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Heartbreak Motel

When things got tough, Laura and George moved into the Acres Motel for $500 a month. They joined a growing assortment of permanent lodgers, all of whom might be there yet if the motel's owner hadn't decided to throw them out.

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The Acres Motel, located at Bryn Mawr and Lincoln Avenue, contains 84 units and a separately owned coffee shop called the Open Oven. More than 30 years old, it's two stories high and V-shaped, with fieldstone trim at the end of each leg. In back is a kidney-shaped swimming pool, boarded over and out of use.

"In the summertime the Acres gets a lot of tourists passing through, especially last summer, with that stupid soccer tournament in town," said Laura Higgins one afternoon over a couple of beers at the Open Oven. "At Halloween they get people in their pickups selling pumpkins, and before the holidays there are the Christmas tree men. They also put up people burned out of their houses for the Red Cross."

Then there are the traveling salesmen who check into the Acres, and until recently the long-term residents such as Higgins herself. Until they were evicted, she and her former husband George (not his real name) had lodged at the Acres for two and a half years. They never signed a lease; they stayed on a month-to-month gentleman's agreement.

At the moment Higgins and George still occupied room 19, a first-floor unit with a faded olive green carpet. After lunch, Higgins, a short woman with a puffy face, strawberry blond hair, and a high-pitched laugh, gave a tour of the premises she'd been ordered out of. "On sunny days I go by the other rooms when the cleaning ladies are doing their thing," she complained, "and I can see how much nicer carpeting everyone else has and how the bedspreads are fancier than what we got."

Yet Higgins seemed to have been keeping her modest estate in order. "I'm ferocious about cleaning," she said. "I dust and clean every day." Toward the back of the room, by the door leading to the bathroom, was a rack on which their clothes were neatly hung. Otherwise, the room featured two brown-leather armchairs, a television, and a small electric heater. Propped against the pillow of one double bed was a stuffed hound dog with "I wuff you" scrawled on its stomach. "Holly Bear," a plaid-bloused animal commemorating the 150th anniversary of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, dominated the second bed. Higgins had bought it at a Kmart.

There was no hot plate or electric skillet, appliances other long-term tenants relied on for cooking. Higgins's idea of cooking is to order out or to buy cheese, bread, and luncheon meat from a convenience store and make sandwiches. "I'll also buy one of those cup-of-soup deals and put in hot water from the bathtub," she said. "Me and cooking just don't get along."

An electric saw and a pair of dusty boots spoke to George's job as a glazier.

He and Higgins divorced several years ago, but they've stayed together anyway. "It's a weird situation," Higgins explained. "We have kind of an unspoken partnership. Sometimes I can take him and sometimes he makes me insane. Once, when I was hemorrhaging, George drove me to the hospital, dropped me there, and just took off. I'm not exactly enthused about living with him, but then I don't see him that much. Lots of times he's working or is out with his friends. Mostly we stay together for financial reasons--he doesn't always have jobs and all I have is medicare, but together we can make out."

Because she has cancer, Higgins draws a medicare payment of $350 a month. Her medical bills have mounted to $100,000. "I could show you bills that would reach from one end of this town to the other," she said. "I send in payments of $10 a month, so they can't say I'm trying to renege on my responsibilities, but you can't bleed blood from a rock."

Jutting out from the far wall, the desk in room 19 appeared to be her province. Jammed together on it were a "Florida party animal" sculpture made of shells and pipe cleaners, a memento of a trip taken two years ago; several vials of pills and medications; and back issues of Soap Digest. Higgins used to enjoy Playboy and the novels of Robert Ludlum and Joseph Wambaugh, but radiation treatments attacked her vision and her chief recreation became watching the soaps.

That and drinking beer. "With all my problems, the beers are nothing but a respite, a little break," she said. "I'm 45 years old, with cancer all over my body, twiddling my thumbs and watching soap operas, living in one room on 350 bucks a month. It doesn't make me real cheerful. If I'm condemned for having a beer once in a while, then so be it."

She and George married in City Hall in 1984. He'd grown up in the northwest suburbs and served in the army. They met in a bar and both loved motorcycles. They moved in with Higgins's mom, who had a house on Victoria Street, and Higgins, who says in her time she'd been a clerk, a waitress, a Playboy bunny, an inspector at an electronics firm, and a masseuse in the back of an adult bookstore, decided to slow down. "Up the street from my mom's house was a liquor store where I had a little job, and I did a lot of baby-sitting."

In 1989 she started to hemorrhage. Doctors at Ravenswood Hospital diagnosed uterine cancer and ordered a hysterectomy. A cousin in Seattle insisted she come out there for radiation therapy, and when it was over, Higgins says, she returned to an awkward situation in Chicago. Her mom was moving in with another daughter. George hadn't paid the gas bill at Victoria and the house was cold as ice. So for the first time Higgins and George holed up at the Acres.

Eight months later they were back on Victoria, but the idyll--which is how Higgins remembers her life there--didn't last. When her mom went into a nursing home Higgins's sister, acting with their mother's power of attorney, sold the house. "Some men came to the door on January 15, 1992," Higgins recalls. "It was the day after my birthday. I was upstairs in bed. They said they wanted to take possession right away, and so gone we were."

She and George went back to the Acres for $500 a month, utilities and furniture included. They joined a growing assortment of permanent lodgers, all of whom might be there yet if the motel's owner hadn't decided to throw them out.

Joann and Levare Boston, who's a factory worker, had been living with her mother and with their daughter and with their daughter's children on the west side. The Bostons moved into the Acres; and when her mother shifted to senior-citizen housing, the Bostons' daughter, Allisa Horne, and her two children now had nowhere else to live, so they moved to the Acres too.

A Lakeview landlord had refused to renew the lease of Sharon Schmidt, a secretary, and her 23-year-old son, a machinist apprentice; they took a room at the Acres for what they thought would be a few weeks but turned out to be ten months. Cindy, a woman in her 40s, and her family had lived at the Acres for a decade.

Some of the tenants could be troublesome. "He was the nicest guy in the world," Higgins remarks of one man, "that is, when he was sober. When he wasn't, he threw coffee mugs." But by and large the permanents got along, especially the women, who became good friends. "We'd call each other and visit back and forth between our rooms," says Joann Boston. Allisa Horne and Laura Higgins watched romantic movies over popcorn, and Horne took Higgins to the hospital whenever she got sick.

For Higgins relationships went only so deep. She tended to know her friends by their first names only, and the particulars of their lives escaped her. "Sharon had some kind of job where she got up at two in the afternoon," Higgins recalls. "Jo has a daughter. Her husband has some sort of job, and Jo does whatever she does. Cindy has this large family."

The long-term tenants also got along well with the motel clerks and the Mexican and Romanian cleaning ladies. But not with Elias Moldowan, the Acres owner, who kept a real estate investment office catercorner across Lincoln Avenue and parked his black Mercedes in the motel lot. And not with the day-to-day manager of the Acres, Hatige Kadri, a red-haired woman in her 40s. Some tenants complain that Kadri hectored them for visiting one another, for being too visible to the transient guests. "She was very mean," says Horne. "She talked to me like I was her daughter or her kid."

Higgins usually kept away from Kadri, although, say other tenants, not when Higgins had been drinking. She led, in some respects, a bleak life. She and George argued--occasionally making "loud disturbances," according to Elias Moldowan's attorney. Her relationships with her sister and with a son from an earlier marriage were also turbulent. And her cancer was spreading. "I've had four surgeries on my bladder this year," she said in September. "The doctors wanted to take it out; I'd have been on Glad bags. But they finally said they couldn't do an operation because my body was so burned up from all the radiation." Last June she checked into a rehabilitation center to break her dependency on painkillers and tranquilizers.

Last January Higgins drove off to visit a friend in Wisconsin, but the transmission on George's station wagon acted up and she pulled off the Edens Expressway. By 6 PM two police officers were attempting to deal with an inebriated Higgins outside a Jewel store in Niles where she was parked in a fire lane, beer cans open in her car. Police say she got "verbally abusive" and kicked an officer in the leg; she was charged with simple battery, a misdemeanor. "I'm dying of cancer," says Higgins in response. "I wouldn't assault an ant."

Out on bond, Higgins hired a lawyer named Warren Breslin. She says he tried to milk a high fee out of her. He says she wasted his time by not showing up in court. Niles police say that when Higgins blew the May court appearance a warrant was issued for her arrest.

Last spring the Acres began moving to evict its permanent residents. Allisa Horne says that in March Hatige Kadri refused to accept her rent and told her to get out. "She just didn't like my boyfriend," says Horne. "My kids and I had nowhere to go." Testifying in eviction court, Kadri claimed that Horne fell behind in her rent. Horne didn't even show up in court, and Judge Bernetta Bush ordered that she pay $500 in back rent and clear out within two weeks.

"I was here at 9:30, but I didn't know what courtroom I belonged in," Horne beseeched Bush in a letter. "Therefore I was running from floor to floor." Bush read the letter and gave Horne a second chance. Finally standing before the judge, Horne asked for a reprieve on the grounds that she couldn't find an apartment; Bush gave her eight days to vacate the Acres. Horne insists she left her room shipshape, but sheriff's deputies say they found it strewn with garbage.

By July Moldowan was telling permanents that a new ordinance made it impossible for him to keep them. On March 16, 1993, the Paxton Hotel, a single-room-occupancy hotel (SRO) on LaSalle Street, had gone up in flames, claiming 20 lives and sparking a cry for reform of the SROs. A mayoral task force was organized, and a year later an ordinance was passed codifying its recommendations. The new law, which took effect June 4, required any dwelling "designed or used primarily for single room occupancy" to file for an SRO license, at a cost of either $100 or $200 a year, and submit to various safety standards. On July 8 Judith Rice, the city revenue director, sent hotel owners a letter telling them to comply.

In late July Kadri delivered a "Dear tenant" letter signed by Moldowan to two of the Acres's remaining month-to-month families. A "new city ordinance does not allow us to have permanent residents," wrote Moldowan. "Please make arrangements to vacate as soon as possible." The tenants were given 30 days' notice.

In fact, says Pat Gamboney, an attorney for the city's building department, Moldowan could have retained his permanent residents, for most Acres units were occupied by short-term guests. "There is nothing in our ordinance that says that if you want to stay in a motel--week after week or month after month--that you can't do so," says Eric Rubinstein, president of the Single Room Operators Association and a member of the mayoral task force. None of the other motels that line Lincoln Avenue north of Foster--the Apache, the Diplomat, the Spa, the O-Mi, and the Lincoln Inn--was applying the new law this summer to evict its permanent tenants.

Only the Acres.

Laura Higgins says that one day in August Kadri came to her and raised the rent by $100. Higgins says she forked it over. Nevertheless, according to Higgins, the next day Kadri gave her notice--if she didn't pay the past-due rent she owed within five days, Kadri would take her to court. According to the eviction suit, which was filed August 31, as of that date she and George owed $200.

When their day in court arrived September 14, a half-dozen permanent tenant families already had left the Acres voluntarily or were being evicted. "Our friends who had already been to court told us, 'If you tell the judge your story he will give you more time to get out,'" says Higgins. "We expected 30 days."

For 21 years Sheldon Garber, the judge slated to hear the case against Higgins and George, was an attorney in private practice specializing in real estate, personal injury, and criminal law. He was appointed a circuit court judge in 1985, and for the last four years he's been one of five judges on eviction court. The son of a dry-cleaning salesman, Garber grew up in apartments in Garfield Park and Lawndale and was only vaguely aware of landlord-tenant issues. "For my parents coming up with the rent was a struggle," he remembers, "but they always got it paid. I was aware of nasty landlords and rat-infested buildings." A lifetime later Garber hears some 65 eviction cases a day.

Garber struggles to set a courteous tone in his courtroom, located on the 14th floor of the Daley Center. "Most defendants come in belligerent," he says. "They haven't paid their rent, and their prospects aren't bright. What I try to do is to make them feel as comfortable as possible. I want them to know the terminology and their rights." At the start of each call, Garber delivers a short introduction to his courtroom and to the eviction process. "I want to disarm the defendants. And most people, when they leave, will say, 'Thank you, judge,'" says Garber. "I don't know why, because I've usually just kicked them out of their house. Perhaps it's because I've given them some dignity."

Landlords who come before Garber are usually represented by lawyers, especially at the afternoon call. It's then the judge hears from the dozen or so lawyers called "volume filers," for the large number of evictions they handle. Volume filers include lawyers for the big real estate companies, such as Wolin-Levin, Cagan Management, and the Habitat Company, and lawyers for the Chicago Housing Authority who are usually trying to oust rent-delinquents as well as tenants harboring weapons or dealing drugs.

Few if any defendants bring lawyers to Garber's courtroom. The judge distributes a list of free legal aid available to indigents, but it makes little difference. "Eviction defendants are by and large poor people, or the working poor," observes Julie Ansell, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Better Housing. "They are eligible for free legal services, but there are no more than 50 lawyers in the city who do free housing work. We've got to make a decision on who to represent, and if a case isn't winnable we can't afford to take it."

The bulk of the cases that come before Garber concern a failure to pay rent in a timely fashion. "All the defendants have a story about why they're behind," he says. "They are out of work. Their unemployment money has run out. They've had an accident. They've had to bury a relative. These people are truthful--they want to pay their rent, but they just can't. But if they've had proper notice and they've been properly served and they are, in fact, behind, it doesn't matter what they say."

The Chicago Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance, enacted in 1986 and attached in summarized form to city leases, affords most tenants certain protections against landlord abuses, from dim stairways to weak heat, to pests and broken plumbing. But Garber says tenants must know how to use the landlord-tenant law effectively, and only a smattering do. "Say a tenant's toilet doesn't flush. The tenant must notify the landlord in writing, who then has 14 days to repair the toilet. If the landlord fails to repair the toilet the tenant can do it and withhold the cost from his rent. What happens, though, is that the tenant gets disgusted with the broken toilet and just stops paying rent. 'When you fix the toilet, then I'll pay the rent,' he says. Well, that doesn't constitute a defense under the landlord-tenant ordinance. A tenant must proceed according to the law."

Garber doesn't receive many cases involving hotels and motels, but he knows that any innkeeper can end a month-to-month tenant's lease on 30 days' notice. "No reason need be given," says the judge, "so long as the action isn't in retaliation against the tenant. Nor can any discrimination be involved." He points out that hotels and motels (along with owner-occupied buildings of six units or less) are exempted from the landlord-tenant ordinance.

"In a substantial number of cases I will be deciding for the landlord," says Garber. Between the filing fee, the fee to the sheriff's deputy who serves papers, and the lawyer's fee, an eviction case will cost the plaintiff several hundred dollars. Given that expense, says Garber, "a landlord is not going to proceed unless he thinks he has a reasonable chance of prevailing." Many of the matters that come before Garber deal with rent, "and I have to remind myself that landlords are entitled to that rent," he says. "They're entitled to get a check at the end of the month just like I am."

In 1978 the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago released a study that found landlords winning eviction cases 93.3 per cent of the time. The average case took two minutes to resolve, the study determined. According to William Wilen, the LAF's supervisor of housing litigation, the situation is the same today. "If you walk into court unrepresented and uneducated, as most tenants do, you're going to lose," he says. "It's still two minutes a case, and that includes the time it takes to approach the bench and walk away. It's bang, bang, bang, bang."

Once Garber has ordered a defendant evicted, he must decree when the tenant has to leave. Garber says he and his fellow judges operate by unwritten guidelines: A defendant who doesn't bother to appear in court is given seven days to get out; a defendant with a small family who's lived somewhere less than a year gets two weeks; a defendant who has more than two children and has been a resident more than a year gets three weeks. "Where I see four or five children, I'll go 28 days," he says.

Sometimes Garber goes further. "We get AIDS patients now," he says. "They know they are going to die. They have been good productive people and good tenants. All you can do is show them a little kindness by giving a little longer than normal. Occasionally I'm so touched by a case that I will personally assist someone in relocating." Seven months ago a woman who had donated her liver to her own daughter came before him--out of work, sick, and clearly guilty of nonpayment. "I gave her 60 days and made some calls to the CHA to find her temporary housing," says Garber.

Occasionally Garber will decide for a tenant, even an unrepresented one. Last August an Englewood landlord tried to evict tenant James Taylor, contending Taylor had signed only a two-month lease. Taylor showed the judge a 12-month lease. After scrutinizing the two documents, Garber said he suspected the signatures on the landlord's lease had been forged. "If something smells like fire and there's smoke, it's fire," said Garber. "I find for Mr. Taylor."

"That judge is one fair guy," said Taylor.

Laura Higgins woke up sick on September 14, but there was nothing unusual about that. "It's almost like I'm pregnant," she said. "I get morning sickness and I throw up. Sometimes the sickness will last all day, sometimes three days. I can't go out. I'm totally dysfunctional. All I can do is go to the bathroom."

So it was left to George to keep the couple's court date. In April Judge Garber had undergone emergency quadruple bypass surgery, not returning to the bench until July. Even now he appeared pale. A lawyer who hadn't been to court since Garber's return welcomed him back. "Thank you," the 56-year-old told the well-wisher and then got down to business.

Garber began the call with his daily orientation. He pointed out his staff--his clerk, his court reporter, his bailiff. "I'm Judge Garber," he said when he got to himself. "We're all here to be of service to you." The rest of the judge's message described the process. Either party could ask for a continuance or request a jury; a settlement could be reached in advance of trial. "I want you to be assured that no decision will be made until everyone is heard," Garber said.

Soon Garber's clerk called Elias Muldowan's eviction suit against Laura Higgins and George. A hefty, balding man of 51, George rose from his seat among the spectators. Neither he nor Higgins could afford a lawyer, so George stood alone to plead their case. Hatige Kadri was accompanied by Moldowan's attorney, Gerald Penovich, not a volume filer but someone whose face the judge knew.

Penovich told Judge Garber that the new SRO ordinance forced the Acres to let its long-term tenants go. Kadri said permanent tenants had been given 30 days' notice on July 25, and a month later those like Higgins and George who hadn't left were sued. By now, said Penovich, Higgins and George owed the Acres $600 in back rent.

George testified that Kadri had hiked the rent, then told them to get out. "I told her we'd leave, but my wife has terminal cancer," he said. He and Higgins had lived at the Acres for two and a half years. "It's not easy to find a new place," he explained.

But George challenged none of the reasons given to justify their eviction--neither Penovich's reading of the SRO ordinance, nor the 30 days' notice they may or may not have been given, nor the rent they may or may not have attempted to pay.

"I think two things are apparent," said Judge Garber. "It's common for hotels to have summer rates and winter rates. There are seasonal adjustments, and it's reasonable for them to raise your rent." He went on to discuss the SRO ordinance, with which he seemed to have only a passing familiarity. And he told George, "I think you got caught in the switches here, through no fault of your own. You have to find a new place. You have 21 days to vacate. My finding against you is $600, plus costs. You will pay it as you are able to. I hope you are able to find something."

The proceeding lasted four minutes--bang, bang, bang, bang.

Sharon Schmidt believes Moldowan and Kadri moved against the permanent residents to make the Acres look more presentable for sale. However, the motel's principals deny it is on the market.

Joann Boston, who is African American, says her family's race was the issue. Laura Higgins says Moldowan figured he could make more money off transient guests who pay $35 a night than off herself and George, who were paying $18 a night. Higgins also thinks Kadri simply disliked them.

The Acres principals mention only rent. "If you don't pay, you get evicted," said Moldowan in a brief and angry phone conversation in October. "They owed money," says Gerald Penovich, who was only slightly more forthcoming. "A landlord has to pay his taxes, his janitors--he can't take a bath." Kadri would not respond to inquiries.

Judge Garber emphasizes that the Acres was within its rights to evict any lodger first given 30 days' notice.

Higgins and George were the last of the permanents to leave. Allisa Horne, her children, and her boyfriend now live in a motel off the Edens Expressway. Home for Sharon Schmidt is another motel on Lincoln. Joann Boston and her husband found a one-bedroom apartment on the west side. The Acres Motel has a new coat of paint--red and white, with blue railings--and the rooms where the permanent residents once lived have been upgraded.

Garber had ordered Higgins and George out by October 5, and as the date approached Higgins worried. "We're stuck between a rock and a hard place," she said. She wanted to stay within range of the medical van from Weiss Hospital, which delivered her for treatment. But George had been too busy working to look for a new home. Higgins found herself stone-cold awake at three in the morning, unable to return to sleep. "With your cancer, this is sure a shitty time to throw you out," observed Laura's first husband, who's still around and still a friend.

The Sunday before Laura Higgins and George had to clear out, an acquaintance pulled his car up next to theirs and told them about a $375-a-month apartment on Lawrence Avenue. They gratefully put down a $100 deposit.

When the day came, it took two hours to load their belongings into George's station wagon. "The cleaning ladies and the guy in the office all knew it was our last day," recalls Higgins. "I told them we'd be in touch." They left no forwarding number or address.

They had assumed their new digs were a one-bedroom apartment, but home turned out to be a sunny third-floor studio in the rear. There's no bell; a visitor has to honk his horn.

Higgins continues to feel sick. On election day she was signed up to work as a judge, but she wasn't up to it. She's sure from the pain in her back that the cancer has invaded her left kidney. She misses her friends at the Acres. "I have an idea where some of them are," she says, "but I don't have their addresses or phone numbers."

No lawyer or collection agency has come after Higgins and George to collect Garber's $600 judgment, but Higgins says they couldn't get gas for heat on Lawrence (except through her landlord) because Kadri had reported they owed it. A warrant for Higgins's arrest is still outstanding over that incident in Niles; fortunately for Higgins, no one's busting down doors to find her. "We don't have the manpower to chase down everything," a Niles police sergeant observed. "This wasn't a crime of passion. Someday she'll be driving down the street, and an officer will stop her and execute the warrant."

Higgins calls her life "depressing, depressing." The eviction, she says, was "a total inconvenience. Everything was going rather smoothly at the Acres. I could go into the hospital and return to the motel and not have to worry. So getting tossed out was a 180-degree change of direction. But one thing's good. At the Acres I used to think I was destined to live in one room. Now I'm in two rooms, if you count the kitchen. This place is literally a step up--a few steps up, actually."

Judge Garber sits in his chambers. The morning call has concluded, and he's in his shirtsleeves; a small gavel is stitched on his breast pocket.

"Courts are not hopeful places," he says. "What we do as judges is to dissolve your marriages, adjudicate your bankruptcies, and evict you. We don't make human beings happier, or not usually. The only thing one can take some joy from is doing adoptions. And weddings--I love to perform weddings.

"It's not a pleasant task to evict people. There are many nights I go home and think, is this why I wanted to become a judge? Then I decide that somebody has to do it, and I will do it the best I can."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Armando Villa, Kathy Richland.

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