Vanessa Del Campo's cooperative organizing group, Sky Without Limits Community, had gotten one step closer to owning the five buildings where they live. Credit: Vanessa Del Campo

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Vanessa Del Campo was making spicy eggs and beans with her mother in the kitchen of her apartment in Corcoran when she heard the good news. Her cooperative organizing group, Sky Without Limits Community, had gotten one step closer to owning the five buildings where they live. On May 18, the Land Bank Twin Cities Inc., a nonprofit bank that had been working with the tenants, purchased the 69 units from their landlord Stephen Frenz. 

“I started crying,” Del Campo said in Spanish, through a translator. “I really wasn’t expecting it. I was so excited I couldn’t even eat.” 

Over the next three years, the Land Bank will make repairs on the buildings. The plan is that tenants will then purchase some or all of the buildings using a cooperative model. Land Bank’s purchase was made through a $4.98 million loan from Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Twin Cities as well as a zero interest $3.45 million from the City of Minneapolis, as part of the Small and Medium Multifamily Loan Program

The Sky Without Limits Community grew out of work with an organization called United Renters for Justice, or Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia (IX), which works with 300 active members. The tenants of the five buildings were part of a successful class action lawsuit against Frenz for lack of upkeep on his buildings, which included pests, heating and plumbing issues. Frenz also had his rental licenses removed, and last fall, was convicted of perjury.

Chloe Jackson, a member of the collective, moved into her apartment in 2013, and realized there were some major problems. “What got me started was that I was having repair issues with my apartment, such as mice, roaches, water leaks, and squirrels in my unit,” Jackson said. “I was like OK. Hmm. I need to do something. I need to be involved more.” 

Jackson started attending meetings with other tenants. “We’d sit around a circle, and people would talk about the issues that they were having,” she recalled. The meetings would include up to 30 people, almost all people of color. The meetings weren’t just about complaints, but about actually doing something together. Many of the tenants were primarily Spanish speakers, while Jackson, who is African American, and others spoke English. “Even though my neighbors and I don’t speak the same language, we’ve been able to communicate with each other,” she said. “This has been a wonderful process.” 

“When we speak from the heart,” said her neighbor Del Campo, “there are so many ways to communicate with each other.” Some of the Spanish speakers have learned some English, she said, and others have learned some Spanish. 

Jackson said tenants will be making payments to the Land Bank as they work toward creating a cooperative model and buying the property. “This is something new and different,” she said. “Some people are worried and scared. I personally think this is going to be a very successful project.” 

Jackson now works as an organizer with IX. She says the group succeeded because so many people – tenants and others – came together. “We’ve gone through the struggle together,” she said. “We went to the eviction courts together. We’ve had celebrations together. We’ve helped each other and encouraged each other— that’s what is going to make this project successful.” 

Eddie Landenberger, the bank’s vice president and senior program manager, said the next step is to focus on much-needed emergency repairs and capital improvements for the brick and stucco buildings. 

“Our role in this is as interim owner,” Landenberger said. “We’ll be owning and managing the properties for a period of around two and a half to three years, giving the tenants and the nonprofits that they’re working with time to work on governance and learning how to manage the buildings and coming up with how they’re going to finance the purchase back from us.” 

Repairs will cost more than a million dollars, including redoing roofs, windows and common areas, building out units that have been demolished and rehabbing interiors, Landenberger said. “We’re making long-lasting improvements that any owner of the buildings would want,” he said.

Jazmin Mendoza, a hair stylist, whose husband is a construction worker, said she is focused on the next step of starting the new cooperative. “We need to stay firm in our dream to make that cooperative a reality,” Mendoza said. “It’s really a new era. It’s a new step for our organization because I don’t think we’ve ever experienced anything like this.” 

Tenants have spoken to groups about different cooperative models, including Nexus Community Partners in St. Paul and another based in Washington, D.C., Mendoza said. “We are looking for more groups that come support us,” she said. “If there are organizations that can help us— we need all the support we can get.  

The group is also looking for financial support from others who believe in the project, and have launched a fundraising campaign to help tenants during this period of transition, made more difficult due to COVID-19. 

“The priority right now is our safety and the safety of our families,” said Del Campo. 

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Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist. You can find her dance writing at the Star Tribune, and other writing at places like City Pages, Minnesota Monthly, the Southwest Journal, and...