Water streamed down Quintiny Flakes’s bedroom wall and gushed from under her third-floor apartment door at the historic Bell Lofts in north Minneapolis. Panicked, Flakes and her 9-year-old son barricaded the bottom of the door with towels, bedcovers, and clothes in an attempt to stem the flow of water.
But the nightmare didn’t end after the fire department arrived that night—December 28—and stopped the flooding. The building’s tenants, about 50 people, were forced to move out after the city of Minneapolis condemned the building on January 3. Most are staying in hotels while others crash with family. Many say they don’t know where they’ll live long-term.
Several tenants told Sahan Journal the building’s landlord and developer, Chris Webley, has stopped responding to messages, leaving them in the dark about whether they can ever return to their apartments.
Tenants said a pipe in the building at 816 21st Avenue N. burst, flooding the entire building. The city of Minneapolis Regulatory Services department confirmed that a ruptured water standpipe caused the flooding.
According to Regulatory Services’ dashboard of vacant and condemned properties, the Bell Lofts building was condemned due to “lack of maintenance.” Minnesota law requires that landlords return renters’ security deposits within five days of a building’s condemnation, but Bell Lofts tenants say they haven’t received their money back.
The city’s finding of a lack of maintenance at Bell Lofts dovetails with complaints by some tenants. In a letter to Webley, the city of Minneapolis, and the American Red Cross on January 6, tenants asked for more financial assistance, transparency, and improved response to emergencies.
“The tenants, who are overwhelmingly of marginalized identities, frantically escaped the building as they witnessed sections of the ceiling in the hallways collapse under the volume and pressure of the water,” the letter reads. “With an inoperable elevator, disabled adults, children, seniors, and single parents, the only available escape route out of the building was down a stairwell rushing with water. This marked the commencement of an excruciating struggle for 20 displaced families (over 40 people) to receive timely and dignifying relief and support.”
The letter included demands that Webley fully compensate tenants for relocation costs and damaged property, return all rent that tenants paid in 2022, and publicly apologize.
Webley did not return messages Sahan Journal left on two phone numbers listed for him on a document from the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office and a Facebook post he publicly shared asking for help with flood relief.
Webley also did not return a message sent to an email address listed on his real estate company’s website, New Rules, and a message sent to a Facebook account with his name and picture that posted the public plea for help.
The company’s website says that New Rules focuses on communities of color in north Minneapolis, investing in real estate and creating a hub for business owners and artists. News outlets such as Forbes, the Star Tribune, and Mpls.St.Paul Magazine have highlighted his company.
The tenants’ letter also demands that the city of Minneapolis pay for up to three months of relocation costs because Webley has failed to do so, investigate Webley, and revoke Webley’s property development licenses. The city’s spokesperson declined to comment on the tenants’ letter.
“As the City’s destruction of encampments has repeatedly displaced our unhoused neighbors, the devastating situation with Bell Lofts tenants glaringly exemplifies the ineptitude and cavalier attitude of the City of Minneapolis towards their own constituents,” the tenants’ letter says. “Should any of these tenants be left with no other option than to sleep outside, the City would respond by destroying their property and perpetuating their displacement.”
Bearing the aftermath
Flakes said her son had a panic attack because he was worried about losing his home and new Christmas toys. Flakes, in her forties, is a single mother of two, and her sons are currently staying with their dad.
Flakes works two jobs to make ends meet; most of her income goes toward rent.
“I feel like I’m lost. I feel like I’m lost in the rules of how this world works,” she said.
Several families in the building lost all their personal belongings due to water damage.
Some tenants said they called the American Red Cross and were told that the organization could not help them because the problem was outside its scope.
An American Red Cross spokesperson addressed those claims in an email to Sahan Journal. “The American Red Cross responded and confirmed virtually that residents had a safe place to stay. As incidents like this are typically outside the scope of direct Red Cross disaster relief services, the landlord and local foundations have been providing shelter for residents,” a American Red Cross spokesperson said.
The spokesperson added that the organization also provided a resource guide to tenants. But some tenants say the Red Cross should do more. The tenant letter asks the humanitarian organization to reevaluate its “exclusionary practice” of withholding assistance from tenants’ partners who aren’t the biological parents of a tenant’s children, to expand aid to tenants who are displaced from flooding and not just those displaced by fire, and to provide clarity about its “triaging practices.”
Shortly after the flooding, Sandra Allen, 54, said she called the Red Cross and didn’t receive help.
“Yesterday, I actually broke down and started crying because I was worried I’m gonna lose all my furniture,” said John Allen, 63, husband to Sandra. They lived together in a third-floor apartment at Bell Lofts for a couple of months.
Tenants said Webley initially helped cover Uber rides and hotel stays for some of the tenants. However, they said they were notified by hotel staff a week after the flood that he had stopped paying for hotel stays.
The Minneapolis Foundation will pay for tenants’ hotel rooms between January 4 and 18, according to a foundation spokesperson.
“The Minneapolis Foundation was one of several philanthropic and community organizations that the landlord reached out to in the immediate aftermath of the water damage,” an email statement from the Minneapolis Foundation says.
Last fall, Webley’s real estate development company was awarded a $720,000 Main Street grant from the Minneapolis Foundation to renovate the Bell Lofts’ 25 apartments. But the funds are on hold.
“While Main Street funding has been committed to the Bell Lofts renovation, it will not be disbursed until the project has secured all necessary financing from various sources and construction begins,” the Minneapolis Foundation said in an email statement. “In light of the building’s condemnation, we will need to assess next steps and reevaluate the project’s viability.”
The tenants’ letter demands that Webley meet with them and provide a “full breakdown” of all donations he received and how they were spent.
“I just want to know what Chris is planning to do. At this point, he’s not responded to anyone,” said tenant Sai Yang, a 37-year-old mother of five staying at a hotel. “It’s as if he’s blocked all of us out. I just want to know, what is he going to do? How is he going to make this whole situation better? Those are like my biggest concerns right now. I just want answers.”
On maternity leave, stuck in a hotel
Yang’s family lived at the Bell Lofts over the past three years. Yang, who is on maternity leave, takes care of her newborn and other children, all under the age of 14, in their hotel room, while her husband searches for a new home.
Her family lost everything to the water damage, including diapers, baby formula, clothes, food, and beds. She said she has to work with the school to arrange for two of her children to attend, because the hotel is outside bus service routes, and they haven’t been able to attend school since their apartment flooded.
Yang said she filed several maintenance requests between 2020 to 2021 about water leaking intermittently through the ceiling into her first floor apartment. But in late 2021, building maintenance fixed the leak.
Ikedra West, 37, a mother of two, said she moved into her apartment at the Bell Lofts in November and didn’t sign a lease until mid-December. When she moved in, she said there was no heat in the apartment. After maintenance workers entered her unit to fix the heat, the pipes started making noises.
Within that first week of moving in, West said, “something was fishy. But I still had to provide a place for me and my kids.”
She adds that the flooding caused her to miss work and lose wages for several days.
Dyonyca Conley-Rush, founder of the nonprofit organization It Takes a Village, has visited tenants at hotels every night since the flooding. She leads the effort to help tenants, driving them to doctor’s appointments, bringing them food, and collecting donations. Often, she uses her own money to cover their expenses.
“This was my calling to do this. So for me, it’s not about money. It’s not about politics. It’s about doing what we’re supposed to be doing,” said Conley-Rush. “We’re supposed to love one another. And that’s what I’m doing—loving on these people, making them know that they are worthy of somebody hearing their story.”
How you can help tenants:
- Donations can be dropped off between 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Sonder Point Apartments, 5803 Xerxes Avenue N., Minneapolis, Minnesota. Items needed include clothing for babies, children, and adults. Toys, food, diapers, shampoo and conditioner, body wash, menstrual products, shoes, cold medicine, and other goods are also accepted.
- Call Dyonyca Conley-Rush, founder of It Takes A Village, at 414-519-1090 to ask questions or offer other help.
- Volunteer to help tenants move by filling out this form.