Landlord trial starts with discussions of cockroaches, ends with allegations of fraud

Closing arguments concluded Thursday in a Hennepin County trial that began with allegations of poor living conditions, and ended with accusations of fraud. 

A tenants’ rights organization, IX of Powderhorn Park, part of Tenants United for Justice, sued Stephen Frenz, one of the state’s largest landlords. The group alleges a Minneapolis property, on 3057 14th Avenue S, was infested with cockroaches, mice, and bedbugs, had inadequate heating, and a faulty security door. 

However, Matthew Shaap, a lawyer for Frenz and related companies, responded that the complaints had all been fixed — and that Frenz was making additional improvements to the property he purchased a few years ago. Schaap also argued some of the complaints were exacerbated by actions of tenants.

Attorneys for tenants disagreed, arguing problems had not been fixed. 

A visit by Fox 9 to the property revealed a new security door, new carpeting, and a contracting crew at work making improvements. However, one tenant told Fox 9 “there’s still problems.”

Another showed holes in a couch, attributing it to a mouse.

The trial, occurring off and on for a few months, lasted for about ten days, concluded with closing arguments Thursday morning in the Hennepin County Housing Court.

While the trial began with a focus on complaints, it took a dramatic turn when attorneys for the tenants argued that Frenz was committing fraud. The attorneys said Frenz reported more tenants than he really had, which would have meant the non-profit no longer represented a majority of tenants — requiring the lawsuit be dismissed.

Instead, in an affidavit filed by an attorney for the tenants, the attorney described a unit, saying he “found it strange that in the closet there were shoes for babies…but no toys, clothes or other things that indicated a child lived there.”

The fraud allegation occurred in March, and the law firm representing Frenz withdrew representation. A new law firm, Dougherty, Molenda Solfest, Hills & Bauer, took over the case. And on Thursday, the firm’s attorney argued the fraud allegation was a “theatrical play” and a “circus” meant to distract from the underlying claims of poor living conditions, which he argued had been refuted.

Neither Frenz nor his attorney would comment after the trial. 

The tenants’ organization, comprised of low-income renters, was represented by Faegre Baker Daniels. The state’s largest law firm took the case on for free.

Michael Cockston, an attorney at Faegre, told Fox 9 it’s “been true throughout history” that “people who are low income, who aren’t sophisticated, who aren’t part of mainstream culture, wherever they’re living…don’t have access to or know how to ask for help to vindicate their rights.”

A decision is required within 90 days, but is expected earlier. The court has several options, including appointing an administrator to oversee the building.