Tenants March on HUD HQ, Win Meeting with Top HUD Official

May 10th 2019

Mrs Johnson, a resident at
Barbara Jean Wright Courts, speaks about the living conditions at the complex.

Chicago, IL. – Twenty-five tenants and their supporters picketed outside the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offices at 77 W Jackson in downtown Chicago today.  The tenants were sick and tired of inaction on the part of their landlords and the lack of oversight by HUD. One tenant asked, “How can I celebrate Mother’s Day in my home when my kitchen cabinets are falling apart?”  

It was almost a year ago today that HUD representatives met with tenants at a Town Hall meeting of subsidized renters organized by the Metropolitan Tenants Organization (MTO).  At the Town Hall, HUD representatives promised action. They assured tenants they would come out to the buildings and hold the landlords accountable to very basic housing standards.  

For the tenants living in Barbara Jean Wright Courts, Germano Millgate and Indian Trails Apartments, HUD has not made good on its promise.  Tenants are living with rats, bed bugs, holes in the walls, elevators that don’t work, plumbing problems and more. One parent, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, is worried that DCFS is going to take her children away because the conditions are so bad.

Tenants were preparing to deliver a letter to HUD officials demanding a meeting. As the tenants chanted, “HUD don’t delay, Repairs in time for Mother’s Day!” outside of HUD’s downtown office, Joseph Galvan, HUD’s Regional Administrator for Region V, came out to talk.  Jesse Johnson of Barbara Jean Wright Court asked Mr. Galvan to meet with the tenants and to inspect the complexes.  Mr. Galvan agreed to inspect the above three apartment complexes and to meet with the tenants in his office on May 31st.  The tenants left feeling fired up and ready to keep the pressure on HUD and their landlords to provide decent and safe housing.

Joseph Galvin (left), HUD Regional Adminstrator, talks with HUD tenants outside his office on May 10, 2019.

Unincorporated Cook County Home to Many Housing Problems

triunitedWithout the protection of laws like Chicago’s Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance, renters in unincorporated communities in suburban Cook County are often the victims of unscrupulous landlords and property managers.

In March, that fact became an urgent problem for renters in an apartment complex in Rosemont, many of them long-time residents, when they began receiving eviction notices from Tri-United, the property manager & real estate investment trust that purchased the buildings. Tri-Unity  plans to renovate the apartments, raising the one-bedroom rents from $750 to $1,300 a month.
 
Ownership of the buildings changed in early April, but tenants were never notified. Many residents report the wife of the former owner (Dominic Santoro) showed up demanding cash pre-payments of their May rent, which several of them paid, but which Santoro was not entitled.  When Tri-City took over on April 15, tenants were informed May rent was payable to them, and that it had no record of payments to the former owner. 

Daily Herald: Rosemont Residents Say They’re Being Forced Out

 

Tenants also reported that Caroline Echo, representing Tri-Unity, showed up at their door and demanded May rent payments, telling tenants if they didn’t pay she’d return with police to forcibly evict them.  Residents said Echo had with her two members of the auxiliary police unit, affiliated with the City of Rosemont. 

The “auxiliary police” operate independently of the Rosemont Police Department (RPD).  RPD has told residents that the Auxiliary Police do have a record of being at the complex.  RPD also pointed out that only the Cook County Sheriff’s Department has statutory authority on evictions, and even then they cannot be implemented without a court order.

MTO has helped residents organize a community meeting to discuss their options – which are limited in the absence of local laws addressing landlord-tenants issues; and MTO has helped residents secure an attorney who has formally demanded a meeting with the new management company to address the situation.  The deadline for a response to the letter from the attorney was Monday, June 20.

So far, Tri-City has stonewalled tenants, MTO, and the press. Updates to follow… 

Housing Activists Disrupt Mayor, Call for CHA Accountability

image3Demonstrators interrupted Mayor Emanuel’s speech Wednesday morning during Crain’s #‎FutureChicago‬ Conference to demand passage of the ‪#‎KeepingThePromise‬ Ordinance. Wealthy business leaders and other members of Chicago’s elite met to discuss the “future” of the city, but there was no seat at the table for those most affected by their policies. As more and more Chicagoans take up residence under viaducts or in tents, Rahm’s CHA continues to bulldoze and sell off public housing, all while sitting on nearly $450 million in unspent federal cash given to the city specifically for affordable housing. The language of “fiscal responsibility” is often used by those in power to hide policies that result in real human devastation. 

Activists made this point by disrupting the Mayors remarks inside while demonstrators outside held a press conference and distributed information to passersby. Wednesday’s action sought to to raise the profile of the housing crisis facing low-income communities of color, who are being displaced from countless Chicago communities as market rents skyrocket and wages fail to keep pace. Just today, the MacArthur Foundation released a study showing that three-quarters of city residents believe we are still in the middle of the housing crisis or that the worse is yet to come. Inside the swanky Palmer House Hilton demonstrators – including Al, a 90-year-old World War II combat veteran – disrupted the Mayor as he addressed Chicago’s elite. Watch Below:

“The mayor is failing to keep the Plan for Transformation’s promises to rebuild public housing after demolition, instead continuing to demolish, convert, and privatize the city’s remaining public housing,” said Liz Brake of the Jane Addams Senior Caucus. “Unless the mayor changes course, he will deepen the city’s affordable housing crisis, which is displacing people of color. That’s not sustainable or equitable.” 

Click Here To Watch The Full Video

 

By holding the Chicago Housing Authority to higher standards about CHA’s use of federal and city funds, we can literally provide housing to tens of thousands of Chicago families currently struggling to provide their children with a decent, stable home. According to CHA’s latest financial report (FY2012), the Chicago Housing Authority is sitting on surplus cash of more than $432 million— To put that in perspective, CHA’s cash stockpile is larger than the whole City of Chicago’s budget deficit for 2014.

Despite the insecurity and pessimism about the housing crisis, Chicago residents believe the situation can improve. MacArthur’s housing study found that 70% of city residents think a great deal can be done to solve the housing crisis. There is no one solution, but there are many things that we can do today to improve housing. First? We can pass the Keeping The Promise Ordinance now!

Thank you to all of the members of the Chicago Housing Initiative who participated in this action! For more information about this story or to get involved, please contact Philip at 773-292-4980 ext 246 or philip@tenants-rights.org

Retaliation by landlords is illegal. Know your rights, stay the course, and win

After Carl (not his real name) repeatedly contacted his landlord about needed repairs in his apartment, without success, he didn’t know what to do.  He had rented the apartment in a Pilsen three-flat when he moved to town to accept a job as an associate professor at a local community college.  As someone who always paid his rent, he never expected to have an issue with his landlord.  

Attorney Joan Fenstermaker
Attorney Joan Fenstermaker

Carl was sure he had a right to demand that repairs be made, but he didn’t know how to make that happen.  Eventually, he heard about Metropolitan Tenants Organization’s Hotline (773-292-4988) and called seeking help – that was in September 2012.  After discussing his situation with a Hotline Counselor, he was counseled that for his next step he might want to consult a lawyer. 

MTO referred him to Joan Fenstermaker, an attorney who often represents clients referred by MTO. She drafted a “demand letter” for Carl and sent it to his landlord, asking for the needed repairs to be made and informing the landlord that he would be reducing his rent check until the repairs were complete (following the guidelines that are part of the city’s Residential Landlord Tenants Ordinance). 

Twice the landlord refused to accept the demand letter, sent via certified mail.  And, instead of sending workers to repair the building problems, the landlord sent an Eviction Notice. Fenstermaker immediately contested the eviction case, claiming it was retaliatory, and demanded a jury trial. The jury agreed, and the Judge threw the eviction case out. 

Fenstermaker then filed a lawsuit of her own seeking compensation on Carl’s behalf.  The lawsuit outlined all of the previously cited issues and added the new charges of illegal late fees (charged when he lowered his rent payments), an illegal lockout from his garage space, and the retaliatory eviction.  
 
When the case went to trial in February, the judge ordered the landlord to pay Carl $10,642.73, along with legal fees – proof that tenants do have rights, even if they sometimes have to fight for them.

 

Malcolm X, Gentrification and Housing as a Human Right

2015_0527malcolm
A girl walks by a mural featuring Malcolm X in NYC.

Every day the Metropolitan Tenants Organization works with renters who are facing the negative effects of gentrification and other economic forces that threaten their housing. Thousands of low-income renters and homeowners are displaced every year by a property law system with misplaced priorities. As a society, we all pay when people are involuntarily displaced because of increased crime, skyrocketing medical costs and a failing educational system. It is imperative that as a nation we confront this housing crisis and ensure that everyone has a home. 

The insights of visionary Black leader Malcolm X, who would have been 91 this year, are key to the discussion around gentrification and housing. Malcolm X championed a new vision, reframing the character of the struggle for equality from civil rights to one of human rights. He also raised the concept of self-determination as essential to any struggle for equality. I want to use the lens of human rights and self-determination to contextualize gentrification and look for solutions to the nation’s housing crisis.

The foundation of current gentrification can be traced to the very beginning of the United States.

What is gentrification? From the perspective of the community members, gentrification is the loss of community (and individual) control over the land they live on, a forced displacement of residents from their homes and their communities. It generally occurs in low-income neighborhoods in which people of color reside. Gentrification is not a haphazard process that happens by accident. It is systemic in nature and sanctioned by a faulty legal system.

Gentrification is not just a modern-day occurrence. The foundation of current gentrification can be traced to the very beginning of the United States. In 1823, the US Supreme Court in Johnson v. McIntosh legitimized the concept of ownership through conquest. In Johnson, the Court held that “savages” (the Court’s term for Native Americans) had no right to sell or control the land because the land was “discovered” by settlers. Only the US government could give Native people the right to sell or transfer the land.

The case is important to understanding gentrification because the Court declared that the indigenous population does not have any inherent right to determine the use of their land. In this case, the Court ruled that the colonization of the continent had in fact erased the slate and thus nullified any Native people’s claims to the land. It made the government the sole arbiter of sale or transfer of land. At the same time, it legitimized the government’s use of force to take over the continent and gain control of indigenous people’s land.

Furthermore, the Court’s opinion is indicative of the primary role that race plays in community development. The Court called indigenous people “savages.” Intrinsic in this name-calling is the idea that Native Americans are the “other” – that European culture is superior – and that as an inferior community, they could not possibly make good decisions as to how they use their land. This inherently wrong, racist decision enshrines the legal and conceptual basis of gentrification, or what I have called ownership through conquest.

Many of the first people to move into a changing neighborhood are described as “pioneers.”

If we look at what is happening today in major cities throughout the United States, the same principles and legal precepts are at work. Now, instead of military might, overpowering economic forces are pushing low-income people of color out of their neighborhoods and often out of the cities and into the suburbs. This is happening because public and private investments in the downtown business core have made these areas extremely important and valuable. As the core of the city expands, the neighborhoods that abut the downtown area and those along transportation lines leading to downtown have dramatically increased in value.

Investors and their partners in the public institutions have “discovered” these communities and swooped in to take control of abandoned and vacant properties, at first; but soon all properties in these neighborhoods become targets for takeover. The outside investors then develop the land to fit the needs of the downtown elite. They build new and high-cost apartments and high-rises and demolish and get rid of properties suitable for people of more modest means. Many of the first people to move into a changing neighborhood are described as “pioneers,” the same term used to refer to the initial invaders of North America who imposed the White man’s ways on the Native peoples.

This means families who have often lived in these neighborhoods for decades are forced to relocate. Tenants in particular, because of the lack of a secure tenure, face an onslaught of economic pressures to move. Outside investors will often close buildings and evict all the tenants as they develop properties to cater to wealthier non-community members in an effort to get them to move into the community. Tenants are then forced to find and move into an ever-shrinking supply of affordable housing.

At the same time, landlords are increasing the rent as the neighborhood becomes “hot.” In the end, the vast majority of the tenants will be forced out. It is beyond their means to resist these economic forces on their own. For instance, in Chicago, more than 50 percent of tenants are rent burdened, meaning more than one-third of their income goes to housing costs. Obviously, when tenants are barely able to pay rent, any changes in rent, job status or medical situations will result in displacement.

It is not only renters who face challenges. In the case of homeowners, many long-time residents are losing their properties to foreclosure or seeing dramatic increases in their property taxes, which once again force them out. The current gentrification of US cities is an economic conquest backed up by the courts.

The current gentrification of US cities is an economic conquest backed up by the courts.

Many of the same racist justifications for this conquest are still at play today. Gentrification is often explained away as a needed phenomenon. The community “needs” the often White and well-to-do invaders to move into the neighborhood to improve it. In other words, the current residents are not “invested” in the neighborhood, as they are “not good enough” to develop it on their own. The local culture is destroyed as new, wealthier people flood into a community. The newcomers take over all elements of the community, bringing in their own “superior” culture, such as more expensive restaurants and entertainment venues. This escalates and expands the dislocation to include existing businesses. It is all legal, built on decades of laws based on the rights of the powerful few and not on the human rights of the many.

It is for this reason that Malcolm X’s vision of moving toward a struggle for human rights is so important. Housing is a basic human necessity that any individual needs in order to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Without a home, it is next to impossible to find work, to educate your children and to better your conditions. Housing needs to be made into a human right, a right protected by law.

What would it mean if housing was a human right? It certainly means more than just ensuring a roof over one’s head. It means making sure that everyone has decent, safe and accessible housing. It is hardly a home if that home does not have heat during the winter, or is infested with mold and other pests. Housing needs to be affordable. If housing becomes so expensive that a person needs to decide whether to eat or pay the rent, then they will always be at risk of losing their housing. Housing also needs to be stable. People should be able to choose where they live. No one should be forced to move just because someone else wants to live there.

So, how can we change policies and begin moving toward a human rights framework based on community needs, as it relates to gentrification? To begin with, we could implement:

  • Laws to end lockouts, self-help evictions outside of the legal system: No tenant or homeowner should lose their home without due process.
  • Mandatory inspections laws: Municipalities and other government agencies need to be responsible for ensuring that all residential properties meet certain codes of health and safety.
  • Just cause laws: A property owner should be required to have a justifiable reason to evict a resident. No one should have their tenure interrupted because of discrimination, retaliation or any other unfair reason.
  • Laws to limit foreclosures: Banks and other agencies ought to be held accountable for their actions in creating the housing crisis.
  • Property tax laws: Property tax laws should promote stability. Tie property taxes to the purchase price of buildings, which would help keep taxes affordable for long-term residents and in addition provide low-income residents with tax relief.
  • Rent controls: This can take two forms. Rent increases could be regulated by law to give current tenants the opportunity to continue to live in their homes. Or secondly, current residents could receive a rental subsidy to make up for the increase in rent due to gentrification.
  • Create community-based zoning boards: These boards can regulate zoning changes and give communities control over development.
  • Create eviction-free zones: Activists and legal services providers work to prevent any eviction in these areas of gentrification to slow down the development process and challenge the investor-invaders’ assumption that they can do what they want.

All these potential policies and actions can begin to ameliorate the effects of gentrification and provide communities with a legal and moral basis to fight gentrification and promote housing stability. No one should be forced to move from their home against their will.

Adopting a human rights framework can provide individuals and communities with new tools and perspectives that offer the hope of ensuring that everyone has the right to secure safe, decent and accessible housing that is affordable. Defining housing as a human right allows for an expansive outlook that goes beyond viewing housing as merely a roof over one’s head or a commodity for sale. A human rights framework will benefit the majority and move society onto a path of social equity. As Malcolm X said, “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”

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johnb2
Author John Bartlett

John Bartlett is the executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization.  John is a dedicated social justice advocate who has spent decades fighting to protect people’s homes and environment. John’s expertise and experience – from civil disobedience to landlord-tenant mediation – has proved irreplaceable in Chicago’s continued fight for affordable housing.

This article was originally published in TruthOut.

Should you have to write a letter to get your security deposit back?

There’s a very important piece of legislation coming before the Chicago city council, one that would do a lot for ordinary people waylaid by the foreclosure crisis.

But there’s a problem with that bill, or at least a version of it floating around the council chambers. One that could hurt vulnerable tenants around the city.

Megan Cottrell reports – Read it on True/Slant