On a bitterly cold afternoon, Roberto de la Riva worked with lawyers to obtain a court order to force a landlord to fix the heat in a south Minneapolis apartment where the temperature had dropped to 54 degrees.
A few days later and a few blocks away, Jennifer Arnold spoke with tenants about getting a landlord to fix insufferable humidity and mold layered on the ceiling. Meanwhile, Arianna Feldman knocked on doors in another apartment building where tenants say roaches crawled through the kitchens and the landlord ignored complaints.
All three are tenant organizers working for Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia — United Renters for Justice — a group causing ripples across Minneapolis where affordable housing is at a premium. They have mobilized hundreds of tenants, many of whom don't speak English, to draw attention to rising rents and buildings with substandard maintenance.
"We don't see tenants as clients," said de la Riva. "We see them as the solution to the problem."
In one case, the group organized renters to take Stephen Frenz, one of the city's most violation-prone landlords, to court. The lawsuit revealed that Spiros Zorbalas, another landlord banned from operating in the city for five years, still owned the properties. Now the city is trying to strip Frenz of his 62 rental licenses.
United Renters' dogged organizing is gaining increased attention and recently received a $140,000 grant from the McKnight Foundation.
"I think they are filling a void where there hasn't been an organized voice," City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden said.
But some landlords question the group's actions.
"They've spun this scenario to say we have not done our repairs properly," said Jason Quilling of QT Properties, one of the landlords targeted by the group. "We are inspecting every unit. If there is a leaky faucet, we're taking care of it. If there are any cracks, we're taking care of it."
Tenants vs. landlords
Most of the group's organizing occurs at night when tenants complete their mostly low-paid day jobs and gather to talk strategy at United Renters' offices at 3715 Chicago Av.
At an early December meeting, about a dozen tenants, some toting children, discussed what they could do to roll back monthly rent increases of up to $150 at QT Properties apartments.
"You have to make noise to get landlords to listen," said Natasha Villanueva, one of United Renters' founders.
A few days later, Luis Caguana was among about a dozen sign-carrying tenants who filed into QT Properties' office in south Minneapolis. A secretary ordered them to leave or she would call police.
"I don't understand why you don't dialogue with us," said Caguana, whose window sills are wet from water dripping into the building.
A city housing inspector who visited the building Dec. 12 after Caguana called 311 noted several violations and ordered repairs or replacements within 30 days. Similar violations were found in another unit in the building.
Quilling estimates he is raising the rent of 80 tenants, and said earlier this month he had already gotten 42 to sign new leases. Quilling also said he would fix leaks in several apartments.
"It's a business decision to raise rents," he said, noting it's been more than two years since QT Properties raised the rent, which he said is still below market rate.
"If any one of these people wants to talk to us, they can come in," he said.
But he said he will not negotiate with United Renters. Tenants in the group say that's unacceptable.
"He'd like to divide us up and say, 'You have to pay this much' and then you have to pay it," Marta Pacheco said through a translator.
Minneapolis neighborhood associations are taking notice of United Renters' work.
"They are doing something unique and doing it well and they are now in the position to teach us and other groups how to do it well," says Eric Gustafson, executive director of the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization, which also received a McKnight Foundation grant to work with renters.
"Landlords generally have a great deal more resources and power than tenants," says Lee Sheehy, a program director at the foundation. "So organizations like United Renters for Justice are critical to trying to bring more balance to the marketplace on behalf of tenants by giving them a collective voice and access to ways to work with landlords and to influence landlords."
Jodie Boderman, pro bono manager of Faegre Baker Daniels, the law firm that has represented tenants in the lawsuit against Frenz, said the organizers are effective, hard workers.
"They are not dilettantes," she said. "And they have been good about seeking out people who will help them out, too."
United Renters is part of a new umbrella group, the Minneapolis Renters Coalition, of neighborhood organizations and advocacy groups that deal with problem landlords and common enforcement issues. Among its members is the Lyndale Neighborhood Association, where United Renters' de la Riva was once on the board and Arnold was on the staff.
United Renters' work is "bringing to light a lot of issues faced by our community that are normally invisible," said Brad Bourn, the association's executive director.
These days de la Riva and Arnold and some of their board members talk about the possibility of a citywide tenants union and new laws to toughen enforcement and provide rent control.
"It feels like we have a potential to build something that can change the way our city is run," Arnold said.