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On the northwest side, eviction and gentrification go hand in hand

The prevalence of verbal landlord-tenant agreements leaves low-income immigrant households vulnerable.

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Part one of a two-part series. Read part two here.

On a frigid Saturday morning in November, 62-year-old Rosalinda Hernandez stood in front of a luxury apartment building construction site in Logan Square, portable speaker system in tow. Shivering in the gusts of cold wind, she led upbeat chants, as dozens of protesters marched in a circle in front of the site: "Moreno, amigo, amigo de los ricos!"—"Moreno, friend, friend of the rich!"—they chanted about First Ward alderman Proco Joe Moreno. "Que quiere Moreno? Nuestro dinero!"—"What does Moreno want? Our money!" Nearby, members of the antigentrification group Somos Logan Square chained themselves to cement-filled barrels to obstruct construction equipment and prevent a crew of workers from making progress on the building's exterior.

The protest was held to boycott this particular development at the corner of Armitage and Campbell—which, when completed, will have 78 units, with studios starting at $1,300 per month—but also to call attention to the continual pressure on the neighborhood's low-income residents. Some of the protesters were home owners who have seen their property taxes soar in recent years. Others, like Hernandez, were renters squeezed out of the market through evictions.

According to recent reporting by WBEZ, eviction filings in Cook County have climbed steadily since the 2008 recession, a spike driven by evictions of renters, not of home owners from foreclosed properties. In 2014—the most recent full year for which the Reader was able to obtain data—more than 18,400 total eviction cases were filed, up 20 percent from the approximately 15,300 evictions in 2008. During that time, about a third to a half of filings in any given year ended with the Cook County sheriff's office actually conducting an eviction—in 2014 more than 8,000 households were forcibly removed, according to data obtained by the Reader via a Freedom of Information Act request.

Rosalinda Hernandez was evicted from her West Town apartment in July. - MAYA DUKMASOVA
  • Maya Dukmasova
  • Rosalinda Hernandez was evicted from her West Town apartment in July.

As the northwest side continues to gentrify, evictions in this part of town have become increasingly common, organizers say. And among those most vulnerable to eviction are immigrant renters who don't have written leases.

Hernandez's eviction saga began last year when the owner of her four-unit apartment building at 2310 W. Grand, on the border of Humboldt Park and West Town, decided to sell. Originally from Mexico, Hernandez works domestic and janitorial jobs, and doesn't speak much English. She had moved into a two-bedroom apartment with a rent of $500 per month eight years prior, and like many of her neighbors, never had a written lease. In fact, since arriving to Chicago 26 years ago, she's had only verbal agreements with landlords.

"I didn't know we had a right to a written contract," Hernandez says through a translator.

In summer 2015 Hernandez started hearing talk about the landlord selling the building, she says. Then, in August, a no-cause eviction notice was slipped under the door of her second-floor apartment, informing her that she needed to vacate the unit by the end of the month. In Chicago, when tenants rent without a lease, a landlord can ask them to leave without cause with 30 days' notice. If the renter doesn't leave when the 30 days are up, the landlord can initiate eviction proceedings in court.

But the notice slipped under Hernandez's door was addressed to her downstairs neighbor. So, thinking the landlord had made a mistake, Hernandez ignored it.

Then, in early October, "my landlord gave me [verbal] notice that if I didn't leave in 24 hours they were going to throw out me and my belongings," Hernandez says. "I tried to pay my rent, and they told me that I had to leave."

Threats of tenant expulsion made outside the court system are illegal in Chicago, even if the tenant doesn't have a lease. If tenants don't pay rent or violate the terms of their lease, a landlord can threaten eviction proceedings with a written notice delivered in person or by certified mail. Only the Cook County sheriff's office can evict tenants and remove their belongings, however. And evictions can be carried out only after a landlord wins the case in court.

The property management company for Hernandez's building at that time, Tradekraft Property Services, maintains that all notices to Hernandez were served properly.

"This lady was not paying the rent," a representative from Tradekraft who identified himself only as Allan told the Reader. "She was properly served; there's no story here." Hernandez maintains that she never fell behind on her rent and that the demands for her to leave the apartment started around the same time as the building went on the market.

—Renter Rosalinda Hernandez

The day after Hernandez says she was threatened, organizers from Somos Logan Square helped her stage a mass call-in to Tradekraft asking the property manager to allow her to stay in the unit and reminding the company that it was illegal to try to force her out.

The day after that, her building was sold. The buyer was 212 Developments—a small real estate company with a handful of properties scattered across the northwest side—which intended to rehab the building. Hernandez says the new owners never told her where to send future rent payments, so for the next three months she set her rent aside. At the end of December 2015, 212 served her with a five-day notice to pay her past-due rent or face eviction proceedings. Hernandez promptly delivered her back rent to the company's office.

Then, between January and April, conditions in Hernandez's apartment deteriorated, she says—her heating wasn't functioning, and there were cockroaches, broken plumbing, and other maintenance problems. Eventually 212 fixed the furnace, but the other issues persisted, Hernandez says, so she began withholding rent in an effort to force her landlord to address them. Tenants have this right under Chicago's Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance, which allows them to reduce rent payments equal to the reduced value of their unit due to persistent maintenance problems.

But Hernandez's strategy backfired. In April, 212 took her to eviction court on the grounds of nonpayment of rent. She ultimately lost her case, and was evicted by the sheriff's office in July.

"I think part of the reason I lost my case was because I was the only person still living in the building when everyone else had left," Hernandez says. All of her neighbors had either moved out on their own before the building sale was finalized or accepted money from 212 to move out.

Renovations to Hernandez’s old building are now under way, but Lior Ben Zur, a co-owner of 212 Developments, declined to say how much the company would eventually charge for rent there, or how much the company charges for units at its other properties in Avondale, Bucktown, Wicker Park, and West Town. Still, he denied that the goal was to evict tenants like Hernandez in favor of tenants who could pay more.

"I'm renting for a lot of people, from every kind of society and every income there is," Ben Zur says. "I'm not looking to get low income out and high income in."

Nevertheless, the cost of renting Hernandez's old apartment will likely be higher than the $500 per month she once paid. In 2014, median rents in the area were between $1,300 and $2,000 per month, according to Zillow Real Estate data compiled by the Tribune.

There's no official data on how many people in Chicago are living without leases, but organizers say it's extremely common among the low-income immigrant populations they serve.

"Almost every single person that our organization is working with, they don't have a lease," says Antonio Gutierrez of the Autonomous Tenants Union, a group that organizes renters in gentrifying Albany Park. Organizers with Somos described a similar situation in Logan Square and nearby neighborhoods increasingly attracting developers. And according to the DePaul Institute for Housing Studies, young people making $74,000 to $123,000 are the fastest-growing category of renters in Chicago. Hernandez makes less than $30,000.

She found a new one-bedroom apartment in Humboldt Park, where she now lives with her son and nephew. For the first time in her life she has a written lease, but her rent is now $835.

Hernandez says she doesn't know why the judge sided with her landlord in her eviction case. After losing, she decided not to appeal. There was no court reporter at her hearings, so there's no record of the proceedings, the lack of which would have made it hard for her to argue on appeal that the judge may have acted unfairly or misinterpreted the law.

Next week, we'll look at what happens in eviction courts, and why tenants usually lose their cases.   v

Correction: This story has been updated to correct a spelling error in one of the words printed in Spanish, and to indicate that the building under construction in Logan Square is a rental building, not a condo building.

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