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.
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.
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.
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.
Single Room Occupancy hotels provide some of the poorest people in our communities with housing. While this is hardly housing of choice, many residents of Chicago are very grateful the option exists. At least this is the case with residents of the New Jackson Hotel, a downtown SRO that houses mostly low-income seniors and people with disabilities. Recently, one of its residents contacted the MTO Hotline. He reported mice, mold, holes in walls and ceilings, and only sporadic access to heat. Chief among his concerns was the fact that the owner has stopped accepting rent, which signaled to him that the building was about to be shut down.
MTO sent an organizer out to help the tenants form a tenants association. MTO’s support empowered them to work together to take steps to save their housing. First, they persuaded the owner to begin receiving rent again, which gave them some security around keeping a roof over their heads. Hoping to build on that success, they sought to negotiate with him for better living conditions. At first the landlord refused to negotiate. Tenants contacted their Alderman and enlisted the support of Interfaith Housing Development Corporation, a non-profit developer of affordable housing. Working with MTO, the Alderman’s office and Interfaith, the tenants succeeded in bringing their landlord to the table to negotiate around building repairs.
The tenants’ demands are simple: A clear plan for the future of the building, repair of all conditions issues or appropriate reduction of rent, and the cessation of illegal evictions and lockouts.
After several months of contacting 311, working with lawyers, and focusing on the Alderman, the owner was forced to negotiate. He was stopped lockouts and evictions, and offered all tenants a relocation deal equal to 2,000 per tenant.
In January of 2011, tenants from a senior building at 353 E. 53rd Street called MTO complaining of repair problems in their building. The hotline counselor suggested building organizing to help address the building problems and shortly after, an MTO organizer contacted the residents to arrange a visit to the building. At the first meeting, MTO conducted a Residential Landlord and Tenants Ordinance (RLTO) workshop.
Problems in the building included poorly hung apartment doors that would sometimes trap residents in their apartments, large gaps around the doors and peepholes that were too high to use. Together, tenants began organizing by electing acting tenant officers, writing joint letters to management and HUD that notified them of the building conditions, and joining the Metropolitan Tenants Organization as members.
On February 16, tenants met with management. Tenant leaders expressed their concerns to management, who promptly provided a timeline for some of the needed repairs, including the poorly hung apartment doors. Management committed to working with the newly formed resident organization to resolve repair issues.
As the month of February concludes, tenants are reporting that work is being completed as promised. The resident organization will continue to meet monthly to advocate for residents’ rights in the building.
In August of 2008 tenants from a building in Englewood called MTO’s Tenants Rights Hotline complaining about egregious conditions including broken security locks, pest infestations, and lack of essential services, like heat. MTO immediately sent organizers out to assess the situation. The Ada-Throop buildings are subsidized by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In addition to confirming the deplorable conditions tenants reported, MTO organizers learned that the building was in foreclosure and that the building’s subsidy was at risk.
The Ada-Throop buildings, in many ways, represent the predicament that the foreclosure crisis has caused in many tenants’ lives. The tenants in Ada-Throop lived in quickly deteriorating conditions because the owner was either unwilling or unable to attend to the upkeep of the building, let alone pay the mortgage. Often unresolved repairs are the first sign of a landlord in foreclosure. Because of unacceptable building conditions, there was fear HUD would eliminate the subsidy of the property, and thus everyone would have to move.
Foreclosures also put into question the person ‘in charge’ during the court process. The courts, the banks, or the old owner often do not want to invest the needed resources in foreclosure buildings.
Fortunately, the tenants worked together with MTO to take back control over their living conditions. The tenants association secured the assistance of the City of Chicago’s Troubled Building Initiative and a court appointed receiver took over management of the buildings. Working with the court appointed management company, tenants continued to organize, heat was restored in the building and conditions were improved.
Thanks to the efforts of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization working in conjunction with the Shriver Center, the Community Investment Corporations (CIC) and HUD, these buildings and their affordable housing subsidizes were all preserved. Today, there remain problems and obstacles to overcome in the building. But since the tenants have organized, conditions have improved and new owners will soon be ready to take over the buildings. These new owners are currently looking into securing loans to do rehabilitation work on these affordable subsidized buildings.
On December 17th a tenant residing at 634 N. Ridgeway called the Metropolitan Tenants Organizations (MTO) hotline in regards to no heat. The tenant was referred to MTO organizers who immediately went to the building. The tenants believed that the landlord had purposely turned off the heat in response to late payments on rent. The tenant had recently lost her job and was unable to pay her rent in full.
Organizers had the tenant call 311, get the 311 reference number and write out a 24 hour Heat and Essential Service letter to the landlord. Organizers also contacted attorneys for the City of Chicago to complain about the lockout.
On the following day the tenant sent a letter to the landlord warning of the consequences of a lockout along with the 24 hour letter demanding the immediate restoration of heat and sent the certified mail. The landlord refused to restore the heat. On December 22nd building inspectors came out to the building and found it to be not compliant and in a dangerous and hazardous condition.
Still the landlord refused to restore the heat. MTO worked with the tenant and the Corporation Counsel to document that this was in fact an illegal lockout and that the gas was intentionally shutoff because he wanted the tenants out.
On December 29, the tenant with MTO organizers appeared in Housing Court in front of Judge Clay-Clark. The landlord tried to deny responsibility for the shutoff but the evidence was on the tenant’s side and the judge ruledthe landlord was non compliant with city code, was found to have been interfering with utility services, and having committed a lockout on the tenants. As a result a receiver was placed in the building to work with the tenant in restoring the heat immediately to the unit. Hopefully this will send a message to landlords that lockouts are illegal. A follow up court date was set for January 19th 2010.
Tenants from the building located at 3045 W 63rd St. call the MTO because their building was in horrible condition and they were not going to take it anymore. When the MTO organizers arrived at the building the first thing that that they noticed was there was no heat in the building along with security problems such as, locks not working on entrance doors. Tenants highlighted other problems such as pests (roaches, mice and rats), doors and door frame problems going into apartments, leaky pipes among other issues in the building.
The tenants organized a tenants association. A group of them called 311 (the City’s complaint number) and asked for reference numbers. Several tenants also wrote out 24 hour letters concerning the heat problem. On December 10th organizers sent letters via certified mail to the Management Company, contacted a City of Chicago Building Attorney and contacted a Community Investment Corporation Program Officer in charge of the Trouble Building Initiative.
Two days later City Inspectors toured the building and found the building to be in non compliance with City code. That same day the Management Company sent repair people to the property and the heat was turned back on around midnight and an open window in a common area was boarded up.
After their victory the tenants are inspired to keep organizing. MTO organizers are working with the tenants association to fix the rest of the problems. Tenants learned about their renters’ rights and now they are writing 14 day letters concerning conditions and repairs. Their next meeting is set for January 4 at the Southwest Youth Collaborative.