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Keeping up with the Frens
and their unsustainable, sketchy rental empire
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When the news first broke that the apartment building at 267 Mill Street had collapsed a couple weeks ago, I didn’t see much to read into. I remember thinking it was a rather bizarre physical illustration of our aging housing stock and I was thankful that no one was hurt. No further inquiry on my end. I’m no structural engineer, after all, so not a whole lot to add to the conversation. But when Councilor Etel Haxhiaj last week excoriated the landlord on the City Council floor I was like, damn. It’s wild to hear a city councilor talk about bad landlords, let alone pulverize them. Judging by the way the video flew around Twitter, a lot of people felt the same.
Still though, I didn’t quite know how I could be useful here.
Then over the weekend I learned that the landlord spent Saturday morning handing out freakin civil lawsuits to each of the tenants and I cocked the pistol in my head. *chck chck*
Since, I resolved to spend the week sitting in housing court, talking to tenants, reading legal documents, poking around property record databases and making spreadsheets (with big big help from Yenni Desroches who is smarter than me and knows how to make spreadsheets). While I’m no expert on structural engineering, real estate law, mortgages, insurance, or anything else related to owning and maintaining property, I am an expert in having a shitty landlord. I’ve got a decade plus experience in the ‘having a bad landlord’ field. I know all too well how demoralizing it is to fork your money over to someone who doesn’t give a shit about you or your living quarters—how frustrating it is to see your money disappear as your building falls into a further state of disrepair—how absolutely maddening it is to try to coax even basic maintenance out of the person who is legally obligated to provide it.
I think after I take you on this stroll down a particularly rough stretch of Bad Landlord Lane, you’ll agree with me that the landlords at 267 Mill Street are not just shitty landlords, they’re ‘how is this legal?’ landlords. ‘How do you sleep at night?’ landlords. Their names are Bechara and Michelle Fren, they live in Franklin, and they own at least 30 rental properties in the Worcester area, as well as dozens more around the state and region.
The extent of their real estate empire is hard to ascertain. It’s not an operation with a public face. There’s a “Fren Management Apartment Rentals” Facebook page last updated in December. As far as I can see there’s no website. They don’t appear to advertise themselves the way other large rental corporations do. But search Bechara and Michelle Fren’s names in the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s corporation database and you’ll get dozens of hits. They’re listed as officers, often the only officers, for dozens of corporations with similar naming conventions, like 267 Mill St. LLC, 135 Main St. LLC, 227 West Street LLC, etc. etc. Then search those corporations in the property databases maintained by the various registries of deeds around the state—a painstaking process, as there’s no central state database or even central databases for most counties—and a picture of the Frens’ rental property empire begins to emerge.
It’s been a massive group effort and we’re not close to done, but we have the Frens’ Worcester area holdings down solid enough that I can report on it. They’ve also got properties in the Fitchburg area, the Fall River area, and possibly in Connecticut. We’re up to roughly 50 confirmed properties, but the majority are in Worcester and the surrounding towns. Almost all of them are residential rental properties and most are similar in size and layout to the 267 Mill St. building that collapsed earlier this month. The scope is dizzying. Here’s a little glimpse of the spreadsheet me and Desroches have been putting together
I couldn’t imagine managing one property, let alone 50. It would stand to reason that someone holding dozens of properties and agreements with hundreds of tenants would have some semblance of a staff. But it doesn’t appear they do. Michelle Fren is the property manager and point of contact for tenants at 267 Mill Street, for instance, and I was able to confirm she’s also the point of contact at a similarly large apartment complex in Leominster. So already, with just two of the 50 properties, we’re looking at one person responsible for upholding their end of the bargain with roughly 200 tenants, and it may well be thousands. Someone could enter the dynamic with the best intentions and find it a sisyphean task.
In the abstract, leaving aside the specifics of the Mill Street collapse or the ensuing court drama, the Frens’ model for an apartment rental business is one in which it doesn’t seem functionally possible to provide renters with the services and standards of living to which they’re obligated. Like I said before, a ‘How Is This Legal?’ Landlord.
But now let’s zoom in on Mill Street and the Frens as ‘How Do You Sleep At Night?’ Landlords.
The roof collapsed on July 15, and while I don’t think we need to rehash all the facts, it’s worth focusing on how it collapsed, as it’s an under-covered element of the story in my opinion and germane to the current analysis of the Frens as landlords. The Frens bought the building on June 2 and sometime between then and July 15 they ordered work for a new roof because the old one had leaks. They contracted several companies to perform the roof installation, and to the best of my knowledge we still don’t know who these companies were. Workers “apparently” placed “too much roofing material on one portion of the roof causing a partial collapse that pancaked the floors below.” This is all according to a statement of facts written by the Frens’ lawyer and attached to the lawsuit they filed against the tenants. Correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t believe that has been reported yet and it was pretty well buried in the document. In court Monday, the Frens’ lawyer, Walter Jacobs, further explained that this portion of over-encumbered roof rocketed through the living room of units 405, 305, 205 and 105, straight to the basement, leaving one big mess of building material, furniture and whatever other personal belongings. Here’s the hole from the News Chopper Angle.
It’s one thing for a building to collapse due to some confluence of design flaw and natural deterioration. It’s another thing entirely for the building collapse to be the direct result of work done to the building, as the Frens’ lawyer rather stunningly admitted. It raises a number of questions, and luckily I have a friend who knows what he’s talking about, having worked in and owned the family roofing business for many years. I texted him the line about the roofers and asked what sort of circumstances could have led to the collapse. He said it’s possible the landlord opted for the cheaper route of putting a new roof down on top of the old roof. “Having more than two layers of shingles adds a lot of weight and is not a good idea,” he said, “but that’s all dependent on the condition of the framing and joists.” But roofers should be looking for structural problems before they put anything down down, he said.
“Yeah man any licensed roofer isn’t just going to throw hundreds of pounds of new shingles on top of old ones without making sure it can structurally handle it first,” he said. “Someone was probably just trying to save money.”
Maybe someone who also tries to save money by personally managing dozens of properties, perhaps?
Another roofer friend said they probably just threw too many pallets of material on the roof without first checking whether the roof could handle the weight. There are several pallets in the above picture, after all.
“So it was probably done on the cheap,” he said. “They didn’t remove the ballast and left a pallet up there and it fell through.”
This is all speculation obviously. Who knows what happened. But it’s useful speculation. Roofs don’t collapse very often and I’d wager even less collapse as a result of roof maintenance. This was a pretty freak occurrence. And here we have two roofers saying any decent roofer would have easily avoided it.
Was this roof collapse the direct result of irresponsible and reckless cost cutting? Entirely possible. Probable, even. At the very least, it’s a question the Frens should be made to answer and preferably by court order.
For what it’s worth, there were two companies involved in some way in the roof collapse. According to city records, a company called RescueREO took out the building permit for the work. Per their website they specialize in contract work in the service of flipping foreclosure properties.
And OSHA has opened a case related to the incident on a company named The Better Construction, INC.
Not a whole lot to read into with these two businesses except that it’s telling the Frens chose to work with a company that specializes in flipping foreclosure properties.
While I was reading through the lawsuit on Wednesday afternoon outside the housing court, I was approached by a woman named Sue Giacomozzi. She lives in the Hilltop Gardens housing development in Leominster, which the Frens bought in 2019. She’d been living there for 20 years and told me she’s been so frustrated with the Frens management she decided to drive down to the Worcester Courthouse to help the Mill Street tenants in any way she could.
Prior to the Frens, the complex had an office with a staff of three and several maintenance workers. When the Frens took over, they cut the office staff entirely and reduced the maintenance staff to one, she said. Meanwhile, Giacomozzi’s rent increased several times from $1,000 a month to $1,375.
“It seems all she does is raise the rent,” Giacomozzi said. “Everybody where I live is so unhappy with her.”
There have been incidents of water leaks and mold, she told me, and the common areas are consistently unkempt. One staircase is ready to collapse. The pool is no longer cleaned and has turned to a bright green color, which she said prompted the Leominster Board of Health to investigate. Visibly upset, she continued to list problem after problem and ended by handing me a review of the Frens a tenant of a Southbridge property had written on Bizopedia. “Simply could not be any worse,” the review began. “Period.” The reviewer, listed as Michael K, said Michelle Fren treats the residents horribly. “She is aloof, uncaring and very unprofessional,” he said, adding later that she’s “rude… condescending… completely and utterly detached from caring about the residents in any way, shape or form.”
As I walked around the throngs of Mill Street tenants gathered outside the courtroom before the hearings this week, it was like a sound tapestry of negative reviews like Michael K’s. The tenants were angry and confused. Despite claims made by the landlord in court, several residents told me they were pressured to go into the building and get their stuff out. Leonela Jimenez, a first floor resident, told me they were “pushing and pushing and pushing” to get her to pack up and leave. “I don’t have a plan even of where I can live with my kids,” she said. Another resident, Priscilla Kihara, told me she asked for money for items that were damaged and was told “if you don’t have insurance, I’m sorry.”
“It doesn’t matter if I have insurance or not,” she said. “If you mess up my things you have to pay me.”
In a sane world, of course, she would be correct; however, I’m sorry to report we do not live in a sane world and the Frens have paid almost nothing to anyone, leaving local aid organizations to pick up the slack and proselytizing themselves in the press as a poor little mom & pop operation.
None of the tenants had any idea why they were there or what they should expect or what the Frens were even trying to achieve by taking them all to housing court.
This confusion was shared by Housing Court Judge Diana Horan. On Monday, she brusquely called the hearing to an end, delaying it to Wednesday, but not before tearing the Frens a proverbial new one. “You haven’t lined up your ducks,” she told them, which is just a delightful thing for a judge to say I think. But before we get further into the courtroom drama, I’m going to do my best to explain the lawsuit itself without being too punishing about it.
Filed against the occupants of each unit individually, the suit is a “request for a preliminary injunction” which is basically a legal permission slip to do something you think might be illegal. And this thing they wanted to do was give every resident 10 days to get their stuff out of the building otherwise movers hired by the company were going to come take it and bring it uhhh somewhere. You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here! Time is of the essence, according to the lawsuit, because there was a rainstorm and a lot of water went through the big hole in the roof. “Given the weather, mold will grow within a few days.” So in order to protect the building from mold damage, they need to go in and open up the walls, and you can’t do that with people’s stuff in there. Since the properties are under rent, they need tenant permission or a court order to enter, and then of course there’s the fact the city condemned the building. That’s making things difficult.
So the first hearing on Monday opens with an obviously annoyed Judge Horan essentially saying please explain yourself because this is ridiculous. Jacobs, the Frens attorney, runs through the spiel, and Horan’s first question is a rather obvious one: Where’s the city? Have you talked to the city? Do you have an engineering report on the stability of the building? Jacobs says no and no ma’am, to which Horan replies “I don’t know how we move off Point A without a representative of the city or a structural engineer.” She said you’re asking the court to issue an order without enough information and the court is simply not going to do that.
Jacobs said the city was “advised” of the hearing but Horan quite condescendingly asks whether they subpoena’d the city and Jacobs says no again and Horan says well then they have no obligation to be here. She continued the hearing until Wednesday afternoon and says that this hearing “absolutely should not have happened.”
Put yourself in the tenants’ shoes for a second and think about what sort of arrangements you would have to make or work you’d have to miss to get down to the courthouse because your landlord sued you for reasons you don’t quite understand only to have the judge tell your landlord that they showed up unprepared and wasted everyone’s time. Talk about adding insult to injury. Your whole life is upside down and uncertain and stressful and now you’ve just had your afternoon wasted by the bumbling incompetence of your landlord—which, keeping in mind the questions regarding the room—is very likely the same incompetence that got you here.
I should say now that when the Frens took over the building in June, one of the first orders of business was raising rents. According to notes compiled by legal advocates and outreach workers, the increases were inconsistent but significant, ranging from $150 to $500 a month. The Frens announced the increases in a June 26 email that stated if they did not sign the new lease, they would have to leave by Aug. 1. With the new lease, the Frens required a new last month and security deposit payment.
On to the Wednesday hearing and the Frens had a few ducks in a row, but not all the ducks, it turned out. Still quite a few unrowed ducks. Representatives from the relevant city departments were in the room this time, and Jacobs reported to the judge that they got the city’s permission to bring tenants into the building on a schedule and someone from the city confirmed it.
Jacobs said the Frens were prepared to pay for moving and storage of anything the tenants couldn’t take. But just one month of storage. Then after that it’s on the tenants. It should be stated that this is the first time the Frens have offered to pay for anything at all. Everything else up until that point including hotel rooms has been covered by local non-profits like the United Way. In a small win for the tenants, Horan ruled that the Frens would have to offer storage until they have a court order saying otherwise. So now instead of simply paying for a month of storage, they’ll have to continue to pay until they come up with a justification as to why they shouldn’t and a judge has to agree.
One duck the Frens did not have in a row was where the tenants’ belongings would be stored. After a faint attempt at dodging the question Jacobs said the plan was to store the stuff in Brockton, at the warehouse of the moving company they had contracted and the admission was met with a loud round of groans. Horan ruled that the storage facility would have to be within a 25 mile radius of the city and the court took a recess so the Frens could call some storage companies. They came back from recess and announced that they found a place “a little over” 25 miles in North Chelmsford, and Horan said 38 miles away is not “a little over” 25 miles.
Eventually the hearing was continued to this coming Thursday, and a clerk announced that they cleared the entire day to make sure every tenant had an agreeable arrangement for moving their stuff out of the building.
Over the course of the hearing Wednesday, there were several moments which illustrated the ‘How Do You Sleep At Night’ Landlord nature of the Frens.
At one point, Jacobs tried to steer the conversation away from the court’s concern for the tenants. Keep in mind, he said, potential damage to the building is the most important concern here.
Judge Horan snapped at him.
“You keep saying that,” she said, “but you have no answers for the most important questions.”
It’s extremely telling that the Frens and their lawyer would argue that further damage to the building is the most pressing concern in this situation. Of course the tenants would be a secondary concern to a business designed to acquire as much real estate as possible while investing as little as possible into providing adequate housing for the tenants in those buildings. Nevermind that more than 100 people are scrambling to find new apartments—that’s their problem. How are we going to make any money on this building if we have to deal with a mold problem? That’s the real issue here.
At a different point, one of the tenants accused the Frens of flat out lying in court, and her case was pretty convincing I have to say. Gloria Jeremiah Oppong, a tenant on the second floor, said that the landlord and movers had already been in her apartment, had moved things around, and some of her things had already been packed.
“(This hearing) should have happened before they went in touching stuff in the first place,” she said.
Horan asked for a response and Jacobs said the landlord has not been in the apartments and that maybe it was other tenants or first responders who had gone in and touched her stuff.
“The movers were still on site,” Oppong said. “Why are we here in the first place?”
After the hearing I went over to talk to Oppong and she was adamant in her position.
“Please do include that what the landlord is asking to do she was already doing,” she told me.
So were the Frens trying to get retroactive permission for something they were already doing? Another good question!
Throughout this whole thing, I couldn’t help but think there was a different path to take here, one that didn’t involve the housing court but rather relied on communication and a good faith effort to help people. The Frens could have worked with the city and the tenants to get everything out of the building without dragging every tenant to court. That they chose instead to file suit against every tenant and drag them through a court proceeding demonstrates a deep lack of regard for the tenants and their unfortunate situation. And now the tenants have to go back to housing court again, a third time, this coming Thursday—another day of missed work, arrangements for childcare and whatever other inconvenience, and another day of interacting with the court system that is not designed to help them.
The tenants of this building are mostly people of color and a considerable portion are not native English speakers. Only a small handful have been able to find legal representation and it’s not a given that the majority ever will. Judge Horan at the close of the Wednesday hearing pleaded that they find representation but that is not a cheap or easy thing to do. Community Legal Aid was at the hearing helping tenants, but they don’t have the bandwidth to represent all of them and as far as I know there haven’t been any pro-bono offers on the table. The Frens got the courts involved in this knowing they could comfortably afford legal representation, and put the tenants in the position of having to find their own when that may not be a financial possibility for many of them. In this way among all the other ways there is a cruelty on display here that warrants all the public shame it hopefully garners.
In an email sent to tenants after the hearing, Michelle Fren kept the cruelty going.
“We are not thrilled with the fact the court doesn’t seem to understand that every day that items stay in the building irreparable damage could be happening,” she wrote to them, asking that they email over times they want to come get their things. “Thank you for your help with this.”
Not only is this in direct conflict with the process established in court, it shows that the Frens are still trying to get the tenants to do what they want without helping in any way. At the hearing scheduled for Thursday, the court plans to sit down with the Frens and each tenant to square away issues like whether they’ll need movers or storage. Pressuring the tenants to move out before this hearing is a clear attempt to get out of having to help.
In this post, I’ve mostly chosen to ignore City Hall and its role in this situation. The failings of the landlord should be the focus here. But I did find it quite telling that the city was relatively mum on the collapse until a public statement this Friday, two weeks to the day after the event. The release largely rehashes statements made by city officials in court about the condition of the building, then pays some lip service to the city “actively working” with the non-profits and other agencies assisting the tenants. It ends with the following statement from Acting (?)City Manager Eric Batista:
“Nothing can prepare one for the unexpected and immeasurable loss of being left unhoused and without their personal and important belongings,” said Eric D. Batista, Acting City Manager. “The City of Worcester offers its support, care and concern for all of the residents of the Pond View Apartment Homes that were impacted by the building’s partial roof collapse on July 15. I am incredibly grateful for the collaboration with and assistance from our partner agencies who were on the ground with us on day one and continue to offer compassionate care and resources for these residents.”
You’ll notice in this statement there’s not a remark on the landlord or the responsibilities of the landlord. There’s not a remark anywhere in the two-page statement, in fact. The closest the statement gets is the second paragraph, in which City Hall distances itself from having any role in the investigation of the collapse.
“An investigation into the incident and cause of the collapse will be conducted by the insurance companies and experts in engineering. The City of Worcester does not employ a structural engineer and as such cannot make a determination as to the cause,” the statement reads.
That’s City Hall speak for “not my chair, not my problem.” There isn’t even a value statement. There’s no “we look forward to reviewing the results of the investigation.” There’s nothing that even whiffs of an admonishment or even suggests promise of a future admonishment. There’s nothing that says “this is something that shouldn’t happen and we want to ensure things like this don’t happen to our residents in the future.”
The city is taking some steps to address the failings of our rental housing stock, by way of a recently proposed rental apartment registry and accompanying inspection infrastructure. That’s a good thing for a city to be throwing money at and I’m glad they’re doing it, though I remain skeptical they’re going to hire enough inspectors to actually do it.
Statements like the one the city released about the collapse inspire the same sort of skepticism. If you can’t bring yourself to publicly acknowledge the landlord’s role and responsibility in a building collapse like this, how can I trust you to administer a property inspection system that actually functions?
Rental properties are people’s homes first and foremost. Everyone deserves a good home that doesn’t collapse or catch fire. Landlords should be incentivized to provide safe and well-kept homes and disincentivized from maximizing gains by rolling the dice on the health and safety of their tenants. For the majority of our rental housing stock, there’s no incentive to provide good housing and a whole lot of incentive to neglect. While rental properties should be treated like homes that real people live in, they’re more often treated like stocks in a market. The investments necessary to make a building safe, secure and healthy for tenants cut into the market cap. People like the Frens and Huanchen Li/Wendy Wang over at the Gage Street apartment building which caught fire and killed four people last month are very obviously playing an investment game with their properties that incentivizes disregard for the safety of tenants. Harder to buy your next building when you have to put money into making your current buildings safe.
The Frens are extremely lucky no one got hurt or killed when a mass of roofing material ripped through the living rooms of four apartments as it hurtled straight to the basement. They could have just as easily found themselves in the position of the Gage Street landlords—complicit in the deaths of people who relied on them for safe housing.
As Neal McNamara over at the Patch very well laid out, the Gage Street landlords had been awash in code violations ahead of the fatal fire, yet they were allowed to continue to continue collecting rent in exchange for a space that proved fatally dangerous.
The Frens own a small empire of rental properties without the infrastructure of a property management company to oversee them. Fifty buildings! At least! That’s hundreds of units and likely thousands of tenants who all rely on them to provide safe and secure housing as a contractual obligation. It seems to me they’re in a position where it is completely untenable for them to meet that obligation, even if they wanted to. And I’m not convinced they want to either. Nor are a good number of their tenants, it would seem.
The city (and the state and the banks and the federal government) does not do enough to disincentivize people like the Frens and the Gage Street landlords from playing this wretched game. And as we’ve seen in both instances, it’s city residents—ones who can’t afford to live any other way—who pay the price. As one of those residents, and for all my readers who are among those residents, let me close by saying that the conditions these landlords operate in need to be changed so as to make it impossible for them to continue operating the way they do. That needs to be the stated goal of any new program or policy. And it needs to happen yesterday.
But in Massachusetts there are a lot of people who are squarely against making things better for tenants, and that includes the state Legislature it turns out
I want a Boston Tea Party 2.0 but instead of tea it’s the state Democratic Party.
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In other news the workers at the East Central Street Starbucks went on strike today!
Here’s a copy of the letter announcing the strike.
More on this as it develops. If you want to know more about this situation, I interviewed a few of the union organizers a couple months ago on my podcast, Worcester’s Good But Hurts. It was a really good conversation and the issues we talked about then are reflected in the above document.
While everything around us seems to be crumbling there is a shining little beacon of hope in the recent uptick of organized labor activity and as we saw with the nurses at St. Vincent we can actually rack up some wins in this arena where in others we simply cannot. So lets all do our best to support the East Central Street Starbucks workers in their strike!
Aaaand lastly I cannot wait for the Worcester version of this.