Vacated buildings can leave tenants on brink of homelessness

By Stephanie Choporis

A loud knocking woke Brandon Williams one night in late 2014 in his fourth floor apartment on South Shore Drive.

“When people used to knock on my door there, I would know that it wasn’t my neighbor because she would usually call,” said Williams, 34.

He typically would not answer but the knocking persisted.

“Okay,” he remembered thinking. “Whoever this is, they’re about to get it.”

When he opened the door, he saw a man who reminded him of Uncle Ruckus, a character on a cartoon called “The Boondocks.” Uncle Ruckus has a receding hairline, gray ponytail, mustache, soul patch, potbelly, arched eyebrows and sideburns.

Williams said the only differences were that this man was slim and had black hair. He had previously seen the man several times walking through the building or sitting in the hallway, but the man did not live there, Williams said. He believed the man was homeless.

As the man stood at the door mumbling, the smell of feces trickled into Williams’ room, which contained a bed, small wall locker and mini-refrigerator. He closed the door and the man walked away. When he woke up the next morning to go to work, the smell lingered in the room and hallway.

“He was nowhere to be found, but it was like his smell didn’t want to go,” Williams said.

Williams began renting at the building in May 2014, and one of the first things he noticed was the hallway “stench:” a mix of cigarettes, urine, marijuana, feces. Tobacco ashes were scattered along the stairwell along with used condoms and fast-food bags with leftover odors of barbecue sauce.

“I just saw that it was going to be a challenge,” Williams said, but he knew it would only be temporary.

He said he found the room on the Chicago Housing Authority’s website, where it was listed as a single room occupancy apartment. Such apartments offer lower rents through a housing assistance program and might include, like his did,  a communal kitchen and bathrooms.

Williams was looking for a way to pay rent while paying tuition for a commercial driver’s license program, and this apartment at 7270 S. South Shore Dr. cost approximately $350 per month, he said.

He said he spent the first three days scouring his room and the already-provided bed frame and air mattress with ammonia, bleach, and bed bug spray to make conditions habitable.

“It was that bad,” he said.

But despite all of the cleaning, he still found bed bugs two days later. So, he replaced the bed set-up, cleaned again and placed cold weather tape over every crack in the room.

The building has five floors and about 70 units, said Williams and Aisha Truss-Miller, a community organizer at the Metropolitan Tenants Organization. In an October inspection, the city found a missing fire alarm and smoke detectors, expired fire extinguisher tags, among other violations, according to the city’s building data warehouse. The shower drain in the bathroom Williams shared with his neighbor would fill up after running water for 30 seconds, and the sink was braced on two wooden blocks, he said.

“So, if you lean on it too hard, the sink would fall.”

But the biggest problem for Williams were trespassers and some of the other tenants. He said young men, only some of whom lived in the building, would sit in the stairwell and smoke marijuana. Even though the housing authority ad promoted one person per unit, he said up to eight people would sometimes dwell in one apartment.

Another woman who lived down the hall from Williams would have arguments with herself, holler for no apparent reason and pour buckets of water down the hall and stairwell, he said.

“So it was like, you come in, and you would think that it rained inside of the building,” he said.

It was often difficult to determine who were actually paying tenants.

“They would be there all day selling drugs out of the building,”  he said.

After the Circuit Court of Cook County ordered the building vacated this March because it posed a health, safety and welfare threat to tenants, Truss-Miller visited the building to inform residents of their rights. She found an incorrect handwritten note saying the city could not remove tenants yet since it was still winter.

With copies of the actual city notice, she passed them out to residents and confirmed that they needed to move out by March 9.

When Williams learned of the order to vacate, he was already planning to move. He said each tenant was initially given $500 and another $1,500 in relocation assistance. Truss-Miller said $1,000 of this assistance was paid by the city and the remaining money was paid by the temporary limited receiver, Globetrotters Engineering Corporation, on behalf of the property owner. She said this was the first time that she has seen the city provide funds for relocation assistance that the property owner is expected to pay.

The morning after they received the first payment, Williams quickly left and stayed with a friend while he waited for a new apartment to be readied. A fellow fourth-floor tenant found a building with available apartments at 78th Street and South Shore Drive and spread the word.

He moved in and has been there ever since.

“I’m relaxed now,” he said. “I’m chillin’.”

Mimi Simon, spokeswoman for the city’s department of buildings, said the city usually becomes aware of a building’s conditions after a tenant calls to report a problem. An inspector is then sent to examine the property, and violations are issued based on adherence to the city’s building code.

“Normally, when we see something dangerous and hazardous, we refer it directly to circuit court,” Simon said.

She said a lack of heat and hot water, missing smoke detectors and flooding water are just some conditions that would make a building dangerous enough to vacate tenants.

Once a building’s case is in circuit court, Simon said a judge works with building owners to reach compliance and, as a last resort, the property is vacated.

Truss-Miller started working at the Metropolitan Tenants Organization last August and has already worked with four or five buildings that have received orders to vacate, at least a couple of which were unlicensed single room occupancies.

When faced with such orders, she said tenants often face homelessness. Some have resorted to living in their cars with their children. She said a city notice usually gives 30 or 60 days to vacate the property, but negligent landlords typically wait to notify tenants of an order to vacate because they still want to collect rent.

“The folks that I’ve helped, it’s been the same week that they are requested to move out that they get the notice, which is dated weeks ago,” Truss-Miller said.

In a case she is currently working on in the Pilsen area, tenants are still fighting to receive more than $1,000 in refunds for their security deposits and rent payments from October and November. At a court date on June 2, she said one out of 15 tenants was refunded all of her money, and other tenants were told that they would receive refunds from the buyer of the building, providing the sale goes through.

From instances thus far, Truss-Miller said it is fairly common for a building to be vacated if it has unsafe conditions, particularly in winter months.

“Because there’s no heat in the building, pipes freeze,” she said. “Therefore, toilet water freezes and therefore, there’s no water.”

She saw this very situation back in January at another building vacated in the South Shore neighborhood, she said. In the warmer months, she said she has seen renovations take place while tenants remain in a building. Rather than accrue an expense by relocating residents, she said landlords keep them in place and continue to collect rent.

The city’s department of law did not provide information on the number of buildings that have been issued orders to vacate in the past year.

But the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University compiled neighborhood data from 2010 to 2013 of residential addresses that were vacant for at least two years. As of 2013’s fourth quarter, Riverdale had the highest vacancy rate at 23.4 percent, followed by Englewood at 9.7 percent and South Chicago at 9.1 percent. The city’s total hovered between 2 and 3 percent over that span of time. Not all the vacancies are due to code violations, however.

The South Shore neighborhood ranked 18th at the end of 2013 with a rate of 4.3 percent, a steady decrease from 6.3 percent in 2012. The Resident Association of Greater Englewood and the Pullman Civic Organization did not return a request for comment.

For 7270 S. South Shore Drive, Truss-Miller felt particularly  invested in the outcome and finding housing for residents since the building is located just down the street from her home.

“Regardless of it being my job, it’s like this is also my community and more than 70 people are about to become homeless in less than two weeks,” she remembered thinking as the building was vacated.

In addition to referring Williams, Truss-Miller said she helped about five people from 7270 S. South Shore Drive secure new housing at 78th Street and South Shore Drive. Although this was beyond her typical responsibilities, she said it was the first time that her attempts to help tenants obtain new housing went through.

But with less than two weeks to find a new place, others did not locate a space so quickly.

“I bump into them at the grocery store and the bus stop, and a lot of them are homeless,” Truss-Miller said. “A lot of them say they are homeless.”

Ald. Gregory Mitchell (7th), recently elected to serve in the ward where the building is located, did not return phone calls regarding this matter. However, his campaign website indicates that he plans to destroy dangerous properties, guarantee compliance with city ordinances and hold property owners accountable, even for vacant properties.

ATG Trust Company, trustee of the property and named as a defendant in court documents, declined to comment.

Williams said he tried to make the best of his time at the building, and if necessary, he would contend with poor conditions in the future to pursue his goals.

“I don’t plan on having to again, but if I had to, I would,” he said. “That’s life.”

Photo at top: Buildings vacated due to unsafe conditions add to the homeless population. Adrienne Hurst/Medill