Vanessa Del Campo was overwhelmed by the ongoing battle against cockroach and mice infestations, appliances that didn’t operate and myriad other problems until she joined a tenants’ rights group that took on her landlord, Stephen Frenz.
Last week she opened her mailbox at her apartment building on the 3100 block of 22nd Ave. S. in Minneapolis and found one of the fruits of that fight, a check addressed to her for $4,000, part of a class-action settlement.
“We didn’t expect to see that much money,” Del Campo, 42, said through an interpreter. She still lives in the apartment with her husband and daughter, who is nearly 2 years old. “We were almost in shock,” she said.
A total of 4,361 tenants and former tenants, many of them low income, began receiving checks last week, totaling more than $12 million. About 1,000 tenants could not be located.
The suit was filed on behalf of tenants by Faegre Baker Daniels against Frenz and Spiros Zorbalas, once among the largest, most powerful apartment owners in Minneapolis, operating more than 60 buildings. The lawyers alleged that the two men had obtained their rental licenses through fraud and that tenants were forced to live in abysmal conditions. The case settled before trial. Frenz did not return a phone call Monday, and Zorbalas could not be reached for comment.
Michael Cockson, the lead Faegre attorney, on Monday called the payments to tenants long overdue.
“I’m honored to be part of the process that provided tenants what they justly deserved,” Cockson said. “They had lived in uninhabitable conditions for years.”
The average payout was about $2,800, based on a formula of $200 for every month a tenant was in the apartment between November 2012 and September 2018, according to Nathaniel Zylstra, a Faegre attorney who worked on the case. Some tenants got as little $100 and a few received about $15,000.
Chloe Jackson, 34, received a check in the mail last week, and attributes the windfall to the “fight by the tenants, and the conditions that led up to it, the cockroaches, the bedbugs, the mice, no heat, the unsecured doors.” Rain water once puddled in the hallway outside her third-floor apartment and poured through the ceiling, ruining her bed. Squirrels ran through the walls and ceiling. She said she was constantly calling Apartment Shop, which operated the building, to complain.
“The settlement would never have happened if it wasn’t for the courage of the tenants speaking up,” she said.
Christine Vorpahl, 42, said she plans to pay off some debt and get some car repairs with her settlement.
“I get very emotional,” she said, particularly remembering some of the distress of the families and children who lived in the building where she lived in the 200 block of E. 19th Street. She has since moved.
“I woke up to a cockroach crawling on my face,” she recalled. “The very next day I woke to one crawling up my arm. I wanted to get out of there, but I couldn’t because I was legally bound by the lease.”
Natasha Villanueva, who also lived in an apartment on the 200 block of E. 19th St., talked about high heating bills and “horrifying” cockroaches that led her to join an effort by the fledgling tenants rights group Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia (United Renters for Justice), which went door knocking to rally tenants. “I was amazed,” she said on seeing the check in the mail. “We started so humbly.” She plans to put $1,000 into savings, $1,000 toward a credit card bill and give $300 to Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia.
The Faegre Baker Daniels law firm put in thousands of pro bono hours representing tenants against Frenz and against another landlord, Mahmood Khan in recent years.
In the midst of one tenants case in 2016 the lawyers discovered Frenz was secretly in business with Zorbalas, who was banned by the city. It caused the city to revoke Frenz’s rental licenses, too. Frenz was charged in January with perjury, a felony, in connection with that case, and a hearing is scheduled Thursday.
The class-action suit, which is not pro bono, results in a payout to the Faegre firm of between $5 million to $6 million.
In the meantime, many of the Frenz-Zorbalas properties have been sold off, although five properties remain in limbo, including the apartment building where Vanessa Del Campo lives.
Frenz gave the tenants in that building, including Del Campo, eviction notices, which are being fought by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. With financial support from a land bank, the tenants are trying to buy the five buildings from Frenz and turn them into co-ops. However the sides are still far apart on the purchase price.
Del Campo said she got involved in the tenants’ fight, not for the money but to get “better conditions for all us” and she vows to stay put and fight the eviction.
“This is our home,” she said. “In Mexico, we get really attached to our homes. This is where we want to be.”