Embattled Minneapolis landlord Stephen Frenz made his first appearance in Hennepin County District Court answering to felony perjury charges on Friday while dozens of tenants who face imminent eviction, along with their supporters, looked on.
In a rally beforehand outside the Hennepin County Public Safety Facility, tenants chanted "Stop the evictions" and carried signs that read "Mothers over millionaires."
"It is unfair that Stephen Frenz is facing criminal charges and we are facing evictions," one tenant, Chloe Jackson, told the group. She and her son, who have lived in an apartment on the 3100 block of S. 22nd Ave. for the past five years, were ordered by Frenz to leave by Feb. 28.
Arianna Feldman, an organizer with Inquilinxs Unidxs Por Justicia (United Renters for Justice), which sponsored the rally, said Jackson is from one of 40 families comprising 60 to 70 people who were ordered to leave five of Frenz's apartment buildings in the Corcoran neighborhood by Feb. 28 or face eviction. He must file eviction papers and go through a court hearing before tenants can be ousted. Tenants say they want to stay and will fight the evictions.
The state Court of Appeals this week upheld a 2017 decision by the city banning Frenz from holding apartment rental licenses. The city took the action after learning Frenz secretly owned the buildings with Spiros Zorbalas, who the city banned in 2012 from holding rental licenses.
Their joint ownership was uncovered in 2016 during pretrial hearings in a routine lawsuit filed on behalf of tenants in one of Frenz's apartment buildings. The tenants had insufficient heat during a cold snap because of a faulty furnace.
Frenz tried to get the case dismissed by filing an affidavit and leases in court to show the majority of tenants took no part in the suit, but it was discovered the leases were phony, those tenants did not exist and the affidavit was untrue. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman filed perjury charges against Frenz in January.
At Friday's hearing before Judge Robert Awsumb, Frenz stood next to his attorney, Robert Sicoli, and did not speak. Awsumb set a hearing for April 30 to hear motions. Awsumb is a Ramsey County judge who was assigned to the case to avoid a conflict of interest. A Hennepin judge ruled Frenz had made false claims in court.
Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Susan Crumb said that as part of the pretrial discovery process, she has turned over 13,000 pages of documents to Frenz's defense team.
The tenants facing eviction live in five buildings that Frenz sold to Rickey Misco, but Minneapolis regulators refused to grant him a rental license because the sale was on a contract for deed which the city said means Frenz and Zorbalas retained ultimate ownership of the properties.
Lacking rental licenses, Misco returned the buildings to Frenz, who seeks to sell them and wants tenants out.
United Renters disclosed Friday that Land Bank Twin Cities, a nonprofit, in collaboration with the tenants, offered to buy the buildings from Frenz for $4.7 million and then turn the buildings into a tenant cooperative. The tenant group said Frenz has so far declined to sell it to them.
Both Frenz and Sicoli declined to comment before the hearing.