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.

Last September and October, 722 Russell Av. N. racked up 27 code violations, including orders to fix exterior doors, illegal wiring, walls, and water damage, and replace heating equipment. The building lately appears to be missing a front door — there is only an empty green frame — and tenant Emma Brown said the heating system is so strained that she has to crank it up to 90 degrees to properly heat the house, and that the building is poorly insulated. She said she put up with it after moving in last fall because she was anxious to get out of a homeless shelter where she was staying with her children.

Minneapolis inspection records may not capture the full story about tenants’ living conditions. They are sparse on details and give no indication of how long a tenant lived with a particular problem before inspectors visited. Landlords are required to post a notice about the city’s 311 help line, but some tenants interviewed by the Star Tribune did not know about their right to call the number to file a complaint. Others feared that the landlord would ask them to leave if they called the city.

Zollicoffer, for instance, said she’d never heard of 311, so her months without heat are not reflected in the city’s tenant complaints.

Lewis, who had previous evictions and other run-ins with the law, also acknowledged that he only called the landlord — but never the city — about the lack of heat that prompted him to give his seven children blankets off his own bed.

“Renting to people with diminished options almost insulates you against renter complaints,” said Don Samuels, a former longtime council member who complained to Bertelson several times when he was in office.

Records that did not appear in the city’s list of tenant complaints showed that renters at one house called inspectors out to replace a furnace in late January.

They told the Star Tribune they went three weeks without heat in January and relied on space heaters and the oven.

Other Bertelson tenants have faced difficulties in recent months: 2518 4th St. N. was shot up in November, with bullets slamming through a window over a renter’s boyfriend’s head while he was sleeping.

And Lakella Davis left 1523 22nd Av. N. — behind Samuels’ house — last month after an infestation of black mold and other problems made her concerned for the health of her mentally impaired baby. Records show the city issued 10 code violations based on her complaints.

Problems from the start

Coming from a homeless shelter with four children, Dianna Jones was thankful to have anywhere to live in February 2013 when she moved into the upper unit of 2818 Colfax, the property that would burn one year later. She paid her $1,000 rent with the help of Social Security and county housing assistance.

There were problems from the start, she said. Mice and bedbugs ran rampant, even though she said she brought in only new furniture to supplement items left from the last tenant. Electrical sockets sparked. 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. The balcony was crumbling; and after a window fell out, birds and rain came into the kitchen.

She said she called Bertelson and his maintenance man for months but no repairs were made. Her frustration came to a head when she began receiving large electric bills and learned that she was wrongly being billed for the entire duplex because of problems in the wiring.

When she stopped paying, Xcel Energy shut the electricity off. She said the utility told her Bertelson also owed money that would have to be paid before they could turn the power on again.

After eating out of a cooler for months last summer, Jones finally called the city. Records show she complained not only of the lack of electricity but also of drywall falling from the ceiling, the broken window, the rotting balcony, and mice.

Jones recalls 2818 Colfax as “definitely a dangerous place to live.” For months before the fire, she was working with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid on a case against Bertelson.

Records show that Jones also reported “additional electric problems” to inspectors. Bertelson previously said that he wasn’t sure what that referred to, though something — possible a storm — pulled the power mast away from the building.

In September, the lack of electricity prompted the city to deem the building unfit for habitation, and it issued an intent to condemn the property unless power was restored. Minneapolis inspectors did not look into the additional electric issues that Jones reported to them, according to a city spokesman, instead focusing on getting the lights back on. The power was restored on the 24th of that month.

Ten days later, Lewis and his children moved in.