A Call to Action from MTO

End Discrimination Against Housing Choice Voucher Holders in Suburban Cook County

Dear Friends & Supporters:


This year, MTO, Access Living and Progress Center of Illinois and numerous supporters and endorsers are embarked on an effort to win passage of an amendment to the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance (CCHRO).   The Source of Income protection – co-sponsored by Commissioners Jesus Garcia, Larry Suffredin and Robert Steele, would end discrimination against Housing Choice Voucher holders.

The CCHRO currently allows landlords to deny Housing Choice Voucher holders the right to apply for an apartment.  Contrary to beliefs promoted by opponents of the amendment, a landlord would not be forced to rent to a voucher holder applicant.  The landlord can still screen a tenant based on reasonable criteria such as past rental histories, credit checks, etc.  Any successful landlord will tell you that the key to success is a good screening process based on facts.  Click here to read more.

The amendment has 6 supporters on the Cook County Board of Commissioners:

7th District Commissioner Jesus Garcia, 13th District Commissioner Larry Suffredin, 2nd District Commissioner Robert Steele, 3rd District Commissioner Jerry Butler, 5th District Commissioner Deborah Sims, and 10th District Commissioner Bridget Gainer.

-Call to Action-

Please CALL and/or EMAIL the following Commissioners to express your support for the amendment.

Commissioner Earlean Collins (1st District):  312-603-4566 or 773-626-2184 – earlean.collins@cookcountyil.gov

Commissioner Edwin Reyes (8th District):  312-603-6386 or 773-588-1129 – edwin.reyes@cookcountyil.gov

Commissioner Joan Murphy (6th District):  312-603-4216 or 708-389-2125 – joan.murphy@cookcountyil.gov

Commissioner John Fritchey (12th District):  312-603-6380 or 773-871-4000 – commish@fritchey.com 

Commissioner Peter Silvestri (9th District):  312-603-4393 or 773-774-8554 – cookcty9@aol.com

Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski (16th District):  312-603-6384 or 708-352-2301 – jeffrey.tobolski@cookcountyil.gov


Let us know how it went and find out more about how you can get involved in this campaign.  Contact Shirley at shirley@tenants-rights.org or 773-292-4980 ext 224.


Renters Protest Oak Park’s Largest Landlord

On Thursday, December 13, 2012, more than 40 tenants and advocates from across Cook County picketed Oak Park Apartments’ headquarters on Chicago Avenue to protest the company’s refusal to accept Housing Choice Vouchers.  While it may be legal in Cook County suburbs to refuse to rent to Housing Choice Voucher holders, it is not morally right.

According to one Housing Choice Voucher holder that lives in Oak Park, who wanted to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, “I have been denied occupancy in countless properties including Oak Park Apartments, just because I have a voucher.  This is just not fair.  I pay my rent yet I cannot live in certain buildings!”

Adam Ballard of Access Living and a voucher holder stated, “Many people with disabilities rely on vouchers for their housing.  We want Oak Park Apartments and Cook County to end this legalized discrimination.   All we are asking is to be treated like anyone else.”

Currently, the City of Chicago forbids landlords to discriminate against voucher holders.  There is no such prohibition in Cook County suburbs.  Cook County Commissioner Jesus Garcia, is trying to change that and has introduced legislation that would amend the County’s Human Rights Ordinance to make it illegal to discriminate against Housing Choice Voucher holders.

After the picket, tenants went to Cook County Commissioner Earlene Collins’ office.  The group wanted to know why Commissioner Collins had not signed on as a supporter of the amendment.  While the Commissioner was away at the time, the group was promised a meeting with the Commissioner.

According to Shirley Johnson, Organizing Director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, “Section 8, Housing Choice Voucher Holders are stereotyped and therefore often forced to live in high crime, low opportunity communities.  The recent presidential election proved that it is a “new America” where diversity rules. A rental policy that refuses to rent to voucher holders is blatant discrimination and should be outlawed, especially in today’s modern society.”

Oak Park Apartments claims to offer “the largest selection of well-maintained apartments perfect for those who want to experience Oak Park’s architectural character, its excellent school system and vibrant and diverse village feel.”  However, they intentionally exclude Housing Choice Voucher holders from these opportunities.

Access Living, Progress Center and the Metropolitan Tenants Organization organized the protest.  The groups promised to return.  According to Adam Ballard of Access Living, “The fight for our rights has just begun.”

Help Yourself to a Healthy Home

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development offers education on how to protect your children’s health with this booklet “Help Yourself to a Healthy Home.”   Learn about what hidden dangers may be in your home and how get rid of them.  Healthy Home topics include: indoor air quality, asthma & allergies, mold & moisture, carbon monoxide, lead, drinking water, hazardous household products, pesticides and home safety.

To learn more about Healthy Homes or to speak to an Organizer call us at 773-292-4980 ext 231

Help Yourself to a Healthy Home

Link:  http://www.hud.gov/offices/lead/library/hhi/HYHH_Booklet.pdf

Keep Chicago Renting Campaign

In 2011, MTO’s Tenants Rights Hotline received 709 calls from renters in the City of Chicago caught up in the foreclosure of their buildings.  Renters are the hidden victims of the foreclosure crisis.  According to a recent report by the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing over 50,000 renters have experienced problems such as: deteriorating building conditions, absentee landlords, unexpected eviction notices or any number of other potential outcomes of getting caught up in rental buildings being impacted by foreclosure from 2009-2011.  This staggering figure accounts for 9% of the city’s housing stock.

Tenants living in buildings going through foreclosure face a variety of issues.  Tenants call the hotline because landlords have gone missing and are no longer fixing things or paying the utilities or because the tenants are getting evicted by the bank.  As part of the response to the foreclosure crisis, MTO has joined Keep Chicago Renting Coalition (KCR).  The Keep Chicago Renting Ordinance (KCRO) would require banks in the case of foreclosure to keep renting to tenants in good standing under the same terms and conditions.

In July, MTO tenant leaders attended a press conference and rally in support of the ordinance’s introduction to City Council.  43 Aldermen signed on as supporters of the Ordinance.  We would like to thank all coalition partners and the 43 Alderman who signed on for their support.  MTO ask that you continue to support the KCR Coalition as we continue to work to get the ordinance passed!  Check out the coverage below and to get involved please contact Robert Clack at 773.292.4980 ext. 242 or at robert@tenants-rights.org


Chicago Magazine

WBEZ Chicago

Chicago Tribune

Chicago Now

Univision Chicago


The Keep Chicago Renting Coalition member organizations are: Action Now, Albany Park Neighborhood Council, Business and Professional People for Public Interest, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Metropolitan Tenants’ Organization, Northwest Side Housing Center, and Organization of the North East.






Photo:  MTO Tenant Leader Nancy Ewing at an action downtown July 18th 2012 supporting KCR

Get the Facts: Section 8 Protections Fact Sheets

Proposal to Amend the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance:
Preventing Source of Income Discrimination

The Problem:

• The Cook County Human Rights Ordinance (CCHRO) currently protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of a person’s source of income (i.e., child support, social security). The CCHRO however specifically exempts from protection persons with “Section 8” Housing Choice Vouchers. Presently housing providers can and do deny qualified households solely because they have a Housing Choice Voucher. Studies have shown that housing providers often refuse to rent to voucher holders as a pretext for other types of illegal discrimination such as race, familial status, and disability.

The Solution:

• The proposed ordinance amendment would include in the protection against source of income discrimination persons with Housing Choice Vouchers. The amendment would not force property owners to rent any or all of their units to any households using Housing Choice Vouchers. Property owners will still have the right to screen applicants.

• The City of Chicago and six other municipalities in Illinois, ten states, the District of Columbia, and ten counties around the country have laws that protect individuals from discrimination based upon the use of a Housing Choice Voucher.

• Voucher holders are some of the most scrutinized tenants and must meet the rigorous admission criteria of the voucher administrator as well as comply with lease provisions. Nearly 40% of voucher recipients are employed and more than 30% are seniors or persons with disabilities. There is absolutely no evidence that persons who use Housing Choice Vouchers to make their housing affordable perpetuate or increase crime in communities.

• Landlord participation in the voucher program is not unduly burdensome. Landlords only have to complete three simple forms. Payments made by the housing authority are made electronically. Units must pass a Housing Quality Standards inspection. Voucher recipients have to complete most of the paperwork.

• By supporting this amendment to the CCHRO, the last remaining type of source of income discrimination in Cook County can finally end.


SOI Talking Points Final

HACC Reply to Lincoln Property Company

Supporters of Source Income Protection for Section 8 Voucher Holders:

Access Living
Bethel New Life
Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation
Chicago Anti Eviction League
Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance
Chicago Coalition for the Homeless
Chicago Housing Authority
Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
Chicago Urban League
Claretian Associates
Citizen Action Illinois
Connections for the Homeless
Evanston NAACP
Ford Heights Community Service Organization
Healthcare Alternative Systems (HAS)
Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights
HOPE Fair Housing Center
Housing Action Illinois
Housing Authority of the County of Cook
Housing Choice Partners
Housing Opportunity Development Corporation
Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs
Independent Voters of Illinois/ Independent Precinct Organization
Jane Addams Senior Caucus
Jewish Council on Urban Affairs
Jobs with Justice
John Marshall Law School Fair Housing Legal Clinic
Kingdom Community
La Casa Norte
Lakeside Community Development Corporation
Latin United Community Housing Association (LUCHA)
Latino Policy Forum
Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing
League of Women Voters of Cook County
Logan Square Neighborhood Association
Metropolitan Family Services
Metropolitan Tenants Organization
National Fair Housing Alliance
New Directions for Change
Northwest Side Housing Center
Progress Center for Independent Living
Protestants for the Common Good
Respond Now
The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law
SEIU Local 73
South Suburban Housing Center
South Suburban PADS
Spanish Coalition for Housing
Supportive Housing Providers Association
Target Area Development Corporation
United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations
West Suburban PADS
Woodstock Institute

Celebrating the Tenants’ Bill of Rights…

More than twenty five years ago, few laws protected renters from disrepair, illegal eviction and retaliation.  That all changed thanks to a dedicated group of tenants who campaigned for five years and had passed the Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance (RLTO).  Mayor Harold Washington enacted the RLTO in 1986.  Also known as the “Tenants’ Bill of Rights” it set forth the rights and responsibilities of both landlords and tenants, which led to the founding of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization.  Everyday the RLTO protects renters’ basic human right to safe, decent and affordable housing throughout the City of Chicago.

In its honor, the Metropolitan Tenants Organization is celebrating 25 years of renters’ rights on June 19, 2012 at Revolution Brewing – 2323 N. Milwaukee from 6-8 p.m.  Join MTO and over 100 leaders from across the city for a night of food, drinks, live music and fun!!!  Special event hosts include Cook County Clerk David Orr and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.

Tickets are just $50.  You also have the option to showcase your organization with an ad space in the sponsorship booklet to tell others about your great work.  Please contact Kathy at 773-292-4980 ext 230 by June 15 to RSVP or visit us here to make your donation and enter “CRLTO” in the dedication or gift form field.

See you on the June 19th!

“Subsidized Money Pit” – Chicago Reporter investigates

By: Angela Caputo / January 02, 2012
From the January/February 2012 issue of the Chicago Reporter, Subsidized Housing
Subsidizing failure


Mary Smith was living on a quiet Woodlawn block in 1978 when she got the news that she landed an apartment in one of the neighborhood’s first federally subsidized buildings. At the time, the golden-brick courtyard building at 6134 S. Kimbark Ave. was a bright spot in the neighborhood, which was struggling to regain its footing a decade after a spate of rioting that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. Smith was just shy of 30 but already knew something about rebuilding herself. After moving from Tennessee, she was adjusting to life as a single mother and a widow in Chicago.

Smith has a round face spotted with freckles and speaks with a lisp. Her voice rises when she talks about her family’s early days on Kimbark. “We were 100 units strong,” she said of her neighbors, some of whom still live on the block. “We were taking care of the place. We were gardening. We were thriving.”

But more than three decades later, the building on the corner of 62nd Street and Kimbark Avenue has become more a symbol of failure than hope.

The heat is chronically cut off in the building. In most units, radiator covers hang half-cocked from the walls so tenants have pulled couches and beds in front of the hot pipes to avoid getting scorched. Some have taken in cats to catch the mice. One elderly woman keeps a cooler in her den to catch the rainwater that pours through gaps in the ceiling that the building’s maintenance crew tried to patch up with a piece of plywood and duct tape.

After barely passing federal inspection standards in recent years, the Kimbark building, along with a handful of other neighboring, federally subsidized buildings owned by the same company, earned a failing score of 43 out of 100 points last year. That was 17 points shy of just scraping by. One more failed inspection, and the government could step in to foreclose on the property. It is also plausible that the property could be sold off and the subsidies lost.

For tenants and housing activists, the problems at Kimbark go deeper than brick and mortar. The decaying building is a symbol of how public officials have looked the other way as landlords throughout Chicago received more than a billion in federal housing subsidies during the past decade while running some of their properties into the ground and, in some cases, using the buildings as their own personal ATMs.

A Chicago Reporter review of federal and local housing records found that 27 out of 194 properties containing more than 24,000 nonsenior federally subsidized housing units in Chicago failed at least one inspection between 2008 and 2010. Of 93 landlords overseeing these properties, 22 have been hauled into housing court by city attorneys who are suing them for at least $304,000 worth of violations since 2005. Two landlords, in particular, were taken to housing court on 22 separate occasions and amassed one-third, or $102,000, of the fines levied against property owners during that period.

Few people have worked with as many troubled Section 8 buildings as Shirley Johnson, the organizing director of the Chicago-based Metropolitan Tenants Organization. In her eyes, federal and local housing officials are doing too little to hit landlords where it hurts: the pocketbook. “They slap ’em on the hand, and they’re right back in the game,” Johnson said.

Johnson added that tenants should have a seat at the negotiating table. “Safe and decent housing—that’s all the tenants want,” she said. “They don’t care who is the owner or the manager. They just want them to be accountable.”

But officials said that, with affordable housing in increasingly short supply, a hard-nosed approach isn’t always the best way to fix troubled buildings. “We really do look at preservation as our main focus,” said Ed Hinsberger, director of the Chicago multifamily hub at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, who oversees subsidized multifamily buildings in Chicago.

Preserving the subsidies, Hinsberger said, means striking a delicate balance between holding building owners and managers accountable in the short term without leaning so hard that they decide to opt out of the program and sell the properties on the private market. “We try and figure out how to save a project, but it’s hard,” he said. “We don’t own it. We don’t control it. We can’t decide who it will go to. That’s beyond our authority.”

Still, critics said, the status quo that is tolerating too many substandard housing units must not be an option for HUD. That’s especially true, they said, considering that, with the widespread demolition of traditional public housing, the subsidized apartments represent the last bastion of stable housing for low-income families. More nonsenior apartments now exist in the 194 subsidized properties than those operated by the Chicago Housing Authority.

Jim Grow, an attorney with the National Housing Law Project, said poor performing owners and managers will have little incentive to improve until HUD takes a “more nuisanced approach” to dealing with troubled buildings. “You have to have a monitoring system that’s up for the task,” Grow said. “It’s a failure of the regulatory system to provide the money and not the quality.”

*     *     *

When Congress struck a deal in the early 1970s to begin pouring billions of dollars each year into subsidized housing, a group of young Chicago developers with an eye on rebuilding troubled neighborhoods began snapping up investments. Under the Section 8 agreements, they were guaranteed market-rate rents for up to 30 years. In exchange, they had to provide decent, safe housing for cash-strapped households.

The units are rented out on a first-come, first-served basis. To remain compliant, the landlords are required to submit annual financial reports and pass federal inspections, assessed on the safety and cleanliness of each property.

Experts point out that inspection scores are weighted, and common areas—like lobbies and grounds—can artificially boost scores or unfairly drag them down. Despite the limits, the inspections are one of the few benchmarks for measuring success. Until this fall, if landlords scored below 60 two years in a row, HUD had the power to push them into foreclosure. Under the new guideline, scoring between 30 and 59 puts the owners under increased scrutiny.

The Reporter analysis of federal data found that 30 of the 199 inspections recorded between 2008 and 2010 found failing conditions in Chicago, and 43 led to a score that was within five points of failing. This marked a nearly threefold increase in failing scores compared with the three prior years, when slightly more inspections were logged. While those scores should have raised red flags, HUD’s response has been lax. In 2009, for example, only two of the nine properties due for reinspection because of initial failing scores were scored that year.

HUD’s Hinsberger said he isn’t convinced that the failed inspections are the most accurate way of determining trends or even the overall health of Chicago’s portfolio. Some years, there are few inspections, he said, because budgets are tight. “Those inspections cost money,” he said. “Sometimes we don’t have the funds.”

Still, Grow said, officials could do more to bring troubled properties in line. HUD officials rarely put a financial squeeze on owners by gradually reducing subsidies to low-performing buildings, he said. And the agency should have a better policy for reviewing which owners are borrowing against their buildings. “Why should somebody be able to refinance and take out money without at least 70 [on their scores]?” Grow said.

Indeed, five out of 15 Chicago properties that have failed at least one federal inspection since 2008 were remortgaged within six years prior to failed inspection, a Reporter review of real estate records found.

“The system is set up so that the property is seen as a commodity, and the living conditions for residents are seen as secondary,” said Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle, a community organizer with Southside Together Organizing for Power, a nonprofit that has been working with tenants for years to improve conditions in a series of Section 8 buildings on the city’s South Side.

With many of the contracts coming to an end, the properties have become much more susceptible to forces in the private real estate market. Roughly a decade ago, Kevin Jackson, executive director at the Chicago Rehab Network, began sounding the alarm that Chicago was facing an “invisible crisis” as the subsidies tied to roughly 21,000 units were scheduled to expire between 2000 and 2005. When the real estate market took a nose dive, Jackson said, landlords began rethinking the value of the guaranteed subsidies and have shown “a heightened interest” in extending their contracts.

As far as Johnson of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization is concerned, if landlords want the guarantees that come along with extensions—including up to nearly $290 million in rents for 2011 alone—federal officials should be pushing harder for building improvements. “HUD has a lot of leverage,” she said. “That’s where these landlords are getting their rent.”

City attorneys, meanwhile, have stepped up enforcement on troubled Section 8 buildings in recent years, citing the owners for violations by hauling some of them into housing court.

The bottom line, said former Chicago Department of Housing Commissioner Jack Markowski, who is now president of the Community Investment Corporation, which controls a fund that helps stabilize troubled buildings including Section 8 properties, is that “the city often has used code enforcement as a way to go after bad management.”

At least 31 properties have been sued by the city in housing court since 2005. A vast majority, or 75 percent, of the cases were filed between 2008 and 2011. Some of the cases involve fairly minor violations, such as doing construction without a permit and painting over electrical switches. Others are more serious. They include structurally unsound porches, missing smoke detectors and no heat or hot water in winter.

More than one-third of the housing court cases involve just two companies—East Lake Management and Development Corporation and the Woodlawn Redevelopment Corp. No. 2—which have racked up a combined $102,000 in fines. The number of fines attributed to East Lake, which is run by Elzie Higginbottom, is in part because the company oversees more Section 8 units—3,094 apartments in all—than any other entity. The company also manages a wide portfolio, which, like the Woodlawn Redevelopment Corp. No. 2’s parent company, includes Chicago Housing Authority properties.

Eileen Rhodes, vice president at East Lake, pointed out that the management company’s buildings have been given few failing scores on federal inspections—three in 78 inspections—in the past decade. “I think that the [federal inspections] are an indicator that the properties are in good shape,” she said.

Ironically, some of those troubled buildings surpassed expectations when it came to federal inspections. The Woodlawn Redevelopment Corp. No. 2, for example, was given a passing grade in 2009 at the same time it was being sued by the city for building code violations that included rodent infestation, mold and standing sewage.

*     *     *

The three-story building at 6134 S. Kimbark Ave. doesn’t look like much from the curb. Its golden-brick facade is dulled by the fine lines of age. A black wrought-iron fence rings a lawn that’s spotted with ashy patches of dirt.

The initial federal investment in the property—HUD had agreed to lock into 30 years of rent subsidies in 1974—was a sign that redevelopment was possible in the struggling Woodlawn community. For a young community organizer, Leon Finney Jr., the federal money was like a down payment on a local development initiative he called “The Dream Plan.”

Finney grew up in the neighborhood and was a rising star in the scrappy nonprofit, The Woodlawn Organization. With the community organizing skills imparted on him by the famed Saul Alinsky, his goal was to channel his neighbors’ desires—for decent housing and jobs—into action. That was The Dream Plan. And housing was key.

More than 30 years after the Section 8 program began, no section of the city was eligible for more rent subsidies last year than 60637, the ZIP code that includes Woodlawn and neighboring Washington Park. More than one in every $10 committed to Section 8 rents went to the 3,126 apartments in the area roughly bounded by State Street, Lake Shore Drive, and 51st and 73rd streets.

No Section 8 property has faced more recent scrutiny for how it has been managed than the Kimbark buildings, which are owned by the Woodlawn Redevelopment Corp. No. 2, an entity set up by Finney, and managed by the Woodlawn Community Development Corp., which oversees 902 Section 8 units throughout the city.

In late November, the city filed two fresh lawsuits against the nonprofit because the heat wasn’t working consistently for three weeks. Since 2008, the city has initiated eight additional legal cases concerning the cluster of buildings, which is anchored by the Kimbark building. All told, the city has sued the Woodlawn Redevelopment Corp. No. 2 for $57,755 in fines related to the Kimbark portfolio since 2008. The nonprofit faces another $140,685 in housing court fines for a string of unrelated, but troubled, rental buildings that are in foreclosure.

In December, city officials signaled that they were fed up with the ongoing disrepair at Kimbark. The Woodlawn Redevelopment Corp. No. 2 was added to a list of “building code scofflaws” who have failed to address scores of code violations in the past year. Finney has pledged to get his organization’s name removed from the list to avoid losing city contracts.

“In most other jurisdictions, HUD would have said, ‘You’re done,’” said Kate Walz, housing justice director at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. Walz has represented the Kimbark Tenants Association, which is co-chaired by Smith, in court in the past couple of years. “Chicago’s HUD office is looking at preservation. Otherwise, only tenants will suffer.”

A Reporter review of the management company’s financial records found that the building’s poor conditions have only been exacerbated by the nonprofit’s financial practices. In 2006, the property was refinanced, but few needed repairs were made with the money. Then, in 2009, more than $163,000 was transferred out of the property to cover unrelated expenses including payroll and bank overdrafts, the records show. The next year, federal inspectors found the buildings in such disrepair that they were given a failing score.

Finney rejected that the conditions at Kimbark are a reflection on his nonprofit’s property management skills. “Are you going to define me by that one property?” he said. “I have been there and done whatever needed to be done to make life well and function for not only them but for literally thousands of other people. So I just reject the idea of that.”

HUD has “some financial concerns” about how Kimbark and some other Section 8 properties are being managed by the Woodlawn Community Development Corp., according to Hinsberger. The agency has chided Finney in recent years for dipping into restricted housing subsidies to cover payroll and other expenses—some of which are tied to its sister agency, The Woodlawn Organization, independent audit reports show.

But it’s translated into little change for tenants who have learned to live with the substandard conditions.

For the second time in four years, Finney is attempting to sell the property, and he’s close to sealing the deal. If this deal goes through, the federal subsidy will be extended until 2029. Cullen Davis, whose company, Urban Property Investments, manages a series of other Section 8 properties, along with a partner, is expected to take the property over in January. The Illinois Housing Development Authority has approved $10 million in tax credits to begin rehabbing the Kimbark building. That’s money that the Woodlawn Redevelopment Corp. was not eligible for because of its poor property management track record.

The hope is that the new owners will do a better job at managing the federal subsidies, which should pump up to nearly $1.3 million in rents into the 100-unit development next year. Poor conditions have led to vacancies, though. About one-third of the 100 units sit empty.

The way Smith sees it, she’s faced with two bad choices: Stay at Kimbark and hope conditions improve under the new ownership or live with the chaos.

“I don’t want to leave this community,” said Smith, now 62 and retired. “I want to have a place where my kids can come back to and say, ‘I grew up here,’ so they feel like they have some roots.”

Emily Gowing and Sachiko Yoshitsugu helped research this article.  

Original article

Photo: Mary Smith flips through her datebook, recalling a three-week period in the fall when the heat in her Woodlawn apartment building wasn’t working because of a broken boiler. Photo by Marc Monaghan.

Princeton Park Homes: Tenants suffer, Owners prosper

For Marietta Murphy, the pastoral setting of Princeton Park seemed like the perfect place to raise her five daughters.  They could have the freedom to ride their bikes, and she could have a garden.  And rents at the South Side housing complex were affordable.

But nine years later, each of her girls suffers from respiratory problems, including asthma and recurring bronchitis, requiring constant treatment.  Murphy blames pervasive mold in her townhome – and a landlord who has done nothing about repeated flooding.

Standing water pools in the basement and mold permeates the air in her home.  Walls bubble from water damage, and lead chips falls from windows and door frames onto porches and into gardens.  Tenants are living in unsanitary and hazardous conditions while Preston Higgins Jr, the development’s owner, rakes in millions.

Princeton Park tenants are organizing to improve conditions, and they’ve filed a class-action lawsuit against Higgins over mold and lead issues – and violations of Chicago’s landlord tenant ordinance.

Built in the 1940s, the Princeton Park Homes complex occupies a six-square block stretch of land west of the Dan Ryan between 91st and 95th Streets.  A century ago, this was a rural area populated by Dutch settlers who cultivated the land for farming.  As African Americans migrated north and Chicago grew, the racial fabric of the neighborhood changed, and the new residents needed affordable housing options.

Princeton Park Homes were built to house black middle-class railroad workers and their families.  Today the complex is still almost entirely African American, filled with working families that pay market-rate rent.

The development maintains much of its original appeal.  Inside Princeton Park the city’s grid system is abandoned for curving streets and cul-de-sacs, and front lawns of townhomes are well manicured.  Princeton Park’s website boasts of the impressive gardens and fosters a healthy competition among residents vying for an annual garden and lawn award.

Princeton Park residents take pride in their yards, but their sense of well-being stops at the front door.  Residents report widespread problems with basement flooding and leaky windows and walls that cause mold to grow and ruin their belongings.  Children test positive for lead poisoning.  Rodents and insect infestations are plentiful.

Lakisha Jones, a single mother of two who’s lived in Princeton Park for two years, suffered six floods in just over a year.  A two-foot-high water line marks the height of the most recent flood in her basement.  Jones lost baby books and winter clothes, and she’s had to replace a washer – and then purchase a new $400 motor for the new washer after yet another flood.

And after her home was flooded with water contaminated by feces and decaying animals, she and her 9-year old son contracted bacterial infections that sent them to the hospital with oozing sores and fevers.

Today she doesn’t take any chances – industrial-strength bleach is a regular purchase and is used to combat the mold that creeps up walls and drips from her ceiling.  Each time it rains, Jones is nervous and checks each wall and window for signs of flooding.

“I feel like a hurricane victim, having water run down my walls,” she said.  She’s complained to the management office numerous times, but “Princeton Park has failed to fix any of the safe and unsanitary conditions inside the property.”

In their lawsuit, tenants charge that Princeton Park owners pass the cost of maintenance and repairs on to tenants in violation of Chicago’s Residential Landlord-Tenant Ordinance.

Under the ordinance, landlords are responsible for maintenance unless damage is caused by tenants; charges for general wear and tear should not be passed on the tenants.  But the lease at Princeton Park states that “Lessee must make his own repairs… at Lessee’s expense.”

It’s not for lack of money, with rents for nearly a thousand two- and three- bedroom units ranging from $650 to $800 a month, the owner takes in as much as $750,000 each month.  According to Dun & Bradstreet, Preston Higgins & Co. nets $1.9 million in profits each year.

Tenants charge that Princeton Park has turned the development’s hazardous conditions into money-making opportunities while allowing the buildings to slowly deteriorate.  In addition to their monthly rent, Princeton Park tenants pay for all repair and maintenance visits and all outside contractors.  Additional fees range from $5 to unstop a toilet to $45 to clean grease traps, and even more for security doors, wiring, or piping.  Tenants end up bearing the lion’s share of the financial burden for apartment condition and repair requests.

A year or so into her residency, Marietta Murphy’s kitchen sink needed repairs.  The aging plumbing system was overburdened and regularly flooded.  Princeton Park charged her for each maintenance visit.

“I have no idea how much extra they have charged me because its tacked onto the rent each month, and with additional fees and yearly rent increases, it’s hard to keep track of,” she said.

In addition to paying maintenance visits each time flooding occurred, Murphy has lost three washers and dryers and a deep freezer in her nine years at Princeton Park.  The owners don’t really care, she said.  ”The office told me there was nothing they could do and that I shouldn’t put anything of value in the basement,” she said.  ”They told me I should get renters insurance.”

Murphy points out several vacant homes where tenants voiced complaints to the management office and to Higgins to no avail.  ”You better believe Higgins is not living like we are living out here,” she said.  ”And if he were to come out here and live one month in the summer with the floods, he’d move out of here.”

The city has fined Preston Higgins LLC and Princeton Park LLC several times for code violations regarding flooding as well as noncompliance with lead abatement.  But for Higgins, as for many landlords, such fines seem to be considered a cost of doing business.

Tenants want the city to do more.  They’re meeting regularly with the Metropolitan Tenant Organizations and pressing city officials to help deal with the basement flooding proactively.

At a recent tenant meeting, several residents expressed concern about steps management has taken toward lead abatement.  When door frames in a majority of the townhomes were found to contain lead, maintenance workers tacked aluminum strips to cover the lead paint.  But tenants say the strips are flimsy and often fall off.

Tenants say they wish Higgins would work with them to improve their living situation.  They love Princeton park for what it could be – a safe, pleasant and affordable neighborhood that fosters community.  But they feel like they are investing in Preston Higgins rather than their community.

“I strongly believe that if Mr. Higgins would meet with this tenants once a month that this could be a much better place,” said Murphy.  ”Our rent is helping him go to Hawaii, buy luxury cars, and go to those five-star restaurants.  Without us, he would be having White Castle and McDonald’s like we do.”

Written by Sara Mathers and John Bartlett

Special Thanks to Princeton Park Homes Tenants, Cecilia Nemeth, Paul Bernstein, and MTO Staff.

Photo:  Mold in a second floor bedroom caused by flooding