Tired of Mold, Mice and Bad Management, Chicago Tenants Take a Stand

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

The Chatham neighborhood in Chicago (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

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For the 17 years Jolondon Jamerson, 56, has 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 organizing in 2020, she began talking to them about mold, mice, broken doors, lack of working smoke detectors and heat shut-offs in the winter — problems that had gone on for years.

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

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

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

Then, when Jamerson paid her April rent with a money order, the management company claimed not to have received it. They immediately sent her a five-day notice of eviction, tagged to a claim that she had missed $9,300 worth of payments, more than a year’s worth of her $650 monthly rent. Jamerson mailed the notice back to the management company and told them the number was wrong. The management company revised the amount to just April and May’s rent, which Jamerson says she will attempt to pay again, this time asking for a receipt after handing it off to someone in person.

Jamerson says the company also told her that if she stopped speaking to the press, they would be able to work something out rather than go through with an eviction. In an email to Next City, the company said, “We offered the tenant money to assist her to relocate. We have never stipulated any conditions regarding communicating to press.” In the email, the company also appeared to revise the rent amount again, claiming that Jamerson owed over eight months in back rent. Jamerson says the company did not notify her on where to send rent payment when they took over the building last July, and the company admitted that they did not have her on their rent rolls until January, possibly leading her to be taken advantage of by a scammer.

“I work across the street; you’re not going to force me out,” Jamerson says she responded. “And I’m going to speak up for what’s right. Not just for myself, but for all the tenants.”

Jamerson and advocates believe the lost April rent payment and eviction notice were retaliation from the management company in response to requests for long-neglected maintenance. This is why she and tenant advocates are pushing for two pieces of legislation they believe provide more enforcement for repairs and prevent retaliatory evictions from landlords.

One piece of legislation introduced last year called Just Cause would limit the reasons that a landlord can evict a tenant or refuse to renew a lease. Landlords would only be able to 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 would have to provide money upfront for the tenant to move. Another piece of legislation 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 received past violations. That legislation, which has not been introduced yet, would also create a landlord registry to better track who owns each building, something that would limit confusion and fraud.

“Loopholes in the system are easily exploited, and it’s 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.

“It’s clearly an intimidation tactic, because one of the key things for evictions is you need to prove your ability to pay back your arrears to avoid a non-payment eviction,” he says. The proactive inspection legislation would prevent people like Jamerson from having to protest for repairs and prevent retaliatory evictions when people do speak up.

“Ms. Jamerson was only put in that position because there was no pressure on the landlords to fix these major issues,” Clendenning says. At another building managed by BSD, 7300 South Wabash, Clendenning says tenants received threatening phone calls after organizing, telling them 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.)

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

“We do have a few tenants that have received eviction notes for complaining, and that’s why those two ordinances go hand-in-hand,” says Laura Garcia, an organizer with Metropolitan Tenants Organization. “One [ordinance] supports the other.”

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

This situation didn’t just start this year, last year. Before the pandemic, people were calling into 311 making complaints,” Jamerson says.

According to the Chicago Department of Building records, Jamerson’s apartment building failed four city inspections since January of 2020. An inspection from late April marks the building as “partial passed” without any other information. A July 2021 inspection showed that the building had missing fire extinguishers, peeling paint, shattered glass windows on 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 draft legislation of the Healthy Homes ordinance shared with Next City would require an inspection of every Chicago property at least once every five years. Landlords would be fined $70 per violation and could incur late fees for nonpayment. Units with uncorrected violations would have their rents frozen.

The draft legislation also establishes a mandatory registry that would list the owner of each unit, including contact information, as well as the current rent of the unit. There would be an annual $80 per unit registration fee. Nonprofits would be able to apply to have their fees waived. Smaller landlords would receive funding to make repairs, subsidized by larger landlords.

According to Laura Garcia with MTO, the goal is to launch a pilot program in two of the city’s wards, including one low-income and one mixed-income neighborhood. She says advocates are still working on getting support from members of the City Council’s budget committee. The $80 per unit registry fee would go towards the maintenance of the registry and the hiring of additional inspectors. If every housing unit in the city were registered properly, it could net the city upwards of $96 million a year.

While advocates believe the legislation would pay for itself, Jamerson was told by city officials that it would take too long to hire additional staff for inspections. “Now they’re saying the issue is they have a shortage.. poppycock, I don’t believe it,” Jamerson said.

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

There’s not currently enough support for either piece of legislation among Chicago’s aldermen. Mayor Lightfoot and her predecessor have instead implemented mostly symbolic reforms that have faltered, according to the Tribune. Jamerson and advocates hope that both pieces of legislation eventually pass. She wants landlords to be held accountable for needed repairs, and for the onus to be the city, not her fellow tenants, to force those repairs.

“I feel like the building is cancer and they’re putting band-aids on cancer,” she says. “Where’s the real help? Where are the landlords or building owners made accountable for their negligence? Where we’re not seeing it just being swept under the rug, like the carpet that they laid down in my building.”

This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.

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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.

Tags: chicagoevictionsrenters rights

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