The Tenants Who Evicted Their Landlord

IX had brought a lawsuit against Frenz called an Emergency Tenant Remedies Action, or E.T.R.A., suing him for repairs and damages. It was one of the first major actions the tenants’ organization had taken since de la Riva founded the group in 2015 with Jennifer Arnold. De la Riva explained that after they filed suit, Frenz challenged whether IX had secured the cooperation of a majority of the building’s residents, as required by state law. To prove it, Frenz submitted leases and a record of a noise complaint for units unaccounted for in IX’s lawsuit. Members of IX’s legal team toured the building and were shown one unit with children’s shoes outside the door. But they noticed discrepancies in Frenz’s account. Inside that unit, there were no trappings of a lived-in home, like toys and books. Some pest-control records listed certain apartments as vacant, but reissued invoices removed that designation. IX’s lawyers subpoenaed the utility company and discovered that the apartment units they suspected were vacant had no electricity accounts. It appeared to be fraud designed to kneecap the tenants’ E.T.R.A. case. (Frenz declined to comment on these events, which eventually led to a perjury conviction that Frenz is currently appealing.)

IX’s lawyers also noticed that the building listed Spiros Zorbalas as the party responsible for the mortgage. That gave them pause. Zorbalas had acquired a reputation as one of the city’s most infamous landlords, racking up a large number of housing-code violations. A local paper had called him “the Slumlord of South Minneapolis,” and in 2011 the city of Minneapolis revoked his rental license. When Frenz appeared to purchase around 35 apartment buildings from Zorbalas in 2013, he assured city leaders that Zorbalas had no financial stake in his former properties. But now here was Zorbalas’s name on the mortgage records. The tenants’ lawyers dug into stacks of public records and discovered that corporate entities owned by Zorbalas owned a majority stake in Equity Residential Holdings, which Frenz managed. In other words, to get around the city’s sanctions, Zorbalas had effectively, as IX’s lead lawyer put it, “sold buildings to himself.”

It’s not hard to understand why. Zorbalas had bought a considerable amount of troubled debt from Frenz, and without Frenz, Zorbalas might have had to liquidate his entire Minneapolis portfolio, comprising hundreds of units. “The money I was making, I was rolling,” Zorbalas told me. “I was taking rent from $500 to $695 a month as soon as I could without doing any renovations.” The men were in too deep to walk away when it became apparent that the city no longer approved of their partnership. Ultimately, too, they thought the city was overstepping. “I had no reason to declare to the world that I was in business with Spiros,” Frenz told me. When I asked him if he had concealed his business partnership with Zorbalas in court, he said: “Of course I did. But it wasn’t relevant at that time.”

The revelation that Frenz was in business with Zorbalas set off a chain of events. Tenants brought a class-action lawsuit against the two landlords, seeking the return of their rent. Then, in December 2017, the city revoked Frenz’s rental license, and with it, his legal ability to collect rent — which was why, de la Riva was explaining, Jackson and her neighbors should not pay Frenz anything.

Jackson thanked de la Riva and closed the door. She thought about what she had seen and experienced since moving into the apartment. She thought about Trayvon. Later that day, Jackson spoke with one neighbor, then another, about what de la Riva had said. To get across language barriers with her neighbors, she used Google Translate or enlisted a bilingual teenager.

The court soon installed an administrator to oversee Frenz’s five buildings in Corcoran, which came to be known as the Corcoran Five, and tenants paid the administrator their normal rents. The Five were not much to look at. Built in 1962, Jackson’s building was a nondescript, three-story brick rectangle with air-conditioning units tilting out the windows. Chacón’s building, two doors down, was wrapped in dark gray vertical siding and had small concrete balconies. Windows were broken, and appliances had been removed from some vacant units. Tenants couldn’t miss the large, homely signs Frenz had affixed to the front of each property advertising his business, the Apartment Shop. Still, all the buildings were on the same block, and the tenants had made a home in them. As families discussed ways to stay put, some entertained the ludicrous possibility of collectively owning the Five. No one knew how they’d do it, but then again, the tenants had become familiar with that feeling. They had begun to act upon their dreams, not their reality — to hold an end in view and figure out the means along the way.

Jackson began warming to the idea of buying the properties. She had long tried to avoid this path, hoping to live a quiet life. But haltingly at first, then all at once, Jackson was becoming, as they say in the movement, “politicized.”

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