NEWS

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January 23, 2009

Low-income tenants struggle with sudden rent increase at 60th Street apartment building

[img id="77178" align="alignleft"] Tenants at a residential building on East 60th Street and South Cottage Grove Avenue have accused their landlords of extreme mismanagement and negligence.

The landlord of 727 East 60th Street, Midway Gardens Apartments, informed its residents in early January that starting next month, rents would be raised by 25 to 30 percent—in some cases, an increase of almost $300 per month. Though Midway Gardens Apartments is a private company, most of the building’s residents are in the low- and medium -income demographic and some receive public housing assistance, so the rent increase has been met with particular frustration.

“They put up sheets of paper on the front door and in the elevator saying the rent was going up,” said resident Derrick Gilbert, whose one-bedroom apartment increased from $675 to $825 per month. “That’s illegal. There has to be written statement given to everybody in the building.”

The announcement, according to Gilbert and others, was taken down within days. “They’re trying to hide what they’re doing,” he said. Midway Gardens could not be reached for comment.

On January 11, however, the situation reached a boiling point. According to Gilbert, over 70 frustrated tenants planned to hold a meeting about the rent hike in the building’s recreational room, but when they arrived, they found that the locks had been changed.

“There was a sign saying the room was ‘under construction’—and we knew damn well there wasn’t any construction going on,” Gilbert said. After trying to assemble “civilly” in the lobby, security guards threatened to call the police, according to Gilbert.

“Lots of people are intimidated by management,” Gilbert said. “They are afraid to speak out. I’m considered public enemy number one around here. I’ve been threatened.”

The conflict around Midway Gardens has highlighted the complex and often contentious nature of Hyde Park real estate. Originally built in 1953, 727 East 60th Street is owned by the Chicago Dwellings Association, a private corporation that was created by the Chicago Housing Authority, the governmental arm responsible for public housing. Its 312 units currently serve the “low and medium income” demographic, according to Manta, an online database of real estate holdings. Last year, Chicago Dwellings Association had estimated annual sales of $6 million.

Besides the fury over rents, tenants expressed longstanding complaints over Midway Gardens’ management. “It needs to be shut down,” said Margaret Olawoye, who has lived in the building since 1971 but is currently looking to move. “There is absolutely no upkeep.”

Gilbert explained that a myriad of problems in his apartment, including mice, flood damage, and holes in the window screens and walls, have been ignored since he moved in last summer. “I’ve got documents to prove all of this,” he said. “The management has been atrocious.”

According to the Chicago Landlord–Tenant Ordinance, which “establish[es] the rights and obligations of the landlord and the tenant” in the city of Chicago, “failure to exterminate insects or rodents….[and] failure to maintain floors, interior walls, or ceilings in sound condition,” can justify tenants withholding rent, or even seeking damages from the landlord.

“Tenants here don’t know their rights, and [Midway Gardens] is exploiting that,” Gilbert said.

The legality of the rent increases presents a far more convoluted question. Chicago, unlike most major US cities, does not practice “rent control”—the limit on rent increases that some tenants in New York and Los Angeles experience, so there is no limit to annual rent increases. However, the building’s status as affordable or low-income housing complicates the issue. Debbie Wills, Supervisor of Public Affairs for Chicago’s Housing and Urban Developments, explained that under Chicago law, the rent hike “could be legal.”

“It just depends on certain factors,” she said. “Including how the building is funded, the type of project [it is]…as well as individual tenants.”

Gilbert said the move to increase rents is part of a larger tactic by Midway Gardens to eventually sell the building. “They want to get the building empty,” he said. “There are senior citizens in this building and they are going to throw them out into the cold.”