Crime, Law and Justice

Landlord Frenz sentenced to jail time for lying on housing court documents

Stephen Frenz walks into the courtroom after a lunch break on Thursday.
Stephen Frenz walks into the courtroom after a lunch break on Thursday afternoon in September 2017.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News 2017

A Hennepin County judge has sentenced a controversial Minneapolis landlord to 60 days in jail for lying on a housing court document. A jury last October convicted 56-year-old Stephen Frenz of felony perjury.

It’s rare for prosecutors to file perjury charges. It’s difficult, they say, to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone lied in court. But the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office says Frenz’ lies were blatant and he left a paper trail.

At one time, he was among the biggest landlords in Minneapolis with dozens of buildings. But many of his renters said Frenz did a poor job of maintaining them.

In 2016, tenants from a 17-unit building at Lake Street and 14th Avenue South went to housing court and filed a complaint about unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

The law requires a majority of tenants sign onto a complaint for it to move forward. Authorities said Frenz tried to make that majority a minority by filing a sworn affidavit that included phony leases and renters, and tried to pull a fast one on housing inspectors by making it appear empty units were occupied. Court documents say Frenz put a pot on the stove in one unit and set out children’s shoes in another.

After the trial, prosecutors said the presumptive sentence was probation. But at sentencing Friday, Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Susan Crumb asked for jail time. Crumb said Frenz is not remorseful, and his web of deceit ensnared innocent people.

“Mr. Frenz had the owner of a pest control company create a set of altered invoices. He created false tenant ledgers including a false noise complaint. He had two individuals who were tenants and employees sign leases knowing that they never lived in the apartments that those leases were for,” Crumb said.

The city of Minneapolis revoked Frenz’s license to operate as a landlord in 2017 after attorneys working for a tenants’ group found that Frenz secretly shared ownership of his buildings with Spiros Zorbalas, another landlord who lost his license after racking up thousands of code violations. The two agreed to pay the tenants $18.5 million dollars to settle a class action suit.

Frenz did not speak at the hearing, but defense attorney Robert Sicoli said the case against his client has more to do with the allegations in the civil litigation than the crime of perjury.

“The reason Mr. Frenz is here is because they didn’t like what he did with the apartments, and then they decided to use this to get more consequences against him by sending him to jail,” Sicoli said.

In addition to the 60 days in the Hennepin County workhouse, Judge Robert Awsumb also sentenced Frenz to 200 hours of community service and up to three years of probation. Frenz was ordered to serve the first 30 days of his jail time in January and the rest in January 2021. Awsumb denied a defense motion to stay the jail time pending appeal. And he reminded Frenz that veracity on court documents matters.

“I hope if anything, that you learn the importance of an affidavit. An affidavit is a really important instrument in the judicial system, and one that is meant to be conveying the truth,” the judge said.

Though his landlord license was revoked, a spokesperson for the city of Minneapolis said Frenz still owns five apartment buildings in the Corcoran neighborhood of south Minneapolis and has a financial interest in many others. A court-appointed administrator is overseeing the Corcoran buildings.

After the hearing, Chloe Jackson, a resident of a Frenz building, said she’s glad he will go to jail, but Jackson is more concerned about where she’ll spend the night than where her landlord will. Despite all his legal troubles, Jackson says Frenz is still trying to evict her and her neighbors.

“The comfort that I will have is once we get to know that our homes will be safe. It’s a little comfort. But the most comfort will be us being able to stay home.”

Even as they fight eviction, Jackson and dozens of other tenants are working with the group Renters United for Justice to buy their buildings and run them as a co-op. Renters United says the tenants have already secured more than 7 million dollars in financing from a land bank.