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Stephen Frenz, notorious Minneapolis landlord, is about to face judgment

Tenants of 3057 14th Ave. S. — Jesus Magana, Luis and Jennifer Aguilar, Ayde Reales, Elizabeth Ocampo, and Norma Juarez — lived in squalor under a landlord who didn't seem to care.

Tenants of 3057 14th Ave. S. — Jesus Magana, Luis and Jennifer Aguilar, Ayde Reales, Elizabeth Ocampo, and Norma Juarez — lived in squalor under a landlord who didn't seem to care.

When Ayde Reales moved into the unassuming stone apartment complex at 3057 14th Ave. S. back in 2009, rent was an unbelievable $480 a month, including utilities. She couldn’t complain, she says. Management took care of the place. They stayed out of each other’s way. The living was good.

Around 2012, prominent Minneapolis landlord Stephen Frenz purchased the building. He owned about 40 buildings with more than 1,400 units. And he had a reputation of letting his tenants live in filth.

The Star Tribune reported that the city had cited Frenz for 638 housing violations since 2013. His buildings were rampant with roaches, bedbugs, and rodents.

At 3057, a broken lock on the front door was never fixed, allowing vagrants to sneak in and sleep underneath the stairs and in the laundry room. One of the apartments got looted. One year while Reales lived in a basement apartment, all the toilets on her floor backed up, flooding the bathrooms with fecal water. Another resident, Norma Juarez, was hired to mop it all up for a small discount on rent.

Luis and Jennifer Aguilar, the young parents of a seven-month-old baby, have thermometer recordings from the winter showing their apartment would get as cold as 55 degrees — well below city law’s minimum of 62. The boilers never seemed to turn on, Luis says. The thermostats didn’t do anything. The baby hardly slept at night.

Elizabeth Ocampo, who is raising two children at 3057, says she’d open her front door and cockroaches would scuttle in from the hallway. She’s had to throw away perfectly good mattresses when they become overrun with bedbugs.

When they asked for maintenance, management’s answer always seemed to be an empty reassurance not to worry, they’ll come, Juarez says. But they don’t, or they delay, or they won’t ever fix the issues for good.

Landlord Frenz would later testify in court that he didn’t think he needed to do anything about the code violations.

March 11, 2016 court transcript: Question: So please tell the Court what your testimony is under oath today regarding the applicability to you and this building. The [Notice of Code Violation states], obtain the services of a licensed exterminator and rid the premises bed bug infestation. Frenz: What does that mean to me? Question: Is that something you — when you read this, is that what you believed you needed to do to comply with this notice of ordinance code violations? Frenz: No, it’s not.

The tenants came together to sue Frenz through the neighborhood group IX Powderhorn Park. In order to authorize the suit as a group, they had to show that a majority of the apartment’s tenants were in agreement.

That’s when Frenz invented imaginary tenants, dressing up three vacant apartments with spare furniture, to pretend some imaginary residents were against the lawsuit, according to IX Powderhorn Park’s lawyer, Michael F. Cockson.

In the beginning of the case, the court allowed IX Powderhorn Park's housing experts to inspect the building. Frenz opened up each of the 11 units, which looked to be occupied. Three units were sparsely furnished, however, containing only a bed, or baby shoes without baby clothes or toys, or any other sign that a child lived there.

The group was suspicious, and dug into Frenz’s rent ledgers and lease files. They ran background checks on the mystery tenants and subpoenaed Xcel Energy’s records of utilities bills. When they turned up sufficient evidence that Frenz had staged the apartments, Frenz’s lawyers bailed on him mid-trial.

His new lawyer did not return a request for comment.

On Thursday, the court heard closing arguments in Frenz’s case. It’s unclear when the judge will decide what sort of damages, if any, the tenants would be entitled to. In the year since the lawsuit was filed, Frenz has been tenaciously revamping 3057. These days, the corridors are starting to look pretty fancy.

It just goes to show that Frenz had repair money all along, says tenant Jesus Magana.

Since remodeling started, life at 3057 has become complicated in other ways. Construction workers hammer early in the morning and late at night, cutting off the water frequently and without notice, Magana says. Contractors often enter units without permission, hastily excusing themselves when confronted by residents.

Tenants say management has offered them $5,000 apiece to move out by the end of the month. 

Jaurez is not interested. She can't predict what the judge will decide, but she's hoping for some restitution for the many months she lived in squalor. And now that it's being remodeled, she wants to be able to stay in her apartment with some kind of a rent freeze. If Frenz raises rent, she's not sure where she'll be able to go.

"When he saw me in court, he was like, 'Hi Norma, what are you doing?'" Jaurez says through an interpreter with a roll of her eyes. "It's weird because he always had money. While people are throwing out their things, he's just washing his hands."