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Michael Pensack Against the World

The self-styled tenants' advocate has brought landlords and renters' groups together to work on a common goal: putting him out of business.

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Michael Pensack, executive director of the Illinois Tenants Union, has played a key role in bringing together two of Chicago's most antagonistic interest groups. For the first time in years, the Chicago Board of Realtors and other groups representing landlords and property owners are engaged in productive negotiations with a number of the city's tenant organizations, including the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, the Rogers Park Tenants Committee, the Lawyers' Committee for Better Housing, and the Legal Assistance Foundation. The two camps, who usually disagree on just about everything, have discovered that they share a common goal: to put Michael Pensack and the ITU out of business.

Pensack, who operates the ITU with his brother Douglas, is the kind of guy people love to hate. "I want to see him stopped," says a staff member for a competing tenant organization. "I'd like to see the Pensack brothers burned at the stake," says a Chicago landlord.

"They do a great disservice to the tenants they claim to serve," says Cary Schiff, an attorney who handles eviction cases for landlords.

Virtually every person who deals on a day-to-day basis with landlord-tenant issues in Chicago has heard about Michael Pensack--but almost no one seems to like him. A number of tenant and community groups have begun keeping files on him, and the Chicago Property Owners' Association issues regular broadsides denouncing him. One landlord sent a letter to Mike Royko urging him to write an expose. The Chicago Bar Association, which once referred callers with tenant problems to Pensack, won't do so anymore; a spokesperson said the organization had received too many complaints. Alderman Bernard Stone has introduced a resolution in City Council calling for an investigation of "unscrupulous individuals" who "prey on unsuspecting tenants"--and he means Pensack.

Who is Michael Pensack, and why are all these people saying terrible things about him? A tall, bearded man with a booming voice, Pensack talks and moves with a nervous intensity that makes him appear younger than his 48 years. Since moving to Chicago in 1964, he has been a divinity student, a labor organizer, an insurance salesman, and director of a community development agency. In 1980 he became a full-time tenant organizer.

Over the last 11 years, in addition to developing an exhaustive knowledge of landlord-tenant law, Pensack has also cultivated a unique talent for making people mad at him, and it's difficult to separate the substance of the complaints against him from the reaction most people have to his prickly personal style. Even in the normally contentious field of landlord-tenant relations, Pensack stands out as uniquely combative, willing to do fierce battle with his enemies and also ready to fight at a moment's notice with people who ought to be his friends.

Pensack thinks the people who criticize him are simply unhappy or jealous about the results he's able to achieve for ITU clients. "The thing that's upsetting people," he says, "is that landlords are being forced to comply with the building code." To force compliance, Pensack makes determined use of every possible legal maneuver that can give his clients an advantage. His critics say he's "abusing" the law--but Pensack argues, with some justification, that landlords and their lawyers are never shy about finding fine points of the law to use against tenants.

Although he repeatedly insists that various complaints about him are groundless, Pensack actually seems to enjoy being the center of negative attention. He has unfailing confidence in his own goals and methods; he never wavers when he's attacked, but instead becomes more convinced than ever that his approach--and only his approach--can advance the all-important cause of tenant rights.

But representatives of both landlord and tenant groups believe that for the past several years Pensack and the ITU have been abusing the intent of the city's landmark Tenant Bill of Rights, passed in 1986. In recent months landlord and tenant advocates have been meeting to review possible changes in the law, and to their mutual surprise the talks have led to the possibility of compromise on a number of key issues. If these tentative compromises are translated into law, Michael Pensack may have to change the way he does business in Chicago.

The Tenant Bill of Rights was one of the few comprehensive pieces of progressive legislation enacted during the 19-month period when Harold Washington had majority control of the City Council. The ordinance was designed to help renters living in poorly maintained buildings make an end run around the city's glacially slow housing court, where it can take years to force landlords to make even the most basic repairs.

Predictably, landlords and property owners lobbied fiercely to defeat the bill. After they lost, the Chicago Board of Realtors went to federal court and attempted to have the ordinance declared unconstitutional. When that didn't work, lobbyists in Springfield tried to persuade state legislators to preempt--retroactively--Chicago's right to legislate landlord-tenant issues. Tenant organizations, on a rare winning streak, defeated the preemption bill.

The result is that for the past five years landlord-tenant relations in Chicago have been governed by a law that gives renters a number of weapons to use against irresponsible landlords. Under the terms of the Tenant Bill of Rights, tenants can withhold rent when landlords don't do maintenance--or make repairs themselves (if the cost is less than $200) and deduct the amount from rent payments. In certain situations tenants also have the right to terminate their leases.

No one has studied the intricacies of this bill more closely than Michael Pensack. He set up operations in the city in 1988, after controversial stints in two Chicago suburbs. He was fired in 1986 from his post as director of the Tenants Organization of Evanston after a battle with the group's board of directors. He then relocated to Mount Prospect, where he wound up as the target of a lawsuit filed by the village's largest landlord.

In April 1988 the Reader published a generally sympathetic profile of Pensack, which painted him as a dedicated advocate of the underprivileged, willing to work long hours for low pay in order to advance the cause of tenant rights. That picture couldn't be more wrong, say Pensack's current critics. They say he takes advantage of landlords by encouraging tenants to abandon their leases, and takes advantage of tenants by charging high fees for services they can receive free elsewhere. In addition, they say, the ITU gives out questionable legal advice and exposes tenants to legal liabilities that could run into thousands of dollars.

"A lot of the information he gives people is not legally valid," says Mike Radzilowsky, an attorney who frequently represents tenants in court. "People get sued for eviction. You have a situation where a tenant can get hit with a financial judgment."

The charges against Pensack and the ITU have attracted the attention of the consumer-protection division of the Illinois attorney general's office. "We are looking into their organization and operation," says Sally Saltzberg, chief of the division. Allegations, Saltzberg says, include deceptive business practices and practicing law without a license, which is a criminal offense.

Christine Karczewski is one tenant who claims that Pensack intentionally gave her the impression he was an attorney. She contacted the ITU in June for help getting back a security deposit. "I met with Michael. I asked him what his history was, what his qualifications were. He said that he had been in social services and decided to go into law and he went back to law school."

"I don't think we would ever say that to anyone," says Pensack. "Nobody here has been to law school." Karczewski, he suggests, may have misunderstood what she was told. "A lot of people, when they get very detailed legal information given to them, may assume that someone giving it to them is a lawyer. That's an assumption on their part rather than any representation to that effect."

There was no misunderstanding, says Karczewski. "That's how he left it, that 'I went into law.' Based on what he told me, I thought he was an attorney."

"Nobody thinks I'm a lawyer," insists Pensack. "How else can we talk to them about the law if we don't talk to them about the law? We pull out the ordinance and we say, 'The ordinance says this and this and this.' What do they want us to do? Pull out the Bible?"

While some tenants who have used ITU services complain that Pensack misrepresents himself, many others are perfectly satisfied. In fact, although I had access to files of a number of individuals and organizations that have been collecting information for some time about Pensack's alleged abuses, I couldn't locate a single Chicago tenant who could confirm one of the key charges against him: that tenants who follow his advice can wind up getting sued and losing large sums of money.

ITU advertisements claim that it can help tenants pay reduced rent or terminate their leases--and a number of tenants say that's exactly the service they received when they called the ITU. Tenants who answer Pensack's ads--or respond to the fliers he sends to selected apartment buildings--are urged to hire the ITU to inspect their apartments. The inspections inevitably turn up a long list of violations of the Chicago building code. (Only 10 percent of the apartments he sees, says Pensack, are in full compliance.) Pensack and ITU staffers also carefully read their clients' leases--and they claim that virtually every lease they've seen in Chicago is full of illegal clauses. The ITU then provides draft letters that cite either building-code violations or illegal lease clauses as a justification for a tenant withholding rent or terminating a lease.

"They proved to be most effective," says Carol Anderson. With Pensack's help, she paid reduced rent for several months for a Rogers Park apartment that she charges was poorly maintained. And she says the ITU stood by her when she had legal problems. "My landlord attempted to evict me. I had an attorney provided through the ITU, at no cost to me. I won the case, so the attorney's fees were awarded by the court."

Another satisfied ITU customer (who prefers not to have his real name published, due to pending litigation) is a man I'll call Steve Samuels. Samuels called Pensack for help in 1988. He was living in a Gold Coast apartment with two other men at the time. "The two other guys decided to transfer to Hawaii," Samuels recalls. "That meant we had to break the lease somehow, and we wanted to do it legally." For a fee of about $100, Pensack helped him break the lease.

After moving out of his Gold Coast apartment, Samuels moved to a studio in Lakeview. He recently called Pensack for help in breaking his lease in that apartment, which he claims has been poorly maintained. Now he's paying reduced rent, and he may wind up staying if adequate repairs are made.

"It's helped everybody in the building," says Samuels. "They've installed emergency lights, and the fire escapes have been repaired. They never fixed anything until I brought ITU into the picture."

Pressuring landlords to fix up buildings is fine, say Pensack's critics. But they can't help feeling there's something not quite kosher about the way Pensack advises tenants to break their leases. It's true that under the terms of the Tenant Bill of Rights, a tenant can unilaterally terminate his or her lease if it contains illegal clauses, such as unfairly high late fees, or a requirement that forces a tenant to pay a landlord's attorney's fees in the event of a legal dispute. The law also allows a tenant to terminate a lease if his or her apartment is not maintained in compliance with the city's building code.

But according to the tenant advocates who lobbied to pass the renters' rights law in the first place, it was primarily intended to help low-income renters living in slum conditions--not to make it easier for people to move to Hawaii. Pensack, they say, unfairly uses the bill to hustle fees from well-heeled renters who want to cut out on their leases or cut down on their rent payments without justifiable reasons.

Several of ITU's marketing efforts appear to be aimed at tenants who have decided to move for reasons that have nothing to do with the condition of their apartments. Pensack regularly sends form letters to real estate agents, for example, offering help in getting first-time home buyers out of their existing leases.

"Many of your clients who are buying homes are currently tenants and need to break their lease to do so," states the letter. "How do they get out of their lease without delay and at the lowest cost? . . . We have been 100% successful in legally terminating the leases of tenants."

Pensack also employs Shannon Weiss, a part-time staff assistant, to call people who put sublet ads in the Reader. "I tell them, if you can't sublet and think this might be a problem, I can give you an alternative. We can go in and break the lease and get your security deposit back." Weiss says she makes about 40 calls a week and gets five or ten positive responses.

Attorneys who represent landlords in court are particularly incensed about the way Pensack uses illegal lease clauses as a justification for terminating leases. "We get a letter saying your lease doesn't comply," says David Saltiel, an attorney at Bell, Boyd & Lloyd who is presently preparing lawsuits against three tenants who used ITU services. "In all cases we send back a lease agreeing to all of their changes. So we're saying, we agree to all this, now stick around--and they leave anyways."

Landlords have a right to expect tenants to stay the full term of their leases, says Ralph Scott of the Rogers Park Tenants Committee. "We're here to help tenants, but we don't believe all landlords are bad. We want to have good, responsible landlords in our community, and we hate to see people who are doing a good job getting taken advantage of."

Scott and other tenant advocates say that by abusing the Tenant Bill of Rights, Pensack discredits the law--and adds fuel to the landlords' campaign to overturn some of its key provisions. "Pensack's activities have served as a lightning rod for industry to seek drastic changes in the Tenant Bill of Rights," says Bill Wilen of the Legal Assistance Foundation, which represents low-income tenants in housing court. "We're trying to get a balanced package of amendments, but what may result is an ordinance that provides a lot less protection for tenants."

"They've used Pensack as an excuse for opening up the ordinance and pushing for big changes," says Tim Carpenter, executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization (MTO). "They've been looking for an excuse like this for a long time."

Pensack insists he's obeying the law, not abusing it. "We can only get away with what the law says," he argues. "If you can get away with what the law says, that's not abuse. The solution to these so-called abuses of the law would be to have the landlords stop violating it."

Landlords will keep writing illegal clauses into their leases, Pensack says, as long as they think they can get away with it. For example, the Tenant Bill of Rights says that the maximum charge a landlord can impose for late payment of rent is $10. But most tenants don't know that, so landlords can get away with putting a $50 late fee in their leases--and they can also get away with collecting it from unsuspecting tenants.

The only way to prevent landlords from taking advantage of tenants who don't know their rights, says Pensack, is to create an incentive for them to write leases that are strictly legal. The ITU, which is capable of tracking down illegal leases and helping tenants terminate them, is exactly such an incentive.

The ITU is also controversial because it's the only tenant organization in the city that charges tenants a fee, usually ranging from $100 to up to half a month's rent. "We run a tenants'-rights hot line that operates without charging people," says Ralph Scott of the Rogers Park Tenants Committee. "We tell dozens and dozens of people how to use the Tenant Bill of Rights. This ordinance was designed to provide self-help remedies. You don't have to pay someone to find out how to use it."

Pensack has been feuding for more than a year with a number of tenant organizations, including the Rogers Park Tenants Committee, the South Shore Tenants Organization, and the Lakeview Tenants Organization. The three groups, along with other community organizations, work together on citywide issues through the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, which serves as an umbrella coalition.

Pensack has never fit under the MTO umbrella. He once sent in $25 and applied to join the organization, but the MTO board was wary of his reputation and voted to reject his application. Hostility turned into open warfare last spring, when Pensack was a guest on a WBEZ call-in show.

"I was listening and I couldn't take it," recalls Jahahara Armstrong, a community organizer who was then working for the Rogers Park Tenants Committee. He says Pensack was giving out incorrect information about the Tenants Bill of Rights, and he didn't like the idea that Pensack was soliciting fees for his services. "I called in and told them to watch out for this guy, that they could get these services for free, and that this guy had a bad history."

Pensack was furious. "They attacked me more viciously than the landlords who were calling up and attacking me. I would never attack them in public. We have our differences, but they're not landlords. I'm not going to treat them as an enemy."

But Pensack's next maneuver was regarded by other tenant groups as an especially unsavory brand of guerrilla warfare. "I wrote to them to request a meeting, but they wouldn't talk to me," he says. "So I said, let's see how they feel the heat with a little direct competition. So we decided to have two phone-book listings."

In fact, Pensack took out four phone-book listings in 1990. One was for the Illinois Tenants Union--and the other three were for organizations with names that were remarkably similar to existing tenant groups. He created the Rogers Park Tenants Association (to mimic the Rogers Park Tenants Committee, founded in 1974), the South Shore Tenants Association (to mimic the South Shore Tenants Organization, founded in 1989), and the Lakeview Tenants Association (to mimic the Lakeview Tenants Organization, founded in 1986). All four organizations listed the same address and phone number, an apartment in Albany Park. "It was deliberate," he says. "I did it basically to ruffle their feathers. I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't been attacked."

The existing organizations were not amused, especially when people who called directory assistance looking for their offices were routed to Pensack. They threatened to sue for trademark infringement, and Pensack eventually agreed to drop the phone listings for his Lakeview and South Shore associations. He kept a listing in Rogers Park but changed it to Rogers Park Branch of the Illinois Tenants Union.

Pensack dismisses the whole issue as a dispute over territory. "What right do they have to turf?" he asks. "Has somebody got a monopoly that says there can be only one tenant organization in Rogers Park?"

But Tim Carpenter of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization says that disputes between Pensack and the member groups of his coalition are not about narrow turf issues but about basic principles. "This guy's in business," he says. "He's in business to make money. That's not my idea of a tenants' organization." Carpenter says Pensack tries to push tenants into individual, legalistic confrontations with landlords, while MTO and its member organizations have a different approach. He says that when tenants call MTO with complaints, "We ask if there are other tenants that are having problems. We may propose having a meeting in the building and talk about organizing with other tenants. We're trying to build a tenant movement that empowers people, that teaches people to be leaders."

Words like "empowerment" and "leadership" frequently come up when staff members from other tenant organizations describe the difference between themselves and the ITU. Pensack isn't impressed by this kind of rhetoric, which he regards as phony lingo cooked up by foundation executives and other do-gooders and swallowed by community-organization staff who depend on outside sources for their income. People like to talk about "empowerment," he says, because it brings to mind a romantic image of oppressed tenants uniting in collective action against abusive landlords. In practice, he says, this approach to tenant issues often translates into an endless series of meetings with little practical result--except for an "organizing" program that can be touted on next year's grant application.

Pensack claims that the ITU is more directly accountable to tenants than any other community group, because it gets money from only one source--tenants. "We've developed a service that's unequaled by any tenant organization in the United States," he says. "And one of the main reasons is that we are funded by tenants. We have to be constantly changing our service to satisfy what tenants want. If we don't do that, we don't get the money."

Pensack must be satisfying somebody, because his organization collects money from tenants on a regular basis. He estimates his current annual budget--drawn entirely from tenants' fees and contributions--at about $100,000. That's a decent sum by the standards of nonprofit organizations doing similar work--but it's not enough to make anybody wealthy. The ITU budget covers office expenses, legal fees, and salaries for Pensack, his brother Douglas, one other full-time staff member, and a few part-time assistants.

Pensack likes to say that the ITU is patterned after a labor union, relying on its members as its sole source of support. But he acknowledges that the organization is "more service oriented than membership oriented." In fact, the ITU is incorporated as an Illinois nonprofit organization, but it has no membership structure, no meetings, and no financial reports. Pensack isn't directly accountable to anyone--except himself. He serves as both executive director of the ITU and president of its board, which has only two other members--his brother Douglas and ITU client Carol Anderson.

According to Pensack's critics, the tenants who pay the fees that keep ITU in business aren't getting their money's worth. They charge that the letters he gives tenants to send to landlords aren't worth the paper they're written on, that they're not likely to stand up in court. "The violations ITU cites are not real violations," says attorney David Saltiel. "They complain about staircases and say that the risers are off by one inch. It's so insignificant it makes no sense."

"These are not just technicalities," counters Pensack. "They're safety precautions." Poorly constructed steps, he says, can cause serious injuries. "I can close my eyes and go down a flight of stairs and tell if they're uneven. I can tell by the way my body shifts. I can't tell you how many back stairs I've fallen on."

Saltiel insists that uneven stairs and the other building-code violations cited in ITU documents are so trivial that no judge would allow them as the basis for a lease being terminated or rent being withheld. He acknowledges, however, that few of the clients who use Pensack's services have had their claims ruled on by a judge; given the costs of attorneys' fees versus the amount of past-due rent that can be collected, landlords usually don't pursue the cases.

Pensack agrees that his claims have not been tested in court very often. (Though he insists that when he's challenged he wins.) "That's one of the beauties of the landlord-tenant ordinance," he says. The Tenant Bill of Rights provides that if a landlord takes a tenant to court and loses, he or she may have to pay the tenant's attorney's fees. But there's no reciprocal provision--so if the landlord wins, all he or she can collect is unpaid rent, which in many cases is less than the cost of bringing a lawsuit in the first place.

As a result, Pensack explains, "A lot of landlords won't fight us anymore. It doesn't pay to fight." He says that a trial in which a landlord sues to evict a tenant who hasn't paid full rent because of maintenance complaints can cost a landlord a lot. "Even if he wins, he's going to lose two to three thousand. And let's say the landlord loses. He has to pay his attorney $3,000--and he has to pay us $3,000 for our attorney's fees. And he's still going to have to fix the building. Where's the percentage in that?"

The percentage, says Saltiel, is in setting a precedent against Michael Pensack. And more of his clients are now willing to pay the price (which is steep, since Saltiel bills at $190 an hour). "What Pensack doesn't realize," says Saltiel, "is that he has angered some of the better landlords. An example has to be set, and tenants have to be aware that landlords will not stand for tenants disregarding their contracts." According to Saltiel and other landlord attorneys, there may soon be a flood of lawsuits against tenants who have used ITU services.

Saltiel is quick to assert, however, that Pensack and the ITU are not the real problem--the real problem is the Tenant Bill of Rights, which he calls "badly drafted" and says invites abuse. That's why landlords have been working for months to get the law changed.

In May the Chicagoland Association of Real Estate Boards sent the Daley administration a memo listing proposed changes in the Tenant Bill of Rights. A public fight over landlord-tenant legislation could be a delicate political football, pitting realtors who make large campaign contributions against tenant groups with the potential to mobilize large numbers of voters. So Marysue Barrett, an assistant to the mayor in intergovernmental relations, did the only logical thing: she punted.

Barrett told the landlord groups that any changes in the Tenant Bill of Rights would have to be negotiated with the tenant groups who helped draft the original ordinance. She then called tenant groups and told them to expect a call from the landlords.

Sure enough, the call came, and before long tenant groups (not including the ITU) were sitting down to talk about the bill with the same people who had lobbied against it, had sued to get it declared unconstitutional, and had gone to Springfield to try to get it preempted.

The negotiations have been more amicable than either side expected. Tenant groups wanted to make the law better for tenants and tougher on landlords in a few areas--and landlord organizations were willing to listen, so long as the tenants agreed to changes that will make life difficult for Michael Pensack and anyone who tries to imitate him in the future.

With negotiations still in process, neither side will talk in detail about the elements of a final deal. But sources close to the negotiations report that a compromise may have been reached on a number of key items. Tenants will get an increase in the dollar value of repairs that can be deducted from rent, and it will be easier to withhold rent from landlords who fail to provide heat. Landlords will get an amendment to prevent tenants from terminating leases based on illegal lease clauses.

The subject of attorneys' fees has also been discussed but remains a sticking point. Landlords are pushing for a change from the present law, which allows only tenants to collect attorneys' fees, to a "loser pays" system that would allow whichever side wins to collect fees from the losing side. If a compromise is reached on this point, it could alter the economics that now make it difficult for landlords to challenge tenant claims they consider frivolous. And it could drastically change the way Michael Pensack and the ITU do business.

Until he sees the language of the proposed amendments, Pensack is unwilling to speculate about how they might affect his organization. But he sounds confident that after 11 years as a tenant organizer he can survive in a transformed legal environment.

Pensack is sincerely convinced that the ITU provides a unique and important service, and that his aggressive brand of advocacy is unpopular simply because he's refused to become a polite member of the city's informal fraternity of nonprofit organizations. But just about everybody else in town is equally convinced that Pensack's problem is not politics, but that he promises more than he delivers, and that what he does deliver is a questionable service that can get tenants into serious legal trouble.

While researching this article, I talked to dozens of people about Michael Pensack. Outside of people who are somehow connected with the ITU, hardly anyone has a nice word to say about him. It's tempting to think someone who is disliked by just about everybody can't be all bad, and I'm not convinced that Pensack is the despicable ogre that many people say he is. His take-no-prisoners approach does deliver the goods for tenants in some circumstances, and if I were having a nasty dispute with my landlord, I might feel better with a fighter like him in my corner. On the other hand, working with Pensack involves making some tricky bets on hard-to-predict legal proceedings; I don't know if I'd want to risk winding up on the wrong end of a lawsuit. There's also the problem of Pensack's business practices, which are, to put it kindly, unconventional. You can't help feeling more than a little skeptical about somebody who claims to be performing a public service but creates names for his various organizations that are intentionally confusing to the public.

But if Pensack's actions appear confusing to others, he remains resolute and single-minded. He cares passionately about his work--and apparently about little else. His home and his office are located in the same Albany Park apartment, and he can't remember the last time he took a vacation. It's a life that might be too narrow for some, but Pensack appears to be quite content. "The thing I like best," he says, "is being able to make a difference in people's lives. Every day, there are people that would have done less well if they hadn't contacted us and we hadn't helped them."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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