Leland Building- Organizing Success

For most of us, 2020 has been a year of trials and tribulations. A seemingly never-ending barrage of new challenges has confronted us at the turn of each season. As Chicagoans continue to grapple with a deadly global pandemic, many are struggling desperately to hang on to the only thing that can keep them safe: their homes.

After moving into her two-bedroom Albany Park apartment with her teenage daughter in January, Ferrus Najemba felt safe and secure. Victor Munoz, who had lived next door with his wife and two daughters for 13 years, felt the same way. But that all had changed by May of this year, when all 20 or so tenants in the seven-unit building were told that they had to go. Just five days after purchasing the building on May 23rd, the new owner, Brian McFadden, sent 30-day notices to the tenants telling them they must leave by the end of June.

Salvadore Alvarez holds up a copy of the 30-day notice he received outside of his apartment building on September 4, 2020.

Everyone in the building had always paid rent dutifully. Many of the tenants, most of whom are immigrants with children, have lived in the building for years. Their former landlord never mentioned anything about selling the building. The tenants were surprised, confused, and angry. In hopes of delaying their ouster from the building, Ferrus and her neighbors worked with organizers from Metropolitan Tenants Organization and the Autonomous Tenants Union to form a tenants union and demand one-year leases for all current residents.

The newly formed Leland Tenants Union (named after the street where they reside) tried to meet with the owner, but he ignored them for weeks. They worked with their Alderman (Carlos Ramirez Rosa (35th), and held a press conference outside their building in September. “He has not called me back. Pick up the phone, Brian. Sit down with these tenants. They’re prepared to sign permanent leases. They’re prepared to pay rent. Do the right thing,” Rosa said. One by one, tenants from the building shared their stories and demanded a meeting with McFadden. “When we got the eviction notices, it was heartbreaking and scary. I was angry,” Victor Muñoz said during the press conference, his voice cracking with emotion. “I started worrying about my kids. How am I going to keep a roof over their heads during this pandemic?”.

Victor Munoz speaks during the press conference outside his apartment on September 4, 2020.

The tenants union didn’t stop making their demands, and their dedication paid off. A week after their protest, negotiations with McFadden resumed. In October, McFadden agreed to waive back rent and give all the tenants one-year leases.

Today, MTO is joining the Leland Tenants Union and the thousands of renters across Chicago calling for a Just Cause bill, which would eliminate no-cause evictions, give more time to tenants who do have to move, and put certain limits on reasons why a landlord can displace a tenant. With such a bill, tenants like Victor and Ferrus would be protected, and our communities would be that much safer.

Drexel Tenants Win Relocation

Tenants at 4625 S Drexel formed a tenants association.  The building was in horrendous condition and the owner of the building in April of last year decided to close the building and evict all the tenants.  The tenants flyered the building and met monthly.  They all called the city to report  the building’s numerous building code violations and to request an inspection.  The City inspected the building.  The City told the owner to fix the building.  Then the heat went out.  The landlord tried to use this as an excuse to evict all the tenants and issued everyone 30 day notices to vacate the building.  At court the judge ordered the owner to fix it.  Then the water went out.  The judge ordered the landlord to pay each of the 17 remaining tenants $1200 relocation assistance.  This was on top of the 3 months the tenants did not have to pay rent.  The tenants won $51,000 plus months of additional time to find a new residence.

BHF Tenants Work Together

Tenants living in buildings owned by the Better Housing Foundation continue to advocate for the City of Chicago building court system to improve their housing. One such family – the Finkle’s – reached out to Amy de la Fuente, one of MTO’s Healthy Homes organizers, about mold, mushrooms and water damage in their unit. Ms. Finkle is wheelchair bound and lives with her son. She asked her son to email photos of the unit conditions to Amy, who in turn shared the photos with the program officer from the Community Investment Corporation (CIC), a partner in a citywide effort to preserve the Better Housing Foundation’s buildings. Mrs. Finkle’s son decided to attend the next court hearing to speak about the conditions.

Young Mr. Finkle, who suffers from asthma, attended court. He met with Amy and prepared his talking points. When the judge called his building, he and several neighbors from the building stepped forward to testify. With Amy by his side, Mr. Finkle advocated in favor of safe, decent and healthy housing for himself and his mother. The judge, city attorney and program officer all listened and asked questions. Because of the tenant testimony, the judge authorized the receiver to make repairs related to water damage and to relocate tenants as necessary. As he left the courtroom, Mr. Finkle turned to Amy, shook her hand and said, “Thank you. Thank you so much.” It is strong tenant advocacy, like that of the Finkle family, which leads to positive outcomes for residents living in these buildings.

MTO and CIC, have worked diligently for the past nine months to help preserve affordable housing and keeps tenants stably housed in over 75 failing Better Housing Foundation buildings. The work is ongoing. For more information or to see how you can help, contact Amy at amyf@tenants-rights.org.

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.

Pilsen Tenants Fight Back Against Mass Eviction

Signs outside 1722 W 21st.

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.

Check out the Twitter story below!

MTO Volunteer Helps Prevent Homelessness

photoBy: Riley HB Riley

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.

Judge Orders Slumlord Millionaire to Pay Rosemoor Tenants For Move

thomasmaria
Photo by Brian Sokolowski

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.

By Mark Brown. This article was originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times

Welcome to Chicago, Here Are Your Bed Bugs.

IMAG1401Tricia 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 volunteer who 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 month at 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.

 Volunteer your time, make a donation, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook!

Tenants Organize to Force Owner to Negotiate

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.

 

Empowered Seniors at 353 E. 53rd Street

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.