Tenants in apartment buildings owned by an embattled Minneapolis landlord who they say hasn't paid their water bill have collectively raised more than $7,400 to keep it running.

About 40 tenants in the five buildings owned by Stephen Frenz faced a water cutoff next month. The water bills had not been paid since January, said Arianna Feldman, an organizer with United Renters for Justice, which is supporting the tenants.

The right of tenants to pay a water bill or other utility bill when a landlord does not pay it is permitted under a state law, according to Lawrence McDonough, a housing attorney who oversees pro bono legal work for Dorsey & Whitney law firm. McDonough helped write the law but is not involved in this case.

"Usually rent withholding to pay utility bills involves a single tenant in a rented home or duplex," McDonough said. "These numbers are unprecedented in terms of number of buildings and units collectively withholding rent to pay utility bills."

The city of Minneapolis revoked Frenz's rental licenses for about 60 apartment buildings in 2017 after evidence was uncovered that he had secretly owned and operated the buildings in collaboration with another former landlord, Spiros Zorbalas, who was forbidden by the city from holding rental licenses.

Frenz sold the buildings off to various individuals and companies, many of them under contracts for deed, including the five buildings in question, all on the 3100 block of 22nd Avenue South.

But the city regulatory services division refused to grant licenses to the contract for deed buyers. It said that if the buyers fell behind on their payments, ownership of the buildings would revert to Frenz and Zorbalas.

Meanwhile, other contract for deed buyers are challenging the city's right to deny them licenses and the issue will be fought out at a trial in Hennepin County District Court next month.

Many of the tenants in the five Corcoran buildings have expressed an interest in staying and have sought to buy the buildings from Frenz through a $4.7 million outlay from a land bank.

The purchase would allow the tenants to form a cooperative to operate the buildings and eventually achieve homeownership.

"Frenz has not agreed to sell the buildings and instead has said that he plans to evict all the residents of the five buildings," United Renters for Justice said in a news release on Wednesday. Frenz is prohibited from collecting rent because he has no rental licenses.

Frenz did not respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday.

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224 Twitter: @randyfurst