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.