After fatal blaze, other tenants tell of hazards

  • Article by: MAYA RAO
  • Updated: March 11, 2014 - 10:26 AM

Over the last decade, landlord Paul Bertelson has bought dozens of homes in Minneapolis’ toughest neighborhoods, some for as little as $10,000, and rented them out to poor people who often had nowhere else to go.

Now his properties are drawing scrutiny. Troy Lewis, the father who survived a fire that killed five of his children at one of Bertelson’s properties, blames the landlord for what he says were poorly maintained heat and electrical systems, a charge Bertelson disputes.

The fire department has said the cause of last month’s blaze at 2818 Colfax Av. N. remains undetermined, though it suggested a space heater may have played a role. Lewis said he relied on a continuously running space heater, as well as heat from the oven, to keep the apartment warm when the landlord did not fix the heating system.

A dozen current and former tenants of seven properties owned or managed by Bertelson, including the previous occupant of 2818 Colfax, have told the Star Tribune that he or his staff failed to address serious problems, including flickering electricity, sparking outlets, faulty heating systems, mold and infestations of mice and bedbugs. Other tenants have described Bertelson as a responsive landlord.

Tiffany Zollicoffer said that for months she plugged in electric space heaters, turned on the stovetop burners and had to open the oven to keep her three children warm after the furnace at 4045 Colfax Av. N. stopped working and was “red tagged” as dangerous by CenterPoint Energy in November. Zollicoffer said after Bertelson didn’t fix the heat, she moved out the last week of February and that he gave her $100 to stay at a hotel.

“Just because we live in a neighborhood where there’s gangs, drugs, violence, prostitution, that doesn’t mean we want to live with ... rats, mice, no heat,” said a tearful Zollicoffer, adding that she has nowhere to live now. “It’s not fair if you’re paying your rent.”

Bertelson declined to respond to the tenants’ allegations, citing privacy rules and the ongoing fire investigation. In earlier interviews following the fire, he defended his record as a landlord, saying that the heat and smoke detectors worked properly at 2818 Colfax and that he hadn’t received complaints from Lewis.

A lawyer representing one of Bertelson’s companies, Mission Inn Minnesota, said in an e-mail that it has a deep passion for helping those living in poverty.

“Mission Inn Minnesota is committed to providing clean, safe and affordable housing,” the lawyer, Bill Moran, said in an e-mail. “When tenant concerns are raised, the staff members ... work to respond to those tenant concerns in a timely and effective fashion.”

Some of his renters also described Bertelson as a reliable landlord who maintains his properties well, including Latonya Garrett, who lived in the downstairs unit of 2818 Colfax at the time of the fire. She said he has since helped her find a new place to stay.

‘Diminished options’

Companies tied to Bertelson have 39 rental licenses in Minneapolis — mostly on the North Side — and often rent to tenants in desperate situations. They include people coming from homeless shelters, those reliant on government aid and some with past evictions.

Bertelson picked up nearly half of the properties when they were in foreclosure and bought most of the buildings for $10,000 to $30,000.

Community leaders describe Bertelson as far from the most troublesome landlord in north Minneapolis, where some investors have achieved notoriety for their poor management. Bertelson, who lives in south Minneapolis, has avoided major city actions or controversies in a rental business in which the age and condition of the houses, the personal situations of the tenants, and the high crime on some blocks would challenge the most committed landlords.

Bertelson is not the city’s “most problematic owner out there,” according to deputy director of housing inspections JoAnn Velde.

But she said he is part of a group of landlords that doesn’t do as much as possible to proactively maintain buildings, instead waiting until inspectors issue orders and tenants phone in with complaints.

Records show 64 complaints to the city against Bertelson properties in the last three years, nearly half for minor violations such as trash in the yard and broken-down cars. Others included leaky pipes, roofs and windows, mold, and electricity not working. There were eight complaints about the water being shut off for more than two days, which a city spokesman said is generally because an owner has not paid the bill. Tenants at just one property complained to the city about a lack of heat, and at least two code violations focused on the need to repair or replace heating equipment.

In 2011, one renter told the city that the ceiling collapsed and fell on her child, who had to go to the emergency room. “This happened a week ago and the landlord still has not done anything,” the tenant said, according to regulators’ notes.

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  • Dianna Jones once lived at 2818 Colfax Av. N. She said she and her children were shocked when they flipped light switches. The walls always felt warm, though the heating system did not work in various rooms, she said. She’s pictured with her 3-year-old daughter.

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