Archive | January, 2013

Dwindling SROs: Hotel Chateau residents fear they’ll soon be homeless

31 Jan

Margaret and Tony don’t have much, but they get by. Sometimes, Tony jokes, their 12-year-old cat, Jason, eats better than them.

Margaret’s rough hands look like they’ve been scrubbed clean, almost to the point of being painful. She has the kind of manners that make you think she was brought up by a very attentive mother—please, thank you and pardon me.

She manages polite conversation, even though she’s terribly worried. Tony is too. They live at Hotel Chateau, a single-room-occupancy building in East Lakeview, and it’s recently been sold. If the Chateau goes the way of the handful of other SRO buildings nearby, the couple will soon be priced out.

Tony and Margaret’s names have been changed to protect their identity because they fear they’ll be kicked out of the building. Together, they survive on $1,066 a month, with each getting $533 in disability checks. Margaret has epilepsy. Tony has a hearing problem. They’ve been married for 12 years, throughout which they’ve moved from place to place in Chicago every couple of years as the rent became unaffordable.

They don’t love living at the Chateau, but it’s a roof over their head. When Tony talks about his neighbors, many of whom are drug addicts and alcoholics, he hesitates to bad-mouth them, knowing they need a place to live too.

“Let’s just say that some of our neighbors leave something to be desired,” he says.

What will happen to Margaret, Tony and their more undesirable neighbors? Local residents are trying to figure that out.

Their Day In Court

At a Tuesday court hearing, residents found out that the Chateau will be vacated and gutted. The hearing was on the building’s code violations, but residents had hoped to learn more about the sale.

In fact, 46th Ward Alderman James Cappleman had previously said more information about the owners would be revealed at the court hearing. But on Tuesday, Cappleman instead declined to state the buyer’s name, saying he had promised the new owner not to reveal the identity.

The Chicago Reporter asked Cappleman why he would make such a promise, given that Chateau residents, his constituents, are anxious about the building’s fate. He waved his hand and said, “There’s something called the First Amendment.”

Cappleman also said he wasn’t sure when the owner’s name would be disclosed. He emphasized the Chateau’s current condition was hazardous to its residents.

“My focus right now is on saving people’s lives,” said Cappleman. “My first priority is that the residents are safe.”

The Chateau has been in housing court ever since an inspection in the fall found numerous building violations, including problems with fire escapes, smoke alarms and trash piling up in hallways and garbage chutes.

A new corporation named 3838 North Broadway, the Chateau’s address, was established on Jan. 3, according to the Illinois Corporations Database, which is part of the Secretary of State’s Office. It’s not clear who owns that business, though the database listed attorney Gerard Walsh as its registered agent. Walsh did not answer his phone or return voicemails seeking comment. The attorney who represented the corporation in court, Mitchell Asher, declined to comment on the identity of the building’s new owner.

Real estate mogul Jamie Purcell of BJB Properties has already purchased four former SROs in the neighborhood–the Ambers, the Bel-Air, the Sheffield and the Abbott. All of those buildings have been vacated, rehabbed and are being reopened as high-end studio apartment buildings that are not affordable for Margaret and Tony, who pay $575 a month at the Chateau. Purcell did not return several voicemails the Reporter left at his Park Ridge office.

Searching For Home

Meanwhile, Margaret and Tony are looking for another place to live, but they are not too optimistic. Most nonprofits or programs that have low-income housing don’t allow couples to live together. Or they have a long waiting list.

“We are on a number of waiting lists,” says Margaret.

When they hear that neighborhood residents are afraid of the people who live at the Chateau, they sympathize. They’re often bothered by their neighbors too.

But among the 138 rooms at the Chateau, they say, are people like themselves—working-class people, poor people, ordinary people who do not have any other place to go.

Chester Kropidlowski is one of those in the neighborhood who’s bothered by Chateau patrons. Some of them, he says, panhandle in front of the building; others loiter there too or at a bus shelter nearby. Neighbors feel the building’s residents contribute to crime in the area.

But Kropidlowski also recognizes that there are people whom he described as “poor souls” living at the Chateau and causing no trouble. He contends that the big problem is how the building is managed.

“The same person has owned it for many, many years,” says Kropidlowski, president of the board of the local neighborhood group, East Lake View Neighbors. “Apparently, the person lives in a gated community in Florida, impossible to contact, and he has only responded to concerns in the past when he had no other choice.”

Kropidlowski is referring to Jack Gore, who has owned other troubled Chicago SROs. In 2008, Gore relinquished ownership of the Diplomat Hotel, also in Lakeview, when the building began to rack up fines from code violations. The business number for Gore at Cedar Hotel has been disconnected. Gore’s lawyer, Leon Wexler, confirmed Gore no longer owns the Chateau, but he wouldn’t comment further.

A Safe Haven, A Safe Community

It’s clear the Chateau isn’t the neighborhood’s favorite, but Kropidlowski hopes it can be turned into something he and others would be “proud to have in the community.”

In essence, Kropidlowski, Margaret and Tony all want the same thing–a safe Hotel Chateau and a safe neighborhood. It’s just that getting it will likely mean Margaret and Tony can no longer live there.

“They’ll straighten it up, and then they’re going to charge a lot more money,” says Margaret.

Sreya Sarkar has noticed the decline of available SRO housing in the neighborhood in her job as education and advocacy director at Lakeview Pantry, a food pantry that sits across the street from the Chateau. She estimates that Lakeview has lost at least 400 affordable units over the last two years.

Working at the pantry, she gets to meet plenty of Chateau residents like Margaret and Tony.

“They’re good citizens,” says Sarkar. “They don’t cause trouble. They don’t have substance abuse issues. They want to live peacefully there. They just don’t have another place to go to because other SROs have closed down.”

A local group that advocates for affordable housing, Lakeview Action Coalition, is hoping it can convince the hotel’s new owner to keep at least part of the building affordable. Bharathi Gunasekaran, a housing organizer with the coalition, says many of the Chateau’s tenants come from other places nearby that have closed.

“A lot of people have moved from one SRO to another as they’ve been closing,” says Gunasekaran.

Gunasekaran was upset to hear that the building would be vacated.

“Once the residents move out, they have no chance of moving back in,” she said.

After the court hearing, residents of the Chateau surrounded Cappleman, questioning him about the building’s future and their own. When Cappleman replied that he was working with the Chicago Department of Family and Supportive Services to help residents find housing, all Margaret could do was sigh.

“We’re going to end up on the street,” she said.

First posted at Chicago Muckrakers on Jan. 31, 2013

Advertisements
Image

Infographic: Cook County Latinas make 44 cents on the dollar compared to white men

25 Jan

Infographic: Cook County Latinas make 44 cents on the dollar compared to white men

Image

Infographic: Black women in Cook County make 61 cents on the dollar when compared to white men

25 Jan

black women infographic large

Neighbors help 76-year-old woman fight to keep home that’s been in her family for generations

22 Jan

Mary Bonelli hardly knew anyone among the 40 or so people clustered in front of her two-story brick home in Belmont-Cragin.

“They’re all strangers,” she said. “It means a lot knowing that I am not alone.”

The “strangers” were from Chicago’s Communities United Against Foreclosure and Eviction. They had gathered to protest Bonelli’s forthcoming eviction from her home and support her as she announced her plans to stay, despite the foreclosure.

“Today, I am out of legal options, but I still have the option to stay here and fight for my house, as long as all of you will fight with me,” Bonelli told the crowd on Jan. 16.

Earlier that day, Bonelli found out her name was being put on the Cook County sheriff’s eviction list, meaning she could be thrown out of her home any day now. But she hasn’t left, nor does she plan to. She, along with volunteers from Communities United Against Foreclosure and Eviction, are also planning to have an eviction blockade, where people block the sheriff’s department from accessing the home to remove Bonelli.

Rebecca Burns, a volunteer with Communities United Against Foreclosure and Eviction, told The Chicago Reporter today in an email that the group is developing a phone tree of neighbors and supporters who would participate in the eviction blockade.

“We are hoping that the bank will agree to negotiate before the situation reaches this point, but Mary’s neighbors will not stand by while a 76-year-old woman with no place else to go is evicted,” Burns said.

Bonelli said a bank error triggered the foreclosure of her home. Apparently, Fifth Third bank’s automatic payment system that was supposed to deduct her mortgage payment each month stopped working. Even though she said the money is still sitting in her bank account, the foreclosure went through quickly, and the home was sold to the Federal National Mortgage Association, Fannie Mae, in October 2012.

Representatives from Fifth Third Bank and Fannie Mae did not respond to emails and voicemails from The Chicago Reporter asking for comment on Bonelli’s case.

Bonelli’s grandparents bought the home at 2334 N. Mason Ave. in 1921, and three generations of her family have lived there. She was born in Chicago and has lived in this house since 1958. Losing her home would be heartbreaking. But she’s not going to back down from fighting what she says is a fraudulent foreclosure.

“I’m not afraid. Let them throw me in jail,” she said. “I’m old and sick, and I got no place to go.”

Bonelli is 76, can no longer walk and has cancer. While talking as she sat on the front porch, she removed two rubber bands wrapped around an Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds box. She lifted the lid, revealing dozens of containers of her medications. One for high blood pressure, others were for heart and lung problems. The stress of the foreclosure and eviction have made her health problems worse. She couldn’t attend the last court date because she had severe chest pain.

“You can’t eat. You can’t sleep,” said Bonelli. “It’s been terrible.”

Bonelli says she paid a lawyer $2,500 upfront to fight the foreclosure, but instead of petitioning to get the case thrown out, he went along with the foreclosure and then dropped her case. Her attorneys later told the Reporter that by the time they took her case, there was not much that could be done.

As a result, her case went through the system quickly, instead of taking months or even years like many Illinois foreclosures.

Bonelli connected with the Communities United group through an old neighbor, Sabrina Morey, when they were at the local currency exchange. Morey, who is a member of the group, calls Bonelli her “adopted grandmother.”

When Morey heard about what was going on with her neighbor’s home, she was determined to help her “grandmother” fight.

Bank officials have told Bonelli that it was “too late” to stop the foreclosure, even though she says the money was always there in her bank account and she has contacted the bank to try to pay several times, to no avail. She also attempted to get a loan modification to avoid foreclosure, but it was denied. Morey says the bank could choose to stop the foreclosure if they wanted to, but haven’t.

“It’s never too late,” said Morey. “I think that’s a bunch of crap.”

Burns, the Communities United volunteer, said that while Bonelli’s specific circumstances aren’t common, many other homeowners have been foreclosed upon in error, but banks are reluctant to stop proceedings.

“It defies reason that banks would rather continue foreclosing than admit wrongdoing, but federal programs to prevent foreclosure have not adequately addressed the substantial incentives that mortgage servicers have to foreclose rather than negotiate,” said Burns.

And now that Fannie Mae owns the home, it’s even more difficult to negotiate.

Burns said that Bonelli’s case is part of a national campaign to clean up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac practices.

“All across the country, there are cases like Mary’s where Fannie and Freddie are blocking negotiations that would allow a homeowner to remain in their home,” she said.

Burns pointed to a recent case in Springfield, Mass. where Fannie Mae decided to negotiate with a homeowner for a potential buyback deal, rather than evict them, after the homeowner staged an eviction blockade.

Bonelli is grateful to Communities United for giving her the idea to fight for her home. Through the entire process of foreclosure, she’s felt alone, but not now.

As the crowd dispersed, they continued to chant, yelling “Who’s house? Mary’s House!”

“My house!” shouted Bonelli, her voice a bit hoarse, but a smile on her face.