Sonya Yancey leaned against her kitchen counter and looked around her south Minneapolis apartment, exhaustion showing in her eyes.

She pointed out a laundry list of problems: outlet covers removed to spray for bugs and never replaced; a leaky bathtub and a cracked bathroom sink; a living room carpet riddled with holes.

“This building is stressing me out,” she said.

At a time when rents are soaring and putting an even bigger squeeze on low-income tenants, Yancey and others are growing increasingly frustrated as they struggle to find a decent place to live.

Yancey’s building, at 3141 22nd Av. S., is owned by Steve Frenz, who runs the Apartment Shop management company.

Frenz made two things clear when he bought 38 rental properties from controversial landlord Spiros Zorbalas last year: Rent would go up to market rate, but long-running problems would be fixed more quickly.

Now, his tenants have seen $50 rent increases on top of new utility costs that add about $100 to their monthly bill. It’s more than some can afford — and, combined with persistent maintenance problems, more than they’re willing to put up with. Some have started organizing, meeting in hallways to share stories and look for answers.

“I don’t want to move because I’ve got everything right here,” Yancey said. “But if push comes to shove, who wants to live like this?”

Frenz, meanwhile, said his company is making great strides. The Apartment Shop has a system in place to address maintenance issues, he said, including a bilingual technician who visits buildings regularly. Several buildings have recently been improved, with fixes that include new carpet and fresh paint.

Jo Ann Velde, Minneapolis housing inspections services manager, said she doesn’t know of any issues that extend across all 65 Frenz properties. It’s mainly the former Zorbalas properties that are in rougher shape, she said.

Frenz said it has been a challenge to maintain properties that were long ignored. “With these properties, when you have 10 years — probably significantly longer — of deferred maintenance, it’s a long catch-up process,” he said.

Some forced out

Many tenants have complained about the rent increases that for some started in January. The Apartment Shop formerly paid for heat and water, but now the company is dividing the costs among the tenants.

Residents at Yancey’s building met this week, and they said they now pay between $100 and $120 more each month for heat and water.

“I cannot afford a $150 a month increase,” tenant Julie Healy said at the meeting. “I am being forced out of my home.”

Ross Joy, lead organizer at the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization, said the Apartment Shop sent letters to tenants informing them of the utility charge late last year, urging them to reduce the use of natural resources.

“It is our hope that our utility allocation program will provide the necessary control and incentive for all of us to become more conscious of our natural resource consumption,” the letter said.

Joy pointed out that the tenants do not have controllable thermostats or meters to review their heat and water usage.

They’ve also complained to management repeatedly about apartments that are cold for several reasons, including drafty windows.

“Sometimes the heat is not working,” said Jose Cruz Guzman, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment with his mother. “When we call to complain, they send someone, but nothing happens.”

Guadalupe Sanchez Martinez, who has lived in the building for about two years, shares a two-bedroom unit with her husband and two young daughters.

She said her rent is nearing $1,000 a month. Coupled with persistent maintenance problems, the hike is making it tough to stay. “It’s too much,” she said in Spanish.

Mike Vraa, managing attorney at the tenant advocacy organization HOME Line, said rent increases are rampant across the city. In the last decade or so, he said, he has seen more landlords start charging separately for utilities.

Tenants who call HOME Line often ask if rent increases are legal, he said, and the answer is usually yes. “There’s no rent control,” he said. “A landlord can charge whatever they think the market can bear.”

Reporting is a challenge

Some residents say it’s an uphill battle just to report a problem, let alone get it fixed.

And for tenants like Sanchez Martinez, who speaks little English, there’s an additional hurdle.

The city advises renters with complaints to call Minneapolis’ 311 hot line and it requires landlords to post multilingual city notices in common areas. No such signs were posted at 3141 22nd Av. S.

Frenz said that he posts the signs but that they often get taken down. Though he’s willing to comply with city regulations, he said, he doesn’t like the idea of tenants being encouraged to call the city instead of the management company. “The whole concept of what it says is something that irritates me,” he said.

Tenants say that when they do call the management company, they don’t get much of a response.

During her family’s time in the building, Sanchez Martinez said, they’ve called with issues ranging from broken bathroom floor tiles to windows that won’t open. Last summer, bedbugs in her daughters’ rooms forced the whole family to sleep in one bed.

She and her husband have resorted to fixing problems themselves: they threw out bug-infested furniture, they painted their bathroom. “It’s very difficult to live like this,” she said in Spanish.

Sanchez Martinez said her family is looking for a new place to live. Yancey, too, is on her way out. But like many other tenants, they’re faced with limited options.

Asked where she would go if she decides to move, Healy shrugged and said: “My car.”


Emma Nelson is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.