The affordable-housing crisis comes to Uptown

The honey bear was there when Kelly Dorow came home from work one day in September. One of those molded-plastic bottles you get at the grocery store, it sat on the glass top of her coffee table. Attached to it was a note from her landlord reading: "Thanks for making my day a little sweeter." Dorow found it less than sweet to discover that someone had been in her apartment while she was out, but she didn't think much more about it.

Today the bear is an exhibit that sits alongside the small stack of evidence--letters, faxes, and handwritten notes--Dorow has accumulated over three months of doing battle with landlord Spiros Zorbalas and his company, Uptown Classic Properties. She says that since the firm bought the brick apartment complex at 905 E. Franklin Ave. (on the corner of Franklin and Hennepin) in August, she has fielded complaints from fellow tenants, had personal run-ins with company officials, and seen the rent on her apartment rise nearly 60 percent--from $595 to $945 a month. Worst of all, she says, she has learned that there's hardly anything anyone can do about it.

As she conducts a brief tour of the place where she and her boyfriend have lived since 1994, Dorow acknowledges that the apartment has been a good deal. There are hardwood floors, a spacious kitchen by Uptown standards, even an oversize closet that serves as an office. "I understand that when people live in a place for five years, the property might not be at market [rate]," she offers. "But a $350 increase--that was just really shocking." Dorow and other tenants say they have seen no evidence of any improvements to the building.

Uptown, where the renting isn't easy: Some Uptown Classic Properties tenants have seen their rent increase by nearly 60 percent
Daniel Corrigan
Uptown, where the renting isn't easy: Some Uptown Classic Properties tenants have seen their rent increase by nearly 60 percent

Money was only part of the problem. Soon after Zorbalas took over, Dorow--who was serving as the building's caretaker--found herself swamped with complaints about everything from rent increases to Uptown Classic employees entering apartments without prior notification. The hostility soon escalated into civil disobedience, with tenants removing the 'For Rent' signs Zorbalas had placed out front. "This made him furious," Dorow says. "It got really scary."

When contacted for this story, Uptown Classic representatives said neither Zorbalas nor anyone else at the company cared to comment. Zorbalas later left a voice-mail message on a Friday night but did not return numerous subsequent phone calls.

Tenants say they were perturbed to see Zorbalas walking around the apartment complex with a BB gun he used to shoot pigeons. Farah Husain says she noticed the landlord with the weapon as she left for work one fall morning. When she came home that night, she found a hole in her window and shards of glass on the floor. "I didn't feel safe with him walking around with the gun," she says.

Husain, who says her rent went from $700 to $900 after Zorbalas took over, says she called police about the incident but no one came to investigate. (According to Ofcr. John Murzyn of the Minneapolis Police Department's Fifth Precinct, it is illegal to fire an air rifle within city limits, but police rarely follow up on such complaints). Husain has since moved in with family and is looking for another apartment.

Dorow also contacted the authorities--figuring, she says, that there had to be a law against steep, sudden rent increases. But when she called the Attorney General's Office and the City of Minneapolis's housing department, she learned otherwise.

"Politically, rent control was resoundingly trashed in Minneapolis during the late Seventies and early Eighties," says Kirk Hill, head of the Minnesota Tenants Union. "It doesn't seem that anyone at the city wants to do much about it. So all I can do is pat people on the back and say, 'Welcome to the wonders of the free market.'"

Uptown Classic is no newcomer to that market, though it has recently been expanding its holdings. Harold Teasdale, a partner at St. Louis Park-based Minnesota Brokerage Group, says that since August his firm has sold Zorbalas four complexes, bringing its total to fourteen buildings, all located in Uptown.

During the same period, Hill has received close to a dozen calls about the company, a number he says is unusual for a single landlord. Most of the complaints, he says, have been about rent increases, alleged privacy violations, and disputes regarding damage deposits.

Zorbalas is not alone in attracting tenants' ire. Donna Harris, who oversees the city's Housing Services program, says that in the past year complaints from renters have shot up from an average of 1,750 calls per month to 2,500 calls per month. The same pattern is apparent in Hennepin County Housing Court: In 1996 the court logged 183 cases brought by tenants against landlords. By 1998 that number was up more than 50 percent, to 281, and officials are certain this year's figure will be higher still. "Because of the low vacancy rate, renters have no place to go," says Sue Nelson, who processes cases at the housing court. "So they're forced to deal with what's been dealt to them. They can't just pick up and leave."

Ask anyone about the state of rental housing in the Twin Cities and they'll invariably point to that low vacancy rate. According to surveys conducted by the rental-listing company Apartment Search, a mere 1.5 percent of all units in the metro area are available at any one time--less than half the national average of 3.9 percent (which itself is the lowest of the decade). In Uptown the rate has fallen to a measly 0.8 percent. Experts say a vacancy rate of five to eight percent is necessary to maintain a balanced rental environment.

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