February is Black History Month, a time to remember and celebrate the people and the history of the African diaspora, and we’re honoring staff member David Wilson as MTO’s Black History Month hero. The following short story is part of what makes David and his work so special.
“I don’t know what I am going to do but the property manager is over here threatening to change the locks and lock Mr. Roberts in. There’s no heat, or water, and the lights have been turned out!”. It was 4:30PM on February 11. David called the office to relay what was happening inside Mr. Roberts apartment at 7907 S Laflin. “They’re threatening to arrest anyone who enters the building to help him. I am not going to let the property manager do this” he said. For years the previous owners had allowed the building to slowly deteriorate. The current owner just wanted to vacate the building and force the tenants to move, so they quit doing repairs, turned off the water and heat, and threatened the tenants with invalid eviction notices. But the tenants fought to preserve their home against the unjust eviction.
David and Victoria Ogunsanya, an attorney from the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing, were at the building because the tenants had just negotiated a cash settlement to move-out. Mr. Roberts, a 70-year old black man who uses a wheelchair, was the last remaining tenant. For many like Mr. Roberts, this building was home. One tenant had lived there for 28 years. Mr. Roberts had lived in the building for more than 10 years. He lived on the second floor, which was not the best situation because he always needed assistance to go out. Even though the conditions were horrendous by the end, Mr. Roberts was more terrified of ending up in a shelter. This place was his home; he could afford the rent. And now his property manager was threatening to put him on the street. David didn’t budge. He let the manager know that there was no way Mr. Roberts was going to be left alone in the cold, dark building. With the joint effort of MTO and other tenants, we were able to find him a place to go. In the end, with the help of six strong people, Mr. Roberts was moved to a new temporary home.
When asked about the incident, David said, “It’s really horrible how heartless and uncaring the manager and the owners were. I kept thinking ‘is this how you would want your mom or dad treated?’” Unfortunately, there are too many landlords like this. “Its why tenants need to organize and why Chicago needs better laws”, he said.
David has been with MTO for over 19 years as a tenant leader, Board member and now as a community organizer. Every day David brings his fearless determination and compassion to his job. And Chicago’s low-income renters are better off for it.
Lead poisoning has been in the headlines ever since the Flint water crisis brought national attention to the problem. Chicago is grappling with its own lead poisoning crisis, which is hitting our youngest residents the hardest. Imagine if you found out your child had lead poisoning. No parent wants to receive that type of news. Now imagine that your two youngest children – twins – have elevated lead blood levels.
This is how we first met Ms. “W”. After a local health clinic discovered her children’s elevated lead blood levels, Ms W contacted MTO, and a Healthy Homes organizer conducted a visual inspection at her home. The deteriorating plaster walls had started to disintegrate. Half of the window frames had chipped, peeled, and cracked paint. A subsequent inspection by the Chicago Department of Public Health confirmed the assessment – there were high levels of lead in the entire unit.
Over the course of the next few weeks, MTO’s Healthy Homes Organizer provided a letter of support, collected visual documentation of the unit conditions, and shared resources for emergency housing assistance. While Ms. W. explored her options she received more devastating news, her three other children – all under the age of six – had also been poisoned. Now, her landlord was trying to evict Ms W and her family. When an unlicensed worker attempted to remediate the lead without proper safety protocols in place, MTO was able to get a city inspector to stop the illegal abatement, which was further harming her children. Ms W was partnered with a pro-bono lawyer to fight the eviction. While Ms. W. awaits to hear about a new apartment to move to she has expressed immense gratefulness for MTO’s assistance in her advocacy for safe and healthy housing.
But Ms. W wouldn’t have to experience any of this if Chicago had a proactive rental inspection program. The Chicago Healthy Homes Inspection Program (CHHIP) is a campaign lead by MTO to create just that. Hazards like lead, mold, pest infestations, and other asthma triggers can and should be caught before they become a crisis. The current building inspection system is a complaint-based service provided by city inspectors. This means that tenants hold the burden of requesting proper maintenance, property owners can neglect buildings without regular code enforcement, and families are forced to relocate or live with egregious conditions affecting their health. In today’s economy, moving is not always a viable option. We believe that the City should initiate a proactive inspection program that could identify home-based health hazards before they poison our children.
Chicago’s lead poisoning crisis is silently harming our youngest and most vulnerable residents. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) says, “no levels of lead is safe for anyone”. The CDC wants to eliminate lead poisoning in children by the year 2020. If Chicago wants to get serious about achieving this goal, we need to address the substandard housing that exists in our city and make lead prevention and remediation a priority. Our children’s lives are at stake.
MTO is excited to announce our continued partnership with the Chicago Community Trust through a 2nd year of being awarded CCT’s Housing + Health grant. Because of our supporters we are able to assist more Chicago renters and children with housing-health issues and organize for equitable solutions and policies that promote safe, healthy, and decent affordable housing for all. After all HOUSING is a HUMAN RIGHT!
If you or someone you know is in need of information about their rights as a renter or in need of assistance from our Healthy Homes Team contact MTO’s Tenants’ Rights Hotline, M-F; 1pm-5pm at 773-292-4988 or visit our offices M-Th 1pm-4:30pm.
When Natasha Johnson moved into her new apartment in May 2017, she was excited to finally have a place that was in her budget and close to her job. However, within a couple of months of moving in, Natasha noticed mice in her dream apartment. “The manager said they would bring out an exterminator,” Natasha explained. After months of no action, Natasha took matters into her own hands and purchased some poison and traps.
The traps and poison did their job, but the safety concerns started to worry Natasha, “When I bring my grandson over, I have to put the poison in a place where he can’t get to it.” Furthermore, bed bugs and a cold draft from a gap in the door became problems as summer turned to fall. That’s when, Natasha decided to call MTO’s Tenants Rights Hotline. Hotline staff provided her with assistance and sample letters for Bed Bugs and repair requests.
Natasha asked her building manager to hire an exterminator and fix the gap in the door. Months went by. “I didn’t sign up for this,” Natasha expressed. Still paying her full rent and fed up with the service, Natasha called the City of Chicago’s 311 assistance line to request the City inspect her unit. The apartment was not up to code. The City fined Natasha’s landlord.
“When they got fined, that’s when they got really mad,” said Natasha. In December 2017, building management claimed they had not received Natasha’s rent, though she had the money order receipt to prove it, plus had been recorded on video dropping the payment at the collection box. They served Natasha a Five-Day Eviction Notice, which Natasha then paid by the deadline. Management again claimed they had not received payment, and filed an eviction.
Luckily, Natasha stayed in touch with MTO throughout the process, and they had advised her to document her conversations with building management and keep all her payment receipts. Then MTO connected Natasha with Attorney Joan Fenstermaker who represented Natasha in eviction court. Ms. Fenstermaker proved the management’s actions were retaliation, and Natasha was able to stay in her apartment.
Recently, Natasha’s landlord fired the responsible employees responsible. And, Natasha has been spreading the word about her success with the Tenants Rights Hotline. Her advice to others in a similar situation is, “Don’t leave, fight for it. If you pay your rent and don’t do anything wrong, there shouldn’t be a problem. I did every step they [Hotline staff] told me, and it worked out in my favor. You got to fight for your rights. I did and ended up winning.”