Three years ago, Minneapolis city officials hailed Stephen Frenz’s purchase of the rundown apartment buildings owned by one of the city’s most notorious landlords.
Now Frenz is under fire himself, on trial in Hennepin County housing court, accused of fostering similar substandard conditions at a south Minneapolis apartment building. Members of a tenants rights organization say he has failed to repair other properties, as well.
City records analyzed by the Star Tribune show that the landlord, Frenz, has accumulated more housing violations than any other landlord of large apartment buildings in Minneapolis over the past three years. He owns upward of 50 properties with more than 1,200 units.
His defenders insist that the largest share of those violations were doled out in 2013. Frenz assumed ownership in late 2012. About 81 percent were issued in 2014 or later.
The properties are of particular importance to the city, since the former owner, Spiros Zorbalas, was forced to sell after the city threatened to revoke his licenses. Zorbalas had racked up more than 2,100 violations.
Frenz was on the witness stand Friday, defending himself against tenant allegations that he and his company ignored repeated complaints about rundown conditions at an 11-unit apartment building, including an infestation of bedbugs, roaches and mice.
Tenants said that eventually Frenz brought in a pest control company and people to do repairs, but the problems have continued.
In an unusual turn, a tenant attorney produced a dead mouse in court, which a tenant said she had caught in a mouse trap. Jason T. Hutchison, the house court referee declined to take the mouse into evidence, accepting a picture instead.
Frenz and his attorneys have declined to comment about the case, and would not discuss the city statistics showing that Frenz has far more housing violations than any other landlord.
Pests and other problems
Court filings indicate that Frenz considers the complaints against him in the lawsuit to be routine issues that he has largely resolved. He blames many of the property’s problems on the tenants and on an activist group, United Renters for Justice.
Frenz and his companies, The Apartment Shop and Equity Residential Holdings, last week urged Hutchison, the housing court referee, to dismiss the case, saying that the tenants organization has a “vendetta” against him. Hutchison rejected the motion.
Feliza Tajonar, 38, lives in the building in the 3000 block of 14th Avenue S. that is the subject of the lawsuit.
In her three-room apartment, the carpet is tattered and smells, the bathroom door has two holes in it, the tub faucet leaks, and the apartment gets bitterly cold during the winter’s worst cold snaps, she said. “The heat has not been working,” she said.
An exhaust fan over the stove won’t turn on and when she fries food, she said, the apartment fills with smoke. The unit, she said, has been plagued with bedbugs, cockroaches and mice, even after a pest control company fumigated it.
The trial has become a battle of high powered attorneys from two blue chip firms. Five lawyers from Faegre Baker Daniels are representing the tenants for free. Two attorneys from Fredrikson & Byron are representing Frenz and his rental company.
Leader in violations
The city’s data show that Frenz has amassed 453 housing violations since 2013, the largest chunk of which — 37 — were for pest extermination. Other top violations included water damage, rubbish removal, plumbing repairs and wall repairs.
The Star Tribune analyzed housing violations among other landlords of Minneapolis buildings with more than four units since 2013. The next two highest violators each had 240 to 306 violations, but owned far fewer apartments than Frenz. Several landlords with the largest portfolios, such as Sherman Associates, had fewer than 200 violations.
Former Council Member Gary Schiff, who helped push out Zorbalas in 2012, said it is unfair to compare Frenz with landlords who own the most units because several of them oversee buildings they either built or recently overhauled and receive public subsidy. He said that Frenz’s violations have fallen yearly, and appear to fall at individual properties over time as well.
“He inherited a stock of buildings that were poorly maintained,” said Schiff, who is now a consultant for the city.
Hutchison has already ruled against Frenz twice. Last week, he ruled in a separate case that Frenz could not evict Tajonar — who was keeping her $695 monthly rent in escrow until repairs were made. And in an earlier case, Hutchison rejected a motion by Frenz’s companies to evict another tenant, Elizabeth Ocampo, from the same building. In his decision, he said Ocampo had made numerous requests for repairs, and efforts to evict her were retaliatory.
It was Ocampo who trapped the mouse presented in court Friday. “They know it’s a problem,” she said.