Built in 1971, the 41-unit complex is home mostly to families, who Anderson said are harder than single adults on rental units. The city's six-year record of complaints and violations is five pages long, although complaints about the property dropped sharply last year. Since she arrived, Anderson had one apartment converted to an office for an on-site manager.
A recently vacated apartment shown to Whistleblower had a gaping hole in the bathroom ceiling, likely caused by a leak from the tub drain directly above and later concealed by a drop ceiling. Anderson said it would be repaired before anyone moves in.
After Fox9 News reported on the council's action last week, Anderson distributed a letter to tenants reassuring them that they wouldn't be forced to move. The prospect distresses Francisco Bernard, 62, who has lived in 1830 Stevens for six years and calls his apartment "my little kingdom."
"If the city would close it down, I would not know where the hell to live," Bernard said.