Welcome to LCBH’s Blog. Our blog delivers original articles written by our staff, interns and volunteers. We strive to provide informative stories about the work we do on behalf of Chicago renters and the issues renters face.
Chicago just had one of its coldest winters in history – with the coldest four month period from December 2013 and March 2014 since record keeping began in 1872. With such harsh weather conditions, proper building and utility maintenance is even more important to protect the health and well-being of residents. To that end, this winter LCBH’s Affordable Housing Preservation Program (AHPP) focused on cases where utilities, such as heat (or lack thereof), were in question. In one such case, LCBH worked with renters in a large apartment building in the South Shore neighborhood where all of the units were without heat for the later part of January.
LCBH’s Affordable Housing Preservation Program (AHPP) helps preserve and protect safe, accessible, and affordable housing by providing legal assistance to renters living in unsafe building conditions as a result of deterioration or foreclosure. An important component of AHPP’s community impact is education outreach. AHPP hosts renters’ rights trainings in conjunction with partner organizations to provide information on various topics including evictions, fair housing and renter self-help remedies. In just the first three months of 2014, AHPP has coordinated six building meetings and participated in three renters’ rights training.
At a recent training in Rogers Park, coordinated by Lakeside Community Development Corporation, an LCBH attorney and Spanish speaking staff member met with a group of residents from a large apartment building. Based on attendee questions and Lakeside CDC’s suggested issues, the training covered a range of topics including: information about when a building’s management changes, the meaning of a month to month tenancy and how this differs from a one year lease, and the required steps needed before a landlord can legally change or terminate the terms of a rental agreement.
You may remember earlier this year when the City of Chicago earned the dubious honor of becoming number one in bed bugs (http://chicago.cbslocal.com/2013/01/15/were-number-one-chicago-tops-in-c...). The City, along with a number of support agencies, has been addressing the problem on several fronts including providing information and resources to educate the public on what to do.
While the bed bug issue is disconcerting for all Chicago residents, it is even more problematic for renters and the City’s rental housing supply. Bed bug infestations can be a contentious situation where landlords blame tenants and tenants blame landlords. On June 5, 2013, the City of Chicago took a big step in solving the bed bug problem by passing an ordinance aimed at clarifying landlord/tenant responsibilities. “All Chicago residents have a right to feel comfortable and safe within their own homes,” Alderman Silverstein, one of the sponsors of the ordinance said. “This legislation will ensure that property owners and tenants are responsible for maintaining their property and will stop the spread of bed bugs throughout a building and to neighbors.”
We first met Cokeitha in May of 2011. At that time, she and her son were living with her mother and sister. Her mother was being sued in eviction court after a long dispute with their landlord over much-needed building repairs. Our legal staff was able to get the case dismissed, but the relationship with the landlord had deteriorated such that the negotiated settlement also required that the family move out of the apartment.
At the same time, Cokeitha’s father was also looking to move, so Cokeitha made plans to live with her dad and they found a nice apartment where they thought they would be happy. Given the circumstances, everything seemed to be working out fine, until suddenly and unexpectedly, a few weeks before they were set to move, Cokeitha’s father died. Heartbroken and grieving, she knew she was not able to afford the new apartment on her own. Her new landlord was understanding and allowed her to break the lease, but now Cokeitha found herself without a home. Cokeitha and her son stayed temporarily with family and friends, but not wanting to be a burden, she quickly found a very small apartment with a short-term lease for her and her son. A few months later, she found a better, larger apartment and has been living there happily ever since.
What’s better than winning a case in eviction court? Not having to go to eviction court in the first place! That’s the philosophy behind the Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP) at LCBH. TAP relies exclusively on volunteers to resolve landlord-tenant disputes before they escalate, with the goal of keeping tenants in their homes and out of court.
For many months, LCBH was forced to reject many TAP cases that came in because there weren’t enough resources to handle them internally. Last fall, we began a partnership with the West Cook Pro Bono Network (WCPBN), an Oak Park-based group of attorney moms and solo practitioners looking to balance their passion for pro bono with the demanding requirements of family life. Every week, one or two WCPBN members sign up to be “on call” for LCBH and handle any TAP cases that come in that week. WCPBN volunteers are able to work from home on their own schedule and our clients are able to get great pro bono representation from a team of experienced and talented volunteer attorneys.
Since October, WCPBN volunteers have handled almost 20 TAP cases for LCBH! Here are a few highlights of their work:
Community organizing is one of the most important practices that renters can engage in when trying to affect change in a large apartment building. A group of organized and well-informed renters can often get a landlord to listen to them and have a better chance of getting management to respond to grievances.
Imagine if your basement constantly flooded due to poor drainage. Imagine if your heat went out regularly. Imagine being in a wheelchair and not being able to leave your home because no one has shoveled the snow. These are services that most expect their landlord to provide as part of regular building maintenance. Unfortunately, too many renters are living in buildings where requests are ignored or reasonable requests come with the risk of retaliation by the landlord, resulting in eviction. By stating demands as a group, tenants may find it easier to get management to look at problems and resolve them faster without being labeled as individual troublemakers.
Meetings provide opportunities for renters to become informed about their rights and responsibilities, and places where they can explore and ask questions about what organizing means for their housing. Successful tenant organizations meet regularly to identify and address important building issues that the renters collectively care about, such as a failure to maintain the building in a habitable manner.
In October of 2011, a dozen Albany Park families were on the verge of losing their homes and only had two weeks to move out. The building they lived in was going through foreclosure and to complicate matters, the owners had abandoned the property, leaving it replete with problems including a dangerous heating system, mold, faulty electrical wiring, and sewer backups. The pressing safety issues caused the city to place an order to swiftly vacate the property.
The families in this building included couples with small children, extended families and elderly couples enjoying their retirement years. They were very worried about moving and leaving the neighborhood they had come to love. They wondered whether they could find new affordable homes that were generally accessible, including accommodations for those with limited mobility. They worried about whether they would have to uproot their children from their schools and whether they would make new friends.
LCBH attorneys Samira Nazem and Aileen Flanagan (pictured), recently spoke with an ESL class at the Howard Area Community Center (HACC) in Rogers Park about housing issues including landlord and tenant responsibilities, maintenance problems, evictions and lockouts, and foreclosure.
The class is made up of recent immigrant adults to the United States who are trying to improve their literacy and comprehension skills.
Referral information and fact sheets were also shared with the group. Megan Thompson, an AmeriCorps VISTA with LCBH, is a volunteer tutor for the community center and helped organize the event.