Minneapolis wins battle over landlord, but tenants might lose

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 9, 2012 - 12:54 AM

Minneapolis got legal clearance to yank rental licenses on 38 apartment buildings, but wants to avoid evicting 2,000 people.

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Rocio Blas, with her son Brian Blas Gonzalez, 4, left, and Luz Garcia, with her son Jonathan Lucas Garcia, 2, have been frustrated with problems in their apartment building and landlord Spiros Zorbalas. Garcia said she is glad the city has intervened, but she also worries about being forced from her home.

Two thousand tenants could lose their apartments after the city of Minneapolis won its legal battle to enforce the housing code against one of its biggest landlords.

But city leaders said they hoped to avoid the evictions by negotiating with the landlord, Spiros Zorbalas, whose 38 apartment buildings have racked up 2,131 violations in the past five years.

"Our hope is to have the people stay in the buildings, and have them fixed," said Tom Deegan, the city's director of housing inspections.

By refusing to hear Zorbalas' appeal, the Minnesota Supreme Court on May 30 validated a state appeals court decision that backed the City Council's revocations of three rental licenses.

The three revocations trigger another city ordinance that requires the council to revoke all rental licenses for five years for any landlord with two or more licenses revoked for cause.

Zorbalas and his attorneys did not return phone calls Thursday and Friday by the Star Tribune.

Zorbalas' apartment buildings contain 752 units and Council Member Gary Schiff, whose Ninth Ward includes 11 of Zorbalas' buildings, estimated Zorbalas has about 2,000 tenants across the city.

"He is a big fish and he has been the biggest problem," said Schiff of Zorbalas. But Schiff underscored that he did not want to oust tenants who may have no place to go when there is only a 2 percent apartment vacancy rate in Minneapolis.

"The questions is, how do we do it and minimize the impact on tenants? Because we have never stripped the licenses of a landlord with this many holdings before," said Schiff.

If Zorbalas does not sell the buildings, one possibility is working with low-income housing advocates to have tenants relocate, he said.

But Schiff said taking no action is not an option. "We are definitely not going to allow him to use tenants as a human shield against housing code violations."

One of those tenants is Rocio Blas, who lives in a tidy one-bedroom apartment in a nine-unit building in the Corcoran neighborhood. On Friday, she opened her broken dishwasher and a cockroach crawled out.

"My son wakes up with dead cockroaches on his bed," she said Friday, through a translator.

A railing on the front deck of her second-story apartment is no longer attached to the outer wall. The smoke alarm has been beeping non-stop for 15 days. The oven does not work and she has problems lighting the burners on the stove. This winter, Blas and another tenant, Luz Garcia, said they did not have hot water in their apartments for a month.

Both recently had their monthly rent raised by $25 to $625.

"It's a good thing they [the city] are keeping an eye on this landlord who is not responsible, because we are paying for services we're not getting," said Garcia. "But I am also afraid I'll lose my home."

Last year, the council voted to yank Zorbalas' rental licenses at 905 W. Franklin Av., 3725 Cedar Av. S. and 1830 Stevens Av. S. because of an array of building and fire code violations. They included exposed asbestos, broken smoke detectors, exposed electric outlets, plumbing breakdowns, failure to provide adequate heat, faulty repairs and work done without city permits.

Zorbalas appealed the revocations, and in March the Minnesota Court of Appeals sided with the city.

"The violations were serious and chronic" and "there was substantial evidence to support revocation of the licenses for each of the properties," wrote Appeals Judge Edward J. Cleary.

Zorbalas' attorneys, with the law firm of Messerli & Kramer, appealed that decision to the state high court. Without comment, Chief Justice Lorie Gildea signed an order on May 30, denying Zorbalas' petition for further review, which means Zorbalas will lose his license on the three buildings.

Eric Gustafson, assistant director of the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization, calls Zorbalas "the worst slumlord we ever dealt with." But he worries that if the city coaxes Zorbalas to sell, the new owner could be worse.

"Our attorneys are going to meet with Mr. Zorbalas' attorney," said Deegan. He said if Zorbalas agrees to negotiate, the city may allow him to temporarily keep renting the three properties whose licenses have been revoked, although he will ultimately lose all his licenses.

Deegan noted that the council took action to revoke the rental licenses of another landlord, Ron Folger, but also gave tenants six months to leave. He said that the council will get a recommendation from his office in 30 days on how to proceed with Zorbalas.

"Enforcement by the city is important for the safety and well-being of renters," said City Attorney Susan Segal. "At the same time, the city does not want enforcement to result in renters being put out on the street, so the city needs to proceed in a thoughtful and reasonable manner."

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224

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  • Spiros Zorbalas, one of the biggest landlords in Minneapolis, has racked up more than 2,100 building and fire code violations in the past five years.

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