Tenants buy properties from negligent landlord who tried to evict them

    Vanessa Del Campo Chacon
    Vanessa Del Campo Chacon sits on her front stoop with her three-year-old daughter, Regina, in April 2020. Photo by Max Nesterak.

    Thirty-eight families in south Minneapolis will gain ownership of their five apartment buildings after spending years battling with their landlord, Stephen Frenz, who had been trying to evict them.

    “This is an amazing victory. I am so happy,” Chloe Jackson said in a statement Monday. She is a resident of one of the properties and board president of the tenants rights group Inquilinxs Unidxs Por Justicia (United Renters for Justice).

    In 2017, Frenz was banned from holding rental licenses in Minneapolis for five years because of chronic neglect, fraud and pest infestations. He then owned more than 60 apartment buildings in Minneapolis and faced one of the largest class-action lawsuits against a private landlord in the country.

    He settled for a record-setting $18.5 million and served time in the Hennepin County workhouse for perjury related to the case. But he maintained ownership of the properties, which were managed by a court-appointed administrator.

    While 38 families in five buildings sought to form a cooperative and buy their buildings from him, Frenz had been trying to evict them for the past year, saying he needed to vacate the properties to sell them.

    Eviction seemed certain once the pandemic hit, since the families — most of whom are immigrants and don’t have health care or access to government benefits — had collectively gone on rent strike. They decided to pool their money to help each other buy groceries or pay medical bills should someone become sick with COVID-19.

    Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey praised the sale, which will be funded in part with an interest-free loan from the city.

    “This collaborative effort reflects local government done right,” Frey said in a statement. “Work like this makes clear the value of persistence in fighting for our residents and strategically dedicating resources to increase housing stability, even in times of crisis.”

    The Land Bank Twin Cities bought the five properties in the Corcoran neighborhood for $7.1 million with a loan from the city and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation Twin Cities. The two entities will also provide financing to make necessary repairs to the properties.

    Over the next two years, the Land Bank Twin Cities will transfer ownership of the properties to the residents, who have named the buildings the “Sky Without Limits Community.”

    They plan to own the buildings as a cooperative and allow more families to move in — just 34 of the 69 units are currently occupied.

    “I am euphoric” said resident Vanessa Del Campo Chacon in a statement Monday. “This is the result of lots of arduous, hard work, and I believe this victory will be felt throughout the whole city.”

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    Max Nesterak
    Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.