The unassuming figure standing in the rear of the SpringHouse Community Center sanctuary Monday night listened to the stories of citizens. Minneapolis City Council Member Lisa Bender, who represents the 10th Ward neighborhoods, including East Harriet and Whittier, appeared to spend much of the event's first hour texting, head down.
She would weigh in heavily before all was said and done. In the meantime, the floor belonged to the tenants of 2533 Third Ave S.
Residents of the 15-unit building, in the shadow of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, are overwhelmingly Latino. They'd received notices from their landlord in April. The letters said that current renters could either sign new one-year leases, with rent increases for some of more than 75 percent, or move out by June 30. The landlord also said it was imposing new charges for pets and parking.
Tonight's crowd, organized by Whittier Housing Justice!, would number about 90. They'd come to rise up against landlord CPM Companies' push to replace long-term tenants with those with the will and means to pay much more.
"Under the owner's directions," read an example of one CPM's letters posted online, "we have commenced marketing this opportunity to the students of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design."
"We're gathered," said emcee Matt Barthelemy, to address a "landlord putting profits before the well-being of the community. That's what we're here to talk about… [and] what we can do to support the tenants."
Laura Gonzalez is one of them. Almost 15,000 people call the neighborhood home. Close to 90 percent are renters.
Gonzalez's family has rented a two-bedroom unit in the CPM-owned building for five years. Her rent has been $950. CPM now wants $1,600 — plus another $500 as a deposit because Gonzalez has a dog.
CPM has been patting itself on the back for remodeling the structure's facade, she said through an interpreter, but inside tells the real story. It's dirty. There's mice. The heat doesn't work during winter.
According to Gonzalez, the company responded by telling her to leave if she doesn't like it. Instead, she turned activist and spokesperson.
"And that's where we're at right now," said Gonzalez. "If we keep fighting, I know we're going to win."
Not necessarily. CPM isn't doing anything illegal. Uncool, absolutely. But nothing outside of the law.
It has the free market at its back to charge whatever rent it can command. At the end of the day, there's really nothing residents -- even justifiably enraged ones -- can do, save for express their collective umbrage and shop for a new place to live.
Nobody probably knew this better than Bender, who has been the benefactor of CPM campaign contributions.
She understood as well as anyone that CPM didn't have to move off its hard line stance. But oddly enough, it seems to be doing just that.
The day after the meeting, Bender posted on Facebook: "I talked again with [a CPM principal] this morning and he has committed to contacting all the tenants today and telling them he will leave rents flat. There will also be an opportunity to meet, as far as I was told. I obviously don't speak for them and will await along with others what comes next."
What would prompt such a 180?
Perhaps the company's current application before the City Planning Commission has something to do with it. The panel is chaired by none other than Bender.
CPM co-founder Daniel Oberpriller is seeking variances and rezoning of five northeast Minneapolis properties in order to build a new 110-unit apartment building. The city's decision won't come until the commission's next meeting on June 8.
Bender downplays any connection between the ongoing controversy and pending land use decisions.
"We can't, as a city, legally tie any past decisions to any current land use applications," she says.
However, she's quick to add: "I think someone who does as much business in the city [as CPM] is probably weighing their public relations component of the work."
Messages left at CPM headquarters went unreturned.
While the most recent chapter makes Whittier Alliance Executive Director Ricardo McCurley happy for the building's tenants, he's uneasy about the way the entire scenario continues to play out.
"It's disheartening to think Whittier residents could be at the mercy of developments that are going on in other parts of the city," he says. "If there is a connection for these companies, what they're planning in one neighborhood, and how they're treating their patrons, their tenants, in another neighborhood, that's... It's just unfair for one group of people to be the pawns in a broader scheme."