“Like healthcare, housing is a human right”, said John Bartlett, MTO’s Executive Director, Friday night while receiving the 2017 Health and Medicine Policy Research Group Award at the #hmprggala. The Health and Medicine Policy Research Group (Health & Medicine) held the Awards Gala to honor the accomplishments of activists and professionals making important strides towards health equity and social justice. MTO was recognized for its work protecting tenants health and promoting social justice in housing.
“Like Health and Medicine Policy Research Group, MTO believes that it is essential to work at the intersection of different social needs”, said John Bartlett, MTO’s Executive Director. It is when we work at these intersections that we begin to understand the barriers to health and well-being. For instance, if a family does not have a decent, stable home, children will not do as well in school. And without a good education, it is harder to get a good job. And without a job it is next to impossible to obtain a stable decent home, and on and on. It is for this reason that we maintain that ike healthcare, housing is a human right”.
When the tenants at 1722 W 21st Street got 30-day notices saying they must move out of their apartments, they were outraged. Monroe management had recently evicted their neighbors too. The building next door was gutted and rehabbed, with new rents costing $1,500 a month. The tenants at 1722 W. 21st were facing an all too common problem – mass eviction and displacement – an epidemic in Pilsen. Eight families were being asked to leave their homes to make way for someone who could pay more. Eight families facing homelessness so that their landlord can make an extra buck.
To make matters worse, Monroe Management, the tenants said, was intimidating them by threatening to shut off their water and gas. Feeling ignored, tenants decided they would stick together and seek resources to fight back. They engaged community organizers, learned their tenant rights, and immediately wrote a 14-day letter asking for much-needed building repairs (the previous owner had neglected the building). They also sought legal assistance from the Lawyer Committee for Better Housing (who has since accepted their case). Monroe has responded by making repairs in the building, but they still want the tenants out.
On Wednesday, tenants held a press-conference to decry Monroe’s actions and call for an end to the mass gentrification of Pilsen. Shelonda Montgomery (see video below) spoke about how common it has become for big management companies to “buy up” the community, rehab apartments and price out long-term community residents.
Tenants also spoke about the need for rent control and a proactive inspection system in Chicago. One tenant spoke of the need to be engaged in the struggle – together – to fight against housing discrimination. The tenants at 1722 W 21st Street will soon have their day in court, together, thanks to the community members and allies that continue to support our work.
The 2016 Rents Rights Expo brings us yet another success story. Teresa came to the MTO table last year looking for help. She had multiple repair issues in her apartment and, fed up with the conditions, she wanted to move out. Her landlord refused to fix anything and told Teresa that he would not return her security deposit if she moved out. With help from MTO, she documented her issues, called 311, and wrote letters to her landlord. Finally, she took her landlord to court.
On Saturday, Teresa stopped by our table at the Rents Rights Expo to give us an update. She won her case and got her security deposit back! She has since moved out of the apartment and found a much better home with a more responsive landlord. Teresa said she was excited to share her story with us because of how empowered her experience made her feel. She came out to the 2016 Renters’ Day of Action and plans to volunteer with MTO in the future!
Knowledge about your rights creates tenant power, and tenant power changes lives. Thank you to Teresa, and to all of our Volunteers that helped make the 2016 Rents Rights Expo such a success. Volunteers counseled tenants and helped others use our free web app, Squared Away Chicago. Squared Away helps tenants document and address issues just like Teresa’s. Next year we expect more tenants to return with success stories!
Together we can make housing a human right. To find out more about how you can get involved contact firstname.lastname@example.org today or call 773-292-4980 ext 246.
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.
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.
When MTO organizers arrived this week to speak with tenants at a south side property, building violations became readily apparent, and downright terrifying. The floors and ceilings in many units are literally caving in. Other units’ balconies have collapsed, leaving tenants with second-floor doors that open up to sheer drop-offs. It is difficult to fathom how the owner, the bank, and the City have allowed the property to deteriorate to such a horrendous condition. It seems criminal. The property, located on W. 72nd Street, is being foreclosed on by BMO Harris Bank. A receiver, Millenium Properties, has been court-appointed to manage the building. They’ve asked the tenants to leave.
This isn’t the first time BMO Harris bank has endangered Englewood residents. In December 2015, we reported on BMO Harris’ attempts to skirt Chicago’s foreclosure law at another building just one block away. BMO’s actions there caused the eviction of five families. BMO offered “token” relocation assistance instead of the $10,600 required by the Keep Chicago Renting Ordinance. This is the same building where BMO’s receiver hired a white contractor to board the place up. He arrived for the job driving a truck proudly displaying a Confederate flag.
How will the latest saga with BMO Harris Bank end? Will the bank do the right thing?
The market is not working. Just ask Marcene Smith of Chicago’s south side. She will tell you the housing market is broken and is not working for her or many other Chicago renters. She lives with her son, who is paraplegic, in a three-flat. They pay $700 a month in rent. She is desperate because her son is returning from the hospital after developing a severe skin allergy from the mold in her basement. Her son will be coming home to the same environment that made him ill.
For Ms. Smith and many others like her, there are few options. Together she and her son have an income of $1,900 a month. This makes her apartment barely affordable. The apartment’s owner knows of the mold problem but, like Ms. Smith, is low-income and does not have the money to make the repairs.
The city has inspected the building and cited the owner. The basement reeks of mold which covers the floor and walls. The City’s building inspectors refused to go into the basement because of the health hazard it presented. This is a lose-lose situation for the tenant, the owner and the surrounding community. As for the future of this building, like so many others the writing is on the wall.
The city may close the building or the tenant will leave. In either case, the conditions in the building will continue to deteriorate. Eventually, the building will be torn down leaving another empty lot in area already filled with abandoned buildings and vacant lots. Ms. Smith and her son will move to an area further from the City center, further from transportation and the resources they need. The lot will be purchased by an investor who will sit on the property and wait for the “market” to improve to build anew.
For many banks, investment companies and large realtors, the housing market is working just fine. For numerous renters the private market is broken and cannot provide safe, decent and accessible housing at affordable costs. There are no easy answers for Ms. Smith and her son, or the thousands of residents who confront their own housing crisis each day.
The Metropolitan Tenants Organization believes that building a solution means starting from the basic premises that housing is a right. From this foundational value, it will be possible to build policies which will ensure that housing is decent and well maintained; that is accessible to the many differently-abled; and that it will be affordable to the rich or poor and everyone in-between.
In the meantime, if you are a landlord and can help Ms. Smith, please let us know.
It was a cold day, unseasonably so for September, and I was ill-prepared to be working outside for hours. Cold aside, I was pumped with energy to be participating in my first MTO action.
I had joined the Metropolitan Tenants Organization just three short weeks ago as a volunteer intern, mainly staffing the hotline and answering tenant calls about repairs, infestations, lockouts, and evictions. Four days ago I had received a call from a tenant asking about a termination notice she had received. This in itself is not unusual. The MTO hotline receives calls every day about evictions and termination notices.
This case was unusual in that the letter stated that the City of Chicago was evicting the tenants, and gave them only five days to move out. The notice also stated that if they were not out by Wednesday, the police would forcibly remove them.
The tenant told me she lived in an SRO, the Rosemoor Hotel. I have been learning more about Single Room Occupancy (SRO) buildings in my brief time with MTO. SROs are a vital source of housing for many low-income residents, including those on disability and social security, who might receive less than $1,000 per month to cover their basic living expenses.
SROs have been rapidly disappearing in Chicago as a result of gentrification. With changing neighborhood conditions in areas like Logan Square and the Near West Side, owners have been forcing out tenants with few other housing options in order to convert the buildings for greater profit. As a result, the availability of SROs has been dwindling in spite of a moratorium that is supposed to prevent the disappearance of this much-needed form of affordable housing.
This sounded like what might be happening to my tenant caller.
Sensing a red flag, I called in my supervisor, who called in her supervisor. They determined that not only was this a case we wanted to take on for organizing, but that this was an urgent issue requiring immediate, direct action.
That immediate, direct action came for me the next time I was in the office to staff the hotline. I was settling in, preparing to help with call backs that morning when one of our organizers approached me and asked if I wanted to come along to an organizing action at the Rosemoor.
We set out for the sidewalk in front of the Rosemoor, where we met up with some of the building’s tenants. MTO’s organizer had been working with them following my phone call, connecting them with each other so they could present a united front in fighting for their rights and protections.
I got to meet the tenant who had initially called me, and hear more about her experiences with the building. It was rewarding to see the progress that had already been made. Just a few short days ago, many of these tenants didn’t even know each other by name. Now, they were preparing to stand together in court to demand that the owner honor their contract.
The more I learned about the situation, the more appalled I grew. The owner, luxury car dealer Joe Perillo, had been remodeling the building while the tenants were still inhabiting it, creating an unsafe living environment. When the city ruled that the tenants needed to vacate the building for their own safety, Perillo turned around and gave everyone a five-day termination notice.
The notice implied that the city had given them only five days to leave, and no assistance in finding or paying for new accommodations. In fact, the city required Perillo to provide more time and to provide monetary assistance to the tenants, who faced an uphill battle in obtaining affordable housing and completing a complicated move on such short notice.
The next day in court, the tenants were able to stand together and make a strong case for their rights. The judge again ruled that Perillo could not simply kick them out with no assistance and little notice. This time, Perillo was not entrusted with managing the move-out since his dishonest handling of the situation before, blaming the city and avoiding any personal responsibility for the situation or legal obligation to pay. A receiver was appointed to oversee the move-out process and provide moving supplies. The judge ordered Perillo to pay the tenants $3,000 each for their move, and gave them an additional five days to pack!
While they will undoubtedly face more roadblocks along the way, I feel optimistic about the future of the Rosemoor tenants. It is always an honor to have someone share their story with you, something I experience every day on the hotline. To be able to be present for someone else, to listen, to counsel, is a gift. To be able to connect, organize, and galvanize a group of people to achieve such tangible outcomes for themselves and each other, is more than a gift; it’s empowerment in action.
About the Author: Riley HB Riley is an Intern Hotline Counselor and Healthy Homes Organizer who will be spending ten months with MTO. She comes to us from the UIC Jane Addams School Of Social Work.
LOGAN SQUARE — The fight to keep the Milshire Hotel affordable took to the streets Tuesday night as nearly 100 people met at The Eagle monument before marching to the Logan Square SRO.
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) joined the crowd to support a plan that would preserve the transient hotel for low-income men and women in the neighborhood. A wave of privatization in public and affordable housing “sets a bad trend for what we want to see in our neighborhood,” he said.
If the contract is binding, Fishman’s company is already tied to any decision made at the hotel, though a pending SRO ordinance could alter plans on both sides.
Waguespack and organizers of the rally said they support an alternative buyer for the Milshire that has promised to keep the longstanding hotel open to low-income residents. Waguespack said his office is in talks with that nonprofit, Renaissance Social Services Inc., to put together a package that could compete with private developers in a bid for the Milshire.
A final proposal could include using Tax Increment Financing money to renovate the ailing hotel.
The Rev. Bruce Ray said he’s often asked why activists want to save the Milshire — a rundown building infested with bed bugs to the point where bite marks on tenants were presented as evidence in a recent court caseinvolving the tenants union.
“This is substandard housing,” he said, pointing to the Milshire. “We don’t want substandard housing, we want affordable housing.”
Another organizer of the rally spoke of Ernesto Garcia, a homeless man who was remembered with a vigil at the neighborhood square Sept. 11 after he was beaten to death in Logan Square Aug. 30.
“If Logan Square had affordable housing perhaps Ernesto would still be here,” she told the crowd.
A group of SRO tenants who probably couldn’t afford to buy a late-model Chevy if they pooled their money taught luxury auto dealer Joe Perillo a lesson Friday in Cook County Circuit Court.
In the process, they learned something about themselves. It was a beautiful thing to see.
The 15 or so tenants applauded spontaneously when Circuit Judge Edward Harmening ordered Perillo, owner of the Rosemoor Hotel, to pay each of them $3,000 to help them vacate the building on an emergency basis.
You’re not really supposed to applaud in court, and the judge looked a bit embarrassed, but he didn’t tell them to stop, sensitive perhaps to the fact he had contributed to their problem by ordering them out in the first place.
Harmening also appointed a receiver to help the tenants find somewhere to go and to assist them in moving, which will cost Perillo even more.
The reason I take satisfaction in that is for the past week Perillo’s management team at the single-room occupancy building at 1622 W. Jackson had tried to bluff and bulldoze the residents into leaving voluntarily.
They blamed the judge’s order to vacate by noon Thursday, glossing over the fact it was the result of a fire hazard created by Perillo trying to have it both ways — rehabbing the building with people still living there and paying rent.
Perillo’s guys didn’t back off until community organizers encouraged the tenants to stay put until compensated, and I wrote a column in Thursday’s paper about what was happening.
After that, the city began taking a more aggressive stance on the tenants’ behalf. Even then, however, somebody sent in a police officer overnight to try to scare them off, residents reported.
Then in court Friday, Perillo lawyer Arnold Landis tried to lowball the judge, offering to pay a maximum of only $500 to the tenants, instead of the $3,000 sought by the city, and arguing his team should be allowed to conduct the move without a receiver.
Harmening, having learned his own lesson after accepting Landis’ previous assurances management would work with the tenants, said he no longer had enough confidence to trust them with the responsibility.
So what was the lesson in this for Perillo, whose luxury auto group deals in Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Lamborghini, Bugatti and Maserati?
“We’re dealing with people not cars.”
That was actually a line used in court by Judy Frydland, a lawyer for the city, after Landis used his negotiating ploy with the judge and ended up costing Perillo a lot more money than if he just treated the tenants fairly in the first place (though notably still not as much as it would cost to buy any one of his luxury automobiles.)
I knew the tenants were going to come out okay when I got to court and saw Frydland, a member of the A-team in the city corporation counsel’s office and someone with a history of fighting for people in these situations. Now, I can’t really explain why the city didn’t put up the same fight a week earlier, or why it took months for the city to realize ongoing rehab work at the hotel had created a fire danger or that the fire alarm was disconnected. But I don’t want to detract from a happy outcome.
And the tenants were, oh, so happy, as they celebrated in the hallway afterward, congratulating each other, and thanking everyone who had gone to bat for them.
It wasn’t just the money.
Forty-eight hours earlier, most of them were resigned to their fate, desperately looking for somewhere to move and unaware they might have any say in the matter. They didn’t even know each other by name.
But as I stood outside the Rosemoor on Wednesday with West Side activist Elce Redmond and organizers from the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, I could see the idea start to take hold that they could stick up for themselves.
And outside the courtroom Friday, I saw it come to full fruition — a sudden sense of empowerment.
The lesson for the tenants?
“This is what happens when you work together.”
That’s what John Bartlett, executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, told them, and they agreed.
“You know what. I’ll be able to sleep at night. I feel like I can walk away with my manhood,” said Roy Giddens, a Vietnam veteran and leader of the tenant group.
Many of the tenants, though, are still worried about finding a place to live by Wednesday, the new deadline set by the judge.
“I can’t live on the street. I’ve got oxygen at home,” fretted Karen Everett, 61, who would have been staying at the Rosemoor three years next month.
That’s why it’s so important to save what’s left of these SROs.
Tricia Jones recently relocated to the bed bug capital of the United States – Chicago, IL. In her very first Chicago apartment, she was welcomed by a full blown infestation. She didn’t know what to do so, as many of us would, she hit the internet and found MTO. A call to the tenants rights hotline developed into a relationship lasting months which would yield – not only improved living conditions – but a stronger and more cooperative relationship with her landlord.
How did she get from point A (a horrible bed bug problem and no relationship with landlord) to point B (a great living situation and great relationship with landlord)?
First, Tricia connected with a hotline volunteerwho informed her of her rights under the Bed Bug Ordinance. (This is always a good first move!) She was told that it was important to establish a pattern of communication with her landlord. She had the right, indeed the obligation, to inform her landlord of the bed bug problem in writing. If the problem was not addressed within 10 days, she had the right to withhold a portion of her rent – she was advised to hold onto the money so that when issues were addressed she would have the rent she owed to pay. She was also advised to send the letter certified mail to create a paper trail. The 10 days came and went – no action was taken and Tricia started withholding a portion of her rent. (Things are looking bleak for Tricia, but read on…)
In the meantime, another issue surfaced and Tricia again contacted MTO. The hotline counselor again advised her that she needed to inform her landlord of the problem in writing (certified mail) and give him 14 days to address the issue. Again, Tricia followed this advice. This time her landlord did respond: with an eviction notice. Tricia called MTO. We referred her to the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing, but fortunately, Tricia ran into the owner of the building on the street. The owner was the father of her landlord – and Tricia told him her story. He called his son for a meeting and the son denied ever hearing from Tricia! Fortunately, Tricia could produce certificates of having notified him on numerous occasions. (Remember that great advice the hotline counselor gave her?) She also was able to pay all of the back rent she withheld (because she held onto it) when the owner agreed to immediately address her concerns. Eviction charges were dropped and Tricia’s apartment was painted and repaired.
The next time Tricia called MTO it was to thank the hotline counselor who walked her through these first difficult days in her apartment. (That was Sara. Sara is really great.) She hopes to train to become a hotline counselor in the future so that she can provide this kind of support to other renters in need.
There are few things more disturbing than moving to a new place and having your sanctuary – your new home – be a source of immediate chaos. Tricia did everything right in this situation. She documented all communication to her landlord, and she held onto the rent she withheld. Most importantly – she called MTO. We’re here to help!
July is membership monthat Metropolitan Tenants Organization and we hope each and every one of you will join the movement for housing justice! There are many ways to get involved as members. Every bit of support means a better life for more Chicagoans.