October 13, 2009

Court to hear Midway Gardens case today

The Chicago City and Building Court will hear arguments against the landlords of Midway Gardens Apartments for building code violations today. The city is seeking $10,000 per day in fines from Midway Gardens, an apartment building at 60th and Cottage Grove, until the building is up to code.

Alvina Broussard, a tenant at Midway Gardens since 1995, filed suit in the Cook County Circuit Court on October 1 on behalf of the over 300 tenants of Midway Gardens, charging the landlords with failure to properly maintain the building and other violations.

The defendants included the Chicago Dwellings Association, the not-for-profit owner of the building; the Community Management Association, the property managers for Midway Gardens; and an anonymous landlord.

Broussard alleges that the defendants neglected to pay interest on her security deposit, provide her with a Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance summary when she renewed her lease, or respond to complaints about upkeep.

In her suit, Broussard details unsafe and unsanitary conditions in Midway Gardens that include flooding, mice infestation, elevator disrepair, and discharges of soot from the building’s ventilation systems. According to the suit, during flooding last May, “mice could be seen floating in standing water in the buildings hallways.”

Due to frequent elevator malfunctions, the brief claims, elderly tenants are often stranded on the upper floors of the building, and the Fire Department is called once every three months to rescue tenants from the elevators.

Visitors to the building can still see water stains in the hallways from the two-inch high flooding in August. According to Broussard, six fire trucks came to the building and used five-foot long squeegees to push the water out.

The Chicago Dwelling Association could not be reached for comment.

Midway Gardens was the first project of the Chicago Dwellings Association (CDA), founded by the Chicago Housing Authority in 1948 to provide housing for moderate-income families. Many of Midway Gardens’ tenants have lived in the building since it was first constructed in 1953.

Mabel Truitt, who moved into Midway Gardens in 1973, said she will go to court today if she can get a ride from one of her neighbors. “I got a bad knee, but if someone can take me, I want to go, I want to know what it’s all about,” she said.

Truitt said she likes living in Midway Gardens but can no longer afford the rent. “I like it because it’s close to my church and my hospital,” Truitt said. “I can walk over [to the hospital], or someone in the building will take me to my appointment. But they got the rent so high I can’t stay here.”

Midway Gardens made news last January when the landlord raised the rent an average of about $200 a month, or an increase of 25-30 percent, leading to tenant protests in April. Since then, the Metropolitan Tenants Organization and the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing have been working with tenants to stop rent increases and file a lawsuit against the landlords for building violations.

Truitt said her apartment has been hit by three floods. “Lost a lot of rugs, lots of clothing ,and they didn’t give me a penny for it,” she said. “There is something wrong with the set-up here and [today] we’re going down to city hall about it.”

A large red sign outside the building advertises free rent to those signing new leases. Truitt said she thinks there are a lot of vacant apartments in the building. “Lots of [tenants] didn’t fight and just moved out,” Truitt said. Her own grandchildren are trying to help her move into a senior building, but she said she feels “too old to move.”

Fourth-year Hannah Birnbaum has been working with tenants as a member of the registered student organization Southside Solidarity Network. Last Monday, Birnbaum attended a meeting with about 20 tenants outlining the two lawsuits. She said tenants were excited about the city lawsuit, because the city has called for a penalty of $10,000 per day until the building is up to code, a process that could take months. Tenants are hoping this will spur management to respond to requests for repairs, Birnbaum said.

She said the process has shown problems with city inspections. According to Birnbaum, the city does not respond immediately to requests for help but tracks the number of phone calls to 3-1-1, the city information hot line. When enough calls have been placed, the city sends an inspector to the premises. As part of their campaign, MTO has been encouraging tenants to make hundreds of calls to 311 so that the building becomes “all of a sudden worth paying attention to,” Birnbaum said.

It is the tenants’ responsibility to show the inspectors problem areas, in some cases working to gain access to vacant apartments which have endured the highest flood damage, Birnbaum said. In addition, tenants believe there is mold growing in the walls, although Birnbaum said inspectors will not open them up to check. “If an inspector doesn’t see it, it doesn’t exist,” she said.

MTO said this will be a good time to deal with landlord retaliation, according to Birnbaum. In the past, landlords have put involved tenants on month-to-month leases and denied them rooms to meet. Given the lawsuits, Birnbaum said, the lawyers believe “landlords may finally be susceptible to arguments to stop retaliating in kind.”