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By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
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For the better part of the next month, the McNally Smith College of Music student had to pick his way over debris to get to the toilet. To shower, he drove to his parents' house in St. Paul. Even after being repaired, the delicate ceiling seems like it could crumble at any time. "It still looks like crap," he says.
Recently, a new organizer at Family and Children's Service decided to renew the pressure on Zorbalas. Like her predecessors, Sara Hagestad went door to door in several of Zorbalas's buildings to document the problems. In December, she put together a letter signed by dozens of Zorbalas's tenants in 11 of his buildings, five of which her agency had previously organized. Thus far, Zorbalas hasn't responded.
Hagestad doesn't expect Zorbalas to change his stripes, but she wonders why the city isn't doing more to stop him. "They should kick him out and have the properties taken over by responsible and law-abiding landlords that will take care of them," she says.
According to city law, a landlord can be banned from Minneapolis for five years if two rental licenses are revoked in a two-year period. But in practice, such revocations are limited almost exclusively to properties with rampant crime, not those with chronic repair or pest issues. City officials insist they are doing their best to protect tenants. "If we go out and see a violation of the housing code, we issue an order," says Henry Reimer, head of the city's inspections department. "That requires the owner to take steps to abate that illegal condition."
Just down the street from one of the buildings Zorbalas sold off in 2005, the property manager of 3725 Cedar Ave., a 41-unit building, blocked a reporter from going inside. In the back, as is the case with several of Zorbalas's properties, the dumpster had been overflowing with garbage for over a week. And on a street that was the recent scene of a massive prostitution bust, one of the building's longtime tenants is a pimp. Fully decked-out in Shaft-like duds, "Hollywood," as he's known, is hard to miss. His whores turn tricks in his beat-up green Cadillac parked around the corner.
Next door, a middle-aged couple sits in the living room of their tidy house. Steve and Mary Lowther managed the apartment complex next door for years, starting in 1979. It used to be a nice building, they say. But since Zorbalas took over, they have witnessed its steady decline. The mounds of garbage and the uncut grass have hurt their property value, they say. But that's not their greatest concern.
"There are a lot of families trying to survive there," Mary says. "I hope he's not trying to take advantage of them."