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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

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The link between lead poisoning and underperforming students

31 Oct

With mounting evidence that lead poisoning results in lower test scores, more children repeating grades, and worse, why has so little been done in Chicago to reverse the damage?

Patricia Robinson recalls a time when she fondly watched her son, Michael, then a toddler, sit in the windowsill of her Englewood home, completely engrossed. Matchbox car in hand, he would run the toy back and forth over the brown painted surface, making little vrooms and beep-beeps as he played.

Ten years later, Robinson’s warmth for that moment has long faded. That was where it started—where she believes Michael ingested the lead-filled dust that poisoned him, leaving him with lifelong learning disabilities. “There isn’t a day I don’t think about it,” Robinson says. “It’s taken over my life.”

Doctors, organic food, costly tutors, special ed teachers—Robinson has tried whatever she can to help her son get ahead, despite the difficulties he’s faced because of lead poisoning. But Michael’s struggles to learn, to pay attention in school, and to get along with other children continue.

While there’s no doubt that the number of children affected by lead poisoning has dropped precipitously since the 70s (when lead was taken out of paint and gasoline), Chicago has the distinction of being home to more cases of lead toxicity than any large city in the U.S.

A recent study out of the University of Illinois at Chicago examined the blood lead levels of third graders between 2003 and 2006—students now likely to be roaming the halls at CPS high schools. It turns out that at three-quarters of Chicago’s 464 elementary schools, the students’ average blood lead level was high enough to be considered poisoned, according to standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And although lead poisoning is rarely mentioned in the debate on how to improve schools, the UIC research shows just how much it may be damaging kids’ ability to succeed. According to the study, lead-poisoned students in Chicago Public Schools are more likely to fail the third grade and score notably lower on their yearly standardized tests.

Lead paint, which was banned in 1978, is still present in thousands of older homes and apartment buildings across Chicago, particularly on the south and west sides, where the housing stock is older. And though lead hazards are clearly identifiable and inexpensive to eradicate, the city’s budget for lead-poisoning prevention has plummeted in recent years.

“Lead poisoning is one of the few causes of social and learning problems that we know how to solve,” said Anita Weinberg, director of Lead Safe Housing Initiatives at Civitas ChildLaw Center at Loyola University. “We can resolve this problem within a generation, but it’s not a priority for the city.”

As money has dried up, the burden to get the word out has fallen on parents like Robinson. She tells parents about the dangers of lead poisoning every day as she helps Englewood residents obtain health care access and child care through her work at Children’s Home and Aid.

“I try to warn them,” says Robinson, who figured out what happened to her son through bloodwork and environmental tests of their home. “I want to let them know so they won’t have to go through what I have gone through.”

Read more at the Chicago Reader.com…

This story was originally published in the Chicago Reader on Oct. 31, 2012, and was paid for by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust for the Local Reporting Awards Initiative.

Empty Jackpot

14 Jul

Illinois celebrates its program to steer state contracts to businesses owned by minorities, women and people with a disability. But a closer look shows the state may not be fulfilling its goals.

Shaking hands with officials from the Illinois Lottery, Bob Dale felt like a winner. No, he didn’t win the jackpot or even one of those scratch-off cards. But his business, R.J. Dale Advertising, had just sealed a $100 million contract with the Illinois Department of Revenue, one of the largest contracts awarded to a black-owned business in Illinois.

But looking back on his big win now, Dale doesn’t feel so lucky. Low commission rates and sky-high legal fees from state audits meant R.J. Dale Advertising didn’t even make a profit for being the lottery’s chief advertising agency.

“Quite honestly, it damn near put us out of business,” he said.

The lottery, on the other hand, fared well. During its five-year contract term, revenue from the lottery increased by $490 million. Dale and hiscolleagues hoped that success would generate new business.

As it turned out, the lottery contract opened no new doors for the firm. Major corporations “didn’t care about the phenomenal success we had,” Dale said. “They just weren’t interested in hiring a black-owned business.”

Many minority business owners say they still face significant discrimination in the marketplace. To help remedy that, some states, including Illinois, have created programs to make sure that some government contracts go to diverse businesses.

Dale’s contract was part of the Business Enterprise Program, Illinois’ effort to award government contracts to businesses owned by minorities, women and people with a disability. But a Chicago Reporter investigation found that even though the State of Illinois sets lofty goals and touts its overall successes, some of its departments aren’t even coming close to the program’s goal of steering 20 percent of all contracts to target businesses.

Between fiscal years 2007 and 2010, 13 out of the 28 state departments with at least $10 million in their contract budget during those years failed to meet the program’s 20 percent goal, including five of the six departments with the largest budgets. Four of these departments even fell short of the 12 percent minimum required by law.

And even when departments are meeting their goals, the money is often going to one big contract with one single firm, like Dale’s lottery contract. Forty-five percent of state departments awarded more than half of their contract dollars for the program to just one firm.

Dale said every time those goals aren’t met, it means minority communities miss out. If every department had met its goal, businesses owned by minorities, women and people with a disability in Illinois would have earned another $586 million between fiscal years 2007 and 2010.

“The black unemployment rate is at least twice as high as the general market, maybe even three times as high,” Dale said. “Every time we don’t get a contract, that’s jobs that black people don’t get.”

Read more at The Chicago Reporter…

Unlucky 13

1 May

An increasing number of people are turning to bankruptcy for a fresh start, but many are leaving themselves susceptible to more debt by opting for a Chapter 13 protection, which has a high failure rate.

Freeman Hess sits at the dining room table in his brick bungalow in Roseland on Chicago’s South Side. At 78, his gray hair is thin and fuzzy, like the coating of a peach, but his arms are muscular. He hasn’t lost the physical strength he acquired from operating a forklift for Cook County for 43 years. But in all his years of work, starting off picking cotton in Brownsville, Tenn., and coming to Chicago for better opportunities, he never imagined retirement being so stressful.

“I manage,” says Hess, his jaw tense. “But sometimes I just don’t have the money to pay my bills. They are taking it all.”

“They” is a collection of people—his lawyers, his creditors and the bankruptcy trustee. Hess filed for bankruptcy two years ago, and ever since, he’s been paying $1,090 a month, the majority of his income, to try and get rid of his debt, with two more years to go.

With the economic downturn, many Cook County residents are facing a similar situation: less money coming in, and more bills than they can handle. And more people, like Hess, are turning to bankruptcy for relief.

But many, particularly those in black communities, have been filing Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which carries a high risk of failure, leaving themselves vulnerable to end up with yet another mountain of debt, instead of a fresh start.

According to new data supplied to The Chicago Reporter by the Chicago-based Woodstock Institute, nearly a third of all bankruptcies in Cook County were filed under Chapter 13. Among filers living in communities where African Americans made up more than 80 percent of the population, the rate was much higher, with nearly a half of bankruptcies filed under Chapter 13.

Read more at The Chicago Reporter…

Payday roulette

15 Mar

Workers’ paychecks withheld more often than not at local nonprofit.

Maria Ortiz held the crying newborn in her arms, rocking her back and forth to try to get her to sleep. But the baby wouldn’t quiet down; she was hungry.

Ortiz kept rocking, knowing there was no formula in the house to feed her granddaughter.
“I didn’t have any money,” she said, her voice trembling as her eyes filled with tears.

Ortiz should have had money. She worked full-time as a home health care aide for ASI, a nonprofit on Chicago’s North Side. But that day, as her first grandchild begged for food, Ortiz didn’t get her paycheck. She didn’t get one two weeks earlier, either. Or two weeks before that.

Ortiz and her co-workers at ASI have been getting late paychecks for the past two years. In some cases, management held lotteries to determine who got paid or made workers beg for their checks, employees said.

Management blames the delays on late payments from the state. But a Chicago Reporter investigation found that’s not necessarily the case.

The Reporter obtained the state’s payment records from the comptroller’s office and compared them to records kept by one ASI employee from October 2008 to November 2010 about when they received their checks. A letter reportedly sent to employees was posted on a blog that indicated that each payroll for the company’s 400-person workforce costs about $225,500.

The Reporter’s analysis found that ASI paid its workers late 75 percent of the time during the past two years for which the Reporter had data. Even when the state paid ASI enough money to make payroll, its workers still didn’t get their money on time 75 percent of the time.

ASI Executive Director Rebecca Cruz said the company only pays its workers late when the state doesn’t pay on time. She said the company is just now being reimbursed for invoices submitted four months ago.

“We are a not-for-profit,” Cruz said. “The majority of our clients are paid for by the state. We have to wait for the state to pay us.”

Cruz’s employees have tried to get help from the state itself. Illinois law says that financial hardship is not a valid basis for late payments, and employers must follow the payroll schedule it sets with employees.

Currently, the only recourse for workers is to file a claim with the Illinois Department of Labor. But Kassie Beyer, advocate for ASI’s employees at the Service Employees International Union, said the process is “slow and rarely effective.”

“Each missing check ends up being filed separately, and as soon as ASI pays up, the claim disappears,” Beyer said. “There is no penalty to the company,”

As of January, 12 complaints have been filed with the Illinois Department of Labor concerning ASI. All have been about late pay, with the majority resolved before the state had to intervene.

A new law, which went into effect Jan. 1, allows the state to fine companies that pay their workers late and also allows workers to collect interest on their late pay. But because workers often receive their late pay before the state has time to process their claim, it won’t likely have an effect, Beyer said.

But the problem is that people chronically receive late paychecks, not that they’re not getting paid at all. Rep. Harry Osterman said he tried to arrange for ASI to be put on an expedited payment system with the state. In addition, Adam Kader, a labor organizer for ARISE Chicago, said Osterman’s office arranged a conference call with ASI and the state, but Cruz didn’t participate.

Cruz denies that she was ever invited to such a meeting, and she said she would attend any meeting or conference call that would help her pay her employees. Osterman confirms that he has tried to help ASI employees get their paychecks on time.

Cruz said complaints about late pay are coming from a small minority of workers who are being pressured by SEIU and ARISE Chicago to unionize.

Late paychecks also have created divisions between employees, said Edna Jackson, who has worked for ASI for six years. Jackson said Cruz cut checks for employees that she knows.

“[Cruz is] picking and choosing who she wants to pay–”her favorites,” she said. “If she felt your situation was bad enough, she felt so sorry for you, she would give you your check.”
Cruz said she has never cut impromptu checks.

The uncertainty has caused some employees to find other work. Ortiz was fired from her job at ASI in late December. She said it was difficult to have her position taken away. She worries about her clients and is concerned about finding another job in the current economy. But she couldn’t take the stress of never knowing if she was going to receive a paycheck.

“It was too much,” Ortiz said. “I work, and I should get paid. If they won’t pay me, I can’t work there.”

This story was originally published in the March 2010 issue of the Chicago Reporter.