Tired of mold, mice and mismanagement, Chicago tenants take a stand

Housing advocates are pushing for legislation that would require the city to mandate regular building inspections, rather than relying on tenants to file complaints and pressure landlords for improvements.

During the 17 years that Jolondon Jamerson, 56, lived in her apartment building in Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood, she flew under the radar of her various management companies. But after learning that other tenants were getting organized in 2020, she started telling them about mold, mice, broken doors, lack of working smoke detectors and heating cuts in winter – problems that lasted For years.

“We’ve been forced to use our stoves and ovens or buy electric heaters, and people are already living on a fixed income,” says Jamerson.

The tenants of three different buildings operated by the same management company, BSD Realty, have organized with the help of Metropolitan Tenant Organization. Jamerson took a leadership role in his building and began speaking to the media, including a press conference in January.

BSD fixed some of the issues. Jamerson says they sprayed bleach on the mold, which eventually grew back. They put in new carpet instead of repairing the damaged floor. Jamerson also says the management company offered to move her to another apartment, which she declined.

Then, when Jamerson paid his April rent with a money order, the management company claimed not to have received it. They immediately sent her a five-day eviction notice, along with a claim that she had missed $9,300 in payments, more than a year of her $650 monthly rent. Jamerson returned the notice to the management company and told them the number was wrong. The management company has revised the amount to only the rent for April and Maywhich Jamerson says she will attempt to pay again, this time asking for a receipt after giving it to someone in person.

Jamerson says the company also told her that if she stopped talking to the press, they could find a solution rather than an eviction. In an email to Next City, the company said: ‘We have offered money to the tenant to help her move out. We have never stipulated any conditions concerning the communication to the press. In the email, the company also appeared to revise the rent amount again, saying Jamerson owed more than eight months in back rent. Jamerson says the company didn’t tell her where to send the rent payment when it took over the building last July, and the company has admitted it didn’t list her of rent before January, which may have led to her being exploited by a scammer.

“I work across the street; you’re not going to force me out,” Jamerson said, she replied. “And I will stand up for what is right. Not just for me, but for all tenants.

Jamerson and his attorneys believe the April lost rent payment and eviction notice were retaliation by the management company in response to long-neglected maintenance requests. That’s why she and tenant advocates are pushing for two pieces of legislation they say provide better enforcement of repairs and prevent retaliatory landlord evictions.

A law Project introduced last year and called Just Cause would limit the reasons a landlord can evict a tenant or refuse to renew a lease. Landlords could only evict for non-payment or for creating a nuisance. They could also evict a tenant if the landlord chooses to occupy a unit themselves, but they would have to provide money in advance for the tenant to move out. Another bill called the Chicago Healthy Homes Inspection Program would require the city to proactively inspect every apartment building at least once every five years, with more frequency in buildings that have already been violated. This legislation, which has yet to be introduced, would also create a landlord registry to better track who owns each building, limiting confusion and fraud.

“Flaws in the system are easily exploited, and it is very profitable to exploit them,” says Sam Clendenning, an organizer with the Metropolitan Tenants Organization. He believes the $9,300 arrears claim was a way to quickly force Jamerson out.

“This is clearly a bullying tactic, as one of the key elements of evictions is that you have to prove your ability to repay your arrears to avoid an eviction without payment,” he says. Proactive inspection legislation would prevent people like Jamerson from having to protest for repairs and prevent retaliatory evictions when people speak up.

“Ms. Jamerson was only put in this position because there was no pressure on the landlords to fix these major issues,” Clendenning says. In another BSD-managed building, 7300 South Wabash, Clendenning says that the tenants received threatening phone calls after organizing telling them the eviction was imminent all last weekend. When Clendenning asked BSD about the calls, they denied any involvement.”Our office is closed on weekends and therefore we deny these allegations,” BSD told Next City in an email.)

Just Cause legislation was presented to the council’s housing committee in 2021, but there has been no progress since then. If passed, it could prevent further harassment from some of Jamerson’s neighbors — harassment she says has included illegal lockouts. According to Jamerson, a neighbor had the door kicked in while she was at work and had her things taken away; the same thing happened to an elderly neighbor while he was at a doctor’s appointment. BSD has denied any involvement in the incidents, but other neighbors say the perpetrators claimed they were working on behalf of management.

“We have a few tenants who have received eviction notices for complaining, and that’s why these two orders go hand in hand,” says Laura Garcia, an organizer with the Metropolitan Tenants Organization. “A [ordinance] supports the other. »

Like many cities, including New York, Chicago has a complaints-based inspection system. Tenants must call 311 to record maintenance violations, often waiting weeks or months for inspectors to show up. A survey 2021 by the Chicago Tribune and the Better Government Association found that the city’s flawed system of inspections and enforcement resulted in 61 deaths. According to the survey, between 2015 and 2019, two dozen buildings where fatal fires occurred had gone five years without inspection. According to the survey, Chicago inspectors often cut short an inspection if they can’t get inside a building.

This situation didn’t just start this year, last year. Before the pandemic, people would call 311 to complain,” says Jamerson.

According to Chicago Department of Building records, Jamerson’s apartment building has failed four city inspections since January 2020. A inspection as of late April marks the building as “partially adopted” without any further information. A July 2021 inspection showed the building had missing fire extinguishers, peeling paint, broken glass on the doors, leaking toilets and a lack of hot water.

Other cities that rely on proactive inspections include Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Dallas, Detroit and Boston. A Healthy Homes ordinance bill shared with Next City would require every Chicago property to be inspected at least once every five years. Owners would be fined $70 per violation and could incur late fees for non-payment. Units with uncorrected violations would have their rents frozen.

The bill also establishes a mandatory register that would list the owner of each unit, including contact details, as well as the current rent for the unit. There would be an annual registration fee of $80 per unit. Non-profit organizations could request a waiver of their fees. Small landowners would receive funds to carry out repairs, subsidized by large landowners.

According to MTO’s Laura Garcia, the goal is to launch a pilot program in two of the city’s neighborhoods, including a low-income neighborhood and a mixed-income neighborhood. She says advocates are still trying to get support from members of the city council’s budget committee. The registration fee of $80 per unit would be used to maintain the register and hire additional inspectors. If every dwelling in the city was properly registered, it could bring the city more than $96 million a year.

While advocates believe the legislation would be cost-effective, Jamerson has been told by city officials that it would take too long to hire additional staff for inspections. “Now they say the problem is they have a shortage.. poppycock, I don’t believe it,” Jamerson said.

According to Chicago GrandstandChicago had 178 home inspectors in 2021, up from 200 inspectors in 2011. In order to inspect Chicago estimates 576,000 rental units within five years, the city would need enough inspectors to check 316 units a day (including weekends). A 2014 law in Boston aimed to proactively inspect all units in the city by 2019, but it began without enough inspectors, according to the Tribune. The city says it’s making progress.

There is currently not enough support for either bill among Chicago aldermen. Mayor Lightfoot and her predecessor instead implemented mostly token reforms that faltered, according to the Grandstand. Jamerson and his supporters are hopeful that both bills will eventually pass. She wants landlords to be held responsible for necessary repairs and that it be the city’s responsibility, not her roommates, to force those repairs.

“I feel like the building is cancer and they’re putting bandages on the cancer,” she says. “Where is the real help? Where are landlords or building owners held accountable for their negligence? Where we don’t see it just being swept under the rug, like the rug they put down in my building.

Roshan Abraham is Next City’s housing correspondent and a former Equitable Cities Fellow. He is based in Queens. Follow him on Twitter at @roshantone.

Julio V. Miller