Wednesday, August 1, 2007
MINNEAPOLIS – Merchants of the largest African immigrant mall in the Twin Cities are involved in a dispute with their landlord, who they accused of threatening and harassing them.
The conflict at Karmel Plaza began towards the end of June, when Basim Sabri, the mall’s owner notified his tenants that he planned to introduce a pay-to-park scheme, charging customers between $2 and $10. Sabri said the fees were aimed at easing congestion at the mall. Merchants of the mall, most of them Somali immigrants, responded by rioting and refused to make rent payments.
The mall, which is usually busy during the weekend, was a no-go zone during the last week of June as tenants decided to barricade the entrance to prevent vehicles from entering the premises. Several traders also opted to close down their shops in protest. Some of the merchants told Mshale that the troubles with their landlord were not new.
"The problem in Karmel didn’t start yesterday,” said Mohamed Osman, who owns a shop at the mall. “It’s perennial and has been brewing for years. Hardly does one year end before a fresh one erupts.”
Mohamed said before the parking matter, there was one about power outages.
In a letter addressed to Sabri, Karmel Plaza Business Association members rejected the introduction of parking fees imposed on customers entering the establishment. They termed such a move a breach of contract and an effort to scare their clients away.
The tenants’ association called for an unconditional two-hour free parking for customers and the reservation of the underground parking lot for the tenants. They also demanded a two-year minimum rental contracts with the management and the end of what they said was “harassment and threatening behavior of tenants by the landlord.”
Another businessman, a cafeteria owner who did not give his name, said he had to seek the help of a lawyer to put an end to what he called “continuous harassment” from the landlord. He said that Sabri threatened to evict him every time they had a disagreement.
“Its only after he realized that I meant business (by hiring a lawyer) that he stopped coming to my premises to threaten me,” the cafeteria owner said.
Sabri denied having threatened his tenants and said he had built a good reputation spanning more than two decades. He said that during his 27 years as a landlord, he had evicted only three tenants.
“You have to push me hard to evict you,” Sabri said. “There is no single landlord in this state who can tolerate what I go through.”
Sabri, who also owns several shopping malls leased by Somali and Latino immigrants in Minneapolis, said the parking solution required an investment of approximately $100,000, an amount that he said could not be raised overnight. He said that despite constructing a new lot with 100 parking spaces in the adjacent building, one block from the mall, the tenants refused to park there. Efforts to find a lasting solution to the problem had failed, he said.
Without giving names, Sabri accused a group of his tenants of inciting other merchants by spreading lies about him. But two tenants displayed eviction letters giving them a 30-day to move out of Sabri’s property. They said they went to the tenants’ association, which quickly demanded an unconditional revocation of the order. The association accused the landlord of victimizing some of its members for their outspokenness.
After accusations and counter accusations, the warring parties met at Sabri’s office in an attempt to resolve their differences. Tenants reported that a heated debate took place, with each group accusing the other of causing the problem. In the end, they temporarily agreed to try for two months a system that offers customers free parking for the first hour, to test its viability.
Sabri also agreed to give the tenants the two-year contracts they asked for. But he was quick to point out that only those with a history of paying rent on time would benefit from the deal.
Osman expressed doubt that the agreement was going to end the quarrels between Sabri and his tenants.
“It’s hard to tell if this agreements is gonna hold, but who cares,” Osman said. “We’ll wait and see.”