“Squared Away Chicago” Renters App Now on-line!

CHICAGO — A first-in-the-nation web-based app to facilitate communications and improve relations between tenants and landlords, “Squared Away Chicago”, was launched today by the Metropolitan Tenants Organization (MTO) at a reception for housing and technology leaders hosted by The Chicago Community Trust.

Click HERE to use our web app now!   

Squared Away Chicago is a free web-based app that any landlord or tenant can access through a URL link,  squaredawaychicago.com. It is designed to be used on any mobile phone browser and to take advantage of a mobile phone’s tools and convenience.

“Every day, tenants turn to MTO for support in resolving their housing problems and the Squared Away Chicago app not only will increase our capacity to serve, but by applying modern communication tools it promises to revolutionize the way landlords and tenants do business,” said John Bartlett, executive director, Metropolitan Tenants Organization. “Whether you are a student renting for the first time or life-long renter, the app will provide tools tenants and landlords need to succeed and avoid common pitfalls which lead to dissatisfaction and possible evictions.”

The app provides access – at the touch of a finger – to resources, knowledge about rights and the ability to document and share issues between tenants and landlords in real-time, leading to faster issue resolution, increased accountability and fewer misunderstandings.

“Giving renters a way to take pictures and send and store communications gives us a leg up in documenting and resolving issues before they turn into bigger problems,” said Ashley Dearborn, a local Chicago tenant. “The app also helps renters like me understand the laws that our landlords must follow so we can know what our rights are.”

Likewise, landlords have their own set of challenges in providing information and updates to tenants and maintaining constructive communications. “The Squared Away Chicago app is a great tool for tenants, owners and management companies and hopefully it can help to improve the communication between all the parties,” saidEiran Feldman, principal with First InSite Realty, an owner and management company in Chicago. The goal of the app is to promote  good rental practices that lead to more stable tenancies and reduce turnover.

APP FEATURES FACILITATE COMMUNICATION & BUILD RELATIONS

The Squared Away Chicago app is designed to support both tenants and landlords by enabling them to improve the landlord-tenant relationship through increased communication and accountability. The creation of the app was supported by the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur FoundationThe Chicago Community Trust, and theMarguerite Casey Foundation. 

“The Squared Away Chicago app has the potential for nationwide adoption, serving as a significant resource to build a community of informed and engaged tenants and landlords,” said Julia M. Stasch, Vice President of U.S. Programs at the MacArthur Foundation. “The best practices and documentation capacity of the Squared Away app are universal features that can serve as a platform to help build a more efficient and better functioning rental housing market for all households.”

With the Squared Away Chicago mobile app, tenants and landlords will have these four features at their fingertips:

  • Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance (RLTO): Accessing the law provides users with knowledge about the rights of tenants and landlords.
  • Photo Sharing: Tenants can take/upload photos of issues, creating a visual record that is instantly accessible to the landlord.
  • Letter Templates: Specific details of housing-related issues can be inserted in template documents and then accurately and quickly shared with landlords.
  • Report a Problem: Provides the ability to track communications about issues and organize and save the string of communications for reference and documentation.

“As a resource for members of the Marguerite Casey Foundation’s family-led Equal Voice Campaign, the Squared Away app will serve to strengthen the voice of low-income families, supporting informed and engaged tenants and landlords that will ultimately serve to build awareness of renters’ housing rights and options,” said Edgar Villanueva, program officer, Marguerite Casey Foundation.

APP DESIGN ADDRESSES NEEDS OF TENANTS & LANDLORDS

Through MTO’s 28 years of experience serving renters in Chicago, the organization has found that poor communication and a lack of awareness of rental laws often leads to unresolved housing issues, dissatisfaction, unnecessary evictions and/or loss of rental income, as well as costs associated with turnover and a devaluing of property.

When Greater Good Studio, a Chicago-based firm using design methods to solve social problems, was enlisted to identify a set of app features that would best support tenants and landlords through the rental life cycle, they looked at what makes a successful tenancy. Their review found that a successful tenant-landlord relationship occurred when there was a communicative relationship, problems and issues were resolved, and the tenant and landlord maintained long-term mindsets.

To promote successful tenancies, Greater Good Studio identified that the app needed to address the following issues:

  • Assist tenants in following best practices and acting according to their rights.
  • Encourage both parties to keep a lasting, shared record of housing-related issues.
  • Support landlords and tenants in building relationships and maintaining clear, responsive communication.
  • Identify opportunities for working together across the rental journey, from move-in to repairs to seasonal issues to deposit return.

“Our human-centered design research informed the development of the most critical features, a process for registering issues and a shared timeline for both parties to view progress toward issue resolution. These features solve the often emotional process of tenant-landlord communications, while being delivered through a simple, intuitive user interface,” said Sara Cantor Aye, founder, Greater Good Studio.

The development of the app was completed by Chicago firms Philamonjaro Studios and DevMynd, taking into account the need for a user-friendly design and functionality that was both easy and quick to navigate and facilitated communications about housing-related issues.

“The Squared Away app uses responsive Web design which means there is no downloading or updating required, making it easy for tenants and landlords to access and start the process in the moment of need,” said Dan O’Neil, executive director, Smart Chicago Collaborative. “This user-friendly app is focused on issue resolution and asks for the minimum amount of information necessary to kick off communications, offering a great resource for people to get squared with their abode in Chicago.”

APP OFFERS BROADER ACCESS TO RESOURCES FOR TENANTS & LANDLORDS

According to a May 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, cell phone and wireless laptop internet use have each grown more prevalent, with six in ten American adults going online wirelessly using either a mobile phone or a laptop with a wireless internet connection. Further, 40% of adults use the internet, email or instant messaging on a mobile phone.

“Internet and social media usage has grown exponentially as mobile devices have become more accessible. The Squared Away Chicago app is a cutting-edge example of capitalizing on this channel to build a more effective relationship between landlords and low-income tenants through the virtual world,” said Juanita Irizarry, senior program officer, Human Services & Community Development, The Chicago Community Trust.

While thousands of renters currently use MTO’s website, proving the need for web-based rental housing information, the Pew study demonstrates the additional need for an app or internet access compatible with mobile devices.

“The Squared Away Chicagoapp is a true innovation and national example that will benefit renters and landlords throughout the region and improve the quality and livability of housing in the Chicago area,” said Lawrence Grisham, managing deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development.

Click HERE to watch a video about Squared Away Chicago and make sure to visit www.squaredawaychicago.com!

 

 

Report challenges tie between housing vouchers, crime: Chicago Tribune

 

Renters’ use of housing choice vouchers, more commonly known as Section 8 vouchers, long has worried communities that the arrival of voucher-holding tenants in a neighborhood will lead to crime and, eventually, lower property values.

That’s not true, says a new policy brief by researchers who studied crime patterns and voucher use in Chicago and nine other large cities over a number of years.

Read more here.

Chicago Tribune – March 29, 2013

Clergy Support Source of Income Campaign

MTO, Access Living and Progress Center Illinois held a Prayer Breakfast regarding the Source of Income amendment on January 15,  2013 at Pearl’s Place in Chicago.  Over forty pastors and community leaders from across the city and suburbs were in attendance to hear from Housing Choice Voucher holders about experiences with discrimination based on their income.

Currently, the City of Chicago already prohibits landlords from discriminating against voucher holders.  In the suburbs of Cook County, landlords can and do deny people housing solely because they have a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher.  The Source of Income amendment is a protection that would require landlords to consider renting to Housing Choice Voucher holders.  It would not force a landlord to participate in the program if the tenant does not meet typical requirements (i.e. poor credit rating, bad landlord reference).  The amendment would give people with vouchers the equal opportunity to housing.

On Thursday January 24, 2013 from 2-4 pm at Progress Center Blue Island, MTO, Access Living and Progress Center IL invite you to attend a Town Hall meeting discussing housing discrimination.  Come out and share your experiences with us, and help end housing discrimination and segregation.  If you believe in equal opportunity, join us and show your support.  For more information/transportation call us at 773-292-4980 ext. 224.

 

Renters Protest Oak Park’s Largest Landlord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Rally at City Hall Against Proposed Demolition of 1,800 CHA Units

On Friday, October 12th, Chicagoans gathered at City Hall to protest the Chicago Housing Authority’s (CHA) proposed demolition of 1800 public housing units. Metropolitan Tenants Organization’s tenant leaders in conjunction with the Chicago Housing Initiative (CHI) led the charge against the proposed cuts.

“We need these units leased up not knocked down,” said Executive Director of People for Community Recovery and Metropolitan Tenants Organization (MTO) member, Cheryl Johnson. Ms. Johnson who is a resident of Altgeld Gardens, expressed concern about the more than 600 units slated for demolition at Altgeld Gardens. “This is about our future and ability to stay in our community,” said Johnson. “If they knock these units down, what’s to stop CHA from knocking the rest of our community down.”

After hearing from the hundreds of tenants outside the Mayor’s office on the 5th floor, staff for Mayor Emanuel’s office agreed to meet with coalition representatives to discuss the proposals for demolition. Organizers are hopeful the Mayor will intervene to stop the demolitions.

“The CHA exists for only one reason and that is to provide affordable housing to low-income residents,” said Leah Levinger, coordinator of the Chicago Housing Initiative. “The CHI coalition will continue to raise public awareness around the issue of leasing these units out,” said Levinger. “We are asking that Mayor Emanuel intervene to set the CHA back on track.”

According to the CHI, over 60,000 people are on CHA’s waiting list. This, in a time when Chicagoan’s incomes are down as much as 10%, and local rental rates have – over the past few years – increased by 14%. MTO supports CHI’s efforts to push CHA to lease out more public housing units and opposes the proposed demolition.

For more information or to get involved in this campaign contact MTO community organizer Noah Moscowitz at 773.292.4980 ext 236 or at noah@tenants-rights.org.

Tenants Lead the Fight Against Discrimination

Low-income tenants throughout the city are fighting to end discrimination against voucher holders in suburban Cook County.  One tenant leader, Mr. Green wages an inspiring daily campaign from his wheelchair.  Mr. Green has lived at 1440 S. Indiana for about three years.  Residents of the building turn to Mr. Green to act as a liaison between them and the management.  His commitment to improving the quality of life for the tenants of his building led him to become a member of MTO.  Mr. Green not only works in his building, but also is a regular attendee of the monthly meetings of the Tenants Congress.  This group is leading the Source of Income campaign.

In Chicago, it is against the law to discriminate against Section 8 voucher holders.  However, in the suburbs, no such law applies.  The Source of Income Campaign is fighting to pass a law that will also make it illegal to discriminate against Section 8 voucher holders in suburban Cook County.  Although Mr. Green has no plans of moving out of Chicago any time soon, he has made this campaign his fight.  His advocacy for this campaign stems from his belief that people shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate regardless of your age, gender, abilities or race, or simply because you use a voucher.  His commitment to this campaign has moved him to spend several hours a week by the train station speaking to fellow Chicagoans about this issue and asking them support their suburban neighbors by signing the petition and calling the Cook County Commissioners to support the ordinance.

If you get off at the red line Roosevelt stop, Mr. Green may ask you to sign the petition to stop the discrimination in the suburbs.  Make sure to sign it, and ask Mr. Green how you can become more involved.

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.

When Bed Bugs Attack

Bed bugs have returned, invading our hospitals, hotels, public transportation, and most unsettling of all, our homes. While bed bugs do not transmit disease, bed bugs have proven to be a serious nuisance to homeowners and renters alike, across the nation.

While New York City leads the nation in reported incidents of bed bug infestations, according to an August 2010 report released by Terminix, the Windy City does not find itself far behind – we live in the fifth most bed bug infested city in the U.S. MTO can certainly attest to this, as hotline calls pertaining to bed bugs have increased dramatically in the last two years. In 2010, MTO received 313, usually very frantic, calls with complaints of bed bugs. Two years ago, bed bug calls to MTO’s hotline were nonexistent.

In response to this sudden reemergence of bed bugs in Chicago, MTO has led efforts to create a roundtable of representatives from HUD, EPA, Chicago Department of Public Health, Illinois Department of Public Health, and other invested agencies and community organizations. MTO is actively working with this group on creating a policy proposal for HUD subsidized buildings. Among other recommendations,  MTO has proposed the following to be included in a HUD policy on bed bugs:

-Landlords should disclose any known bed bug infestations within the previous 12 months to prospective renters,

-HUD should support an initiative for an educational campaign on bed bugs and pest control,

-Landlords should hire certified/licensed pest control professionals for both bed bug inspections and treatments,

-Landlords should encourage tenant notification of bed bug sightings by never retaliating against tenants (e.g. imposing fees, threatening eviction, etc),

-and HUD should allocate a long term source of funding to help landlords and renters combat bed bug infestations.

MTO is working on the bed bug issue at the state level as well. Meron Kahssai, an MTO Healthy Homes Organizer, has been appointed to the Illinois Subcommittee on Bed Bugs, a subcommittee of the Illinois Structural Pest Control Advisory Council. MTO will serve on this subcommittee as the voice of renters and will provide the necessary insight on the plight of renters to the other members of the state’s bed bug subcommittee. The goal of this subcommittee is to create a report with recommendations to the IL General Assembly on the prevention, management, and control of bed bugs which include recommendations on an educational campaign, proper transport and disposal of bed bug infested materials, and best practices of treatment and eradication.

Tenants who have dealt with bed bugs are encouraged to join MTO’s bed bug committee. This committee is open to anyone who is interested in serving the need of renters affected by bed bugs by pushing policies for both subsidized and market rate renters. Please contact Meron Kahssai at 773-292-4980 ext. 229, if interested.

Bed bugs will be the topic of discussion at the January 20th Tenant Congress meeting at the Chicago Urban League (4510 S. Michigan). Following a presentation on bed bugs, the floor will be open for a question and answer session. This meeting is open to the public.