Santiago Garnica and his partner, Erick Flores, got calls from neighbors on Saturday telling them that workers had entered their south Minneapolis apartment and were renovating it, unbeknown to them.
When the hair stylists returned home to the building owned by embattled landlord Stephen Frenz, they found that appliances had been removed, the kitchen sink taken out, the carpet pulled up and their furniture left in a dumpster, covered with construction materials. Their belongings and those of Flores’ mother were gone.
“We’re still in shock,” said Garnica, 26.
Among the items lost, Flores said, was the only surviving photo of his late father, which had hung on a wall.
“They took our memories,” said Flores, 29.
On Wednesday, Michael Cockson, a pro-bono attorney representing tenants in the troubled buildings, filed court papers asking that Frenz be held in contempt for violating a court order concerning the apartments of five buildings on the 3100 block of 22nd Avenue S. that Frenz owns despite being stripped of his rental license. The buildings have become a battleground between tenants, who want to stay, and Frenz, who wants them out.
The apartment that Flores and Garnica lived in had been rented by Flores’ mother, who Flores said had been recently in and out, sometimes staying with relatives while the two men tried to rid the unit of bedbugs. No formal eviction notice had been filed with the court, and while Frenz had been given permission to renovate apartments, he was required by Housing Court referee Mark Labine to give an administrator of the building 24 hours’ notice. No such notice was given, it was alleged.
The men and Flores’ mother, Teresa Jimenez, are now homeless and staying with relatives. She first rented the apartment about five years ago, Flores said. A fund-raiser has been set up.
Workers on Saturday tore out the kitchen cabinets and removed beds, bedding, furniture, appliances, clothes, two guitars, plus family photos and jewelry, among other valuables. After the tenants’ group complained, the workers returned a computer and two guitars.
Last month Labine appointed a temporary administrator, Lighthouse Management, to oversee the buildings and collect rent until they were sold or the renters legally removed. There may have been confusion as to whether the unit was occupied. On one list given the court, the unit was listed as vacant, tenant organizers said, but a second list said the unit’s tenants agreed to pay rent to the administrator.
Alex Dybsky of Lighthouse wrote an e-mail to Frenz and his attorney, Doug Turner, on Monday, saying he’d left voice mails with both of them on Saturday, indicating work on the apartments would require a 24-hour notice and was not to occur on weekends.
Dybsky wrote that he received an e-mail from Frenz’s attorney saying Frenz had not had time to review the judicial order before renovation. Dybsky wrote that he spoke with Frenz on Monday “at which time Mr. Frenz indicated he recently received the new order and would abide by the requirements of vacant unit work going forward.”
Andrew Fahlstrom, an organizer with United Renters for Justice wrote in an affidavit that one renovation contractor told him Frenz personally inspected the unit and directed him to clear it out.
Frenz did not respond to phone calls seeking comment. Cockson asked the court to allow tenants to move into a habitable unit in one of the five buildings and to be reimbursed for their losses.
The buildings are the last remaining rental properties Frenz owns. They had been owned by Spiros Zorbalas, who had his rental licenses revoked by the city in 2011. Frenz claimed he bought them from Zorbalas, but after it was revealed Zorbalas remained a co-owner, the city revoked Frenz’s licenses in 2017, forcing him to sell. Most have been sold off.
Tenants in the five buildings have not paid rent for a year and have sought to buy them from Frenz for more than $5 million, using money that would largely come from a land bank. Frenz reportedly wants $7 million for the properties, and negotiations have stalled.