After his wife died and the kids moved away, Arthur Morf decided to move out of his old apartment and settle into a new place of his own. So he bought a mobile home--12 feet wide, 46 feet long--in a trailer park on Waukegan Road in Glenview. By and large, his neighbors consisted of an assortment of widows, widowers, and down-on-their-luck divorcees, who can appreciate life in a trailer for less than $300 a month.
"You rent the lot and own the trailer--mine cost $8,000. But you can get them cheaper than that," says Morf of life in the North Glenview Mobile Home Park. "I figured it would be a quiet place to live out my years."
But in May the park was sold to a car dealer named Joseph Bredemann Jr. Within a few Weeks word leaked out that Bredemann intended to build a car dealership on the eastern half of the park. All told, about 30 residents--Morf included--would be evicted if they didn't leave on their own. To the surprise of almost everyone, the residents resisted, igniting six bitter months of zoning and legal wars.
"They tell me Bredemann's a good family man," says Morf, a retired tool-and-die worker. "Well, if that's so, how does he feel about some of these nice old ladies he's kicking out of here? Some folks have lived here for 25 years, and now he's telling them to get out. Doesn't he have a heart? How would he like it if this happened to his grandparents?"
"First of all, it's not just senior citizens who live in that park," counters Gregory Gann, Bredemann's spokesman and attorney. "There are at most 30 people living in the 24 trailers on the eastern part of the park. Of those people, 11 are under the age of 65. There are people 40 years old there. There are people who make a good living. That's not to say that we don't care about senior citizens. We do. Or that we have not been generous to the people who live there. We've made them very generous settlement offers. But the issue here has nothing to do with senior citizens. The issue is that the tenants are under the impression that they have a right to stay on property that is not their own forever. And they are wrong."
For Bredemann's purposes, the trailer-park location at 2000 N. Waukegan is ideal. There are two other car dealers on that stretch of road, so nearby residents probably wouldn't be too put off by another showroom. And it's only a few miles from the wealthy North Shore suburbs. That's important because the Toyota Lexus--the car Bredemann plans to sell--goes for about $30,000.
So Bredemann took a gamble. He bought the six-acre parcel for $2 million, even though he knew that the village might not permit him to operate a car dealership there. "We did a substantial amount of market research," Bredemann said at a recent hearing on the matter. "We found that the North Shore is the ideal market for our car."
His first obstacle was zoning. A car dealership did not conform with the land's zoning designation. So Bredemann asked Glenview's Zoning Board of Appeals, for a "conditional land-use permit." Then, at two hearings Iast fall, he trotted out a phalanx of experts who testified, among other things, that his dealership would not significantly increase traffic or undercut property values in the area.
The residents reacted to these developments with outrage. "The whole thing was such a surprise. Until we sued him, we didn't know Bredemann was the new owner," says Paul E. Nelson, a 60-year-old resident of the trailer park. "All we knew is that the land was held by some bank trust, and that someone wanted to put some kind of car dealership there. If [Bredemann] had just come out and introduced himself, and asked us as individuals what we needed to move, it wouldn't be so hostile.
"Some people in the park make less than $500 a month. They can't afford the cheapest apartments in this area. Do you know what it's like to lose your home? It's like going through a divorce, or having your kid hooked on drugs. It just eats away at you. People get-high blood pressure. They lose sleep. They cry. I've gained 30 pounds since this started. I don't have money to see a shrink, so I spend a lot of time in my trailer drinking beer."
While the zoning debate raged, Bredemann sued to have evicted several residents whose leases he refused to renew. The residents countered with a suit contending that Bredemann couldn't refuse to renew their leases without violating the Illinois Mobilehome Landlord and Tenant Rights Act. "That law was passed in 1979 because there had been a whole lot of abuse against mobile-home tenants by landlords," says Helen Cropper, a lawyer for the Cook County Legal Assistance Foundation, who, along with her colleague Kathleen Swanson and several Northwestern University law-school students, represents the tenants.
"Basically the law says a tenant cannot be evicted unless he violates specific rules such as--and the law uses the words 'such as'--not paying rent, not following the rules of the park, or violating the health code. We contend that the law limits evictions to those specific violations. Since our clients are not guilty of these violations, Bredemann can't evict them.
That interpretation struck Bredemann--not to mention many other landlords--as a gross violation of a property owner's inalienable right to do what he wants with his property. "That reading of the statute is quite skewed," says Gann. "The tenants are claiming a right to stay on that property forever, and such a right is not found anywhere. In fact, the bill's sponsor wrote us a letter saying: 'I can say unequivocally that there was no legislative intent with regard to this section to allow a mobile-home-park resident to have perpetual or indefinite usage of his lot.' This is no different than if you told a renter in a three-flat that you did not want to renew his lease, and he told you that he had no intention of leaving."
The three-flat analogy, the residents argue, falls flat. For starters, they point out, unlike renters, they own their homes. In fact, many are still paying back the loan they borrowed to buy their trailers. If they are forced to move to an apartment, I they will be stuck with mortgage and rent payments. Furthermore, despite their names, mobile homes are not so mobile, particularly the older units that have been sitting in one spot for years. Even if they could move their trailer, they'd have no place to go; there are few trailer-lot vacancies in the immediate area. At best, a scrap dealer might pay them $250 to haul the trailer away.
"We're more like single-family-home owners than renters," says Ed Grabow. "I've put $2,000 into my trailer. I bought a new refrigerator. I installed carpeting. I painted it. I had the roof redone. I put in venetian blinds. Of course, if you stuck my trailer out in some field it would be worthless. But it's not out in a field. It's in the trailer park on Waukegan Road. And so long as this is where it is, there's always going to be someone willing to pay at least $6,500 to buy it and move there."
Bredemann answered the tenants' suit with a suit of his own, which in effect said that he did have the right to refuse to renew their leases. Then he filed to have several other tenants evicted from the park.
"As it now stands, we have two separate proceedings," says Cropper. "We have the case in a Chicago court on whether he has the right not to renew the leases. And we have the eviction cases in a Skokie court. Obviously they want to drain us with all these lawsuits. This is a very costly and time-consuming case, and we don't have Bredemann's resources."
The first round of the battle went to the tenants, when the zoning board denied Bredemann's request for permission to operate the dealership. But in other venues Bredemann has held the hot hand. First, each resident in eviction court was ordered to post a $500 bond, with part of the money earmarked for Bredemann's expenses should the residents be evicted. Then the eviction-court judge denied Cropper's motion to postpone his decision until the case in the Chicago court is decided. That means one judge can put the tenants out on the street, only to have the other judge say they cannot be evicted. And then last week the Glenview board of trustees overturned the zoning board's decision.
"We are aware of the problem in which tenants and landlord find themselves," village president James Smirles said at the meeting's outset. "I personally must say that I agree that at this point the court is the proper place to air that grievance. This board's primary objective is only on the [zoning] proposal."
A few residents rose to oppose the car dealership on the grounds that it didn't make sense to put more retirees out of housing, since Glenview already has a shortage of senior-citizen housing. But after Cropper attempted to describe the plight of her clients should they be evicted the village attorney admonished her, just as he admonished Bredemann's lawyer, to stay away from the more personal details of their dispute.
Instead, the trustees listened as Bredemann described his plans to sell more than 1,000 cars a year from the Waukegan Road franchise, ringing up about $300,000 a year in sales taxes for Glenviews coffers.
But then, more than one trustee pointed out, if we deny you your zoning request, you could build a shopping center on that site--without our say-so--because a shopping mall is permitted under the current zoning.
That's right, he said.
And if you built a shopping mall there, they asked, the tenants would still have to move?
And how much in sales taxes do your experts estimate a shopping mall on that site would yield?
About $120,000--at best. Of course, you'd have a lot more traffic at a mall than a car dealership.
So, in conclusion, a shopping mall would yield fewer tax dollars than an auto franchise, generate more traffic congestion, and still send the trailer tenants packing?
The final vote to overrule the zoning board and give Bredemann his zoning was five to one. When the final vote was taken, a few trailer tenants and their backers--nearly 200 strong--hissed, but most sat in dejected silence. Many figure Bredemann will win the court battles too, the major question being when. Undoubtedly, Toyota expects that Bredemann will have a building in which the Lexus can be sold by the September new-car season. Protracted litigation may delay Bredemann's construction plans.
"I figure he has to break ground by March in order to build his showroom by September," says Paul Nelson. "And he can't break ground so long as we're sitting on it. You would think that would make him want to compromise."
In Bredemann's defense, he already has offered the residents $175,000 to be divided any way they see fit. In addition, he offered to move the four neediest tenants who face eviction into the remaining trailer lots on the western end of his property. "We care a great deal about these people," says Gann. "We offered them $175,000--that's a substantial sum of money to give someone to leave property he doesn't own. Mr. Bredemann made that offer for three reasons: He is a person of character and integrity. He is a human being who has compassion for the needs of these people. And he desires to utilize that real estate for his car dealership."
To the residents, $175,000--which comes out to about $2,000 or $6,000 a person, depending on whether you divide it by all 85 residents of the park or just the 30 who face immediate eviction--is not enough. The 25 residents on the west side of the park have yearlong leases, which Bredemann might not renew should he opt to sell or develop that portion of his property.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he tries to kick me out in a year or so," says Nelson, who lives on the western side of the park. "I guess I'd end up out by Rockford, where things are so economically depressed you can find a few trailer parks desperate enough to give you a month's rent for free. But that's one hell of a haul for an old timer to make, particularly someone who's lived around here all his life. This is some way to treat people. You might as well just stick a gun in their face and say 'Get the hell off my land!'"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.