A group of concerned citizens that has mobilized around tenant rights in Chicago won a small but heartening victory this week when the Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA) stayed the eviction of Merlene Robinson-Parsons.
Robinson-Parsons has lived in Northpoint Apartments for 29 years. After her husband moved out in May, she could no longer afford to pay her rent. She says she went to Northpoint management to ask for her rent to be adjusted to match her income--as her federally subsidized housing is supposed to ensure--but instead she was taken to eviction court.
"I've been paying rent since 1983," Robinson-Parsons told In These Times. "I've paid every penny, and now they're saying they don't want my money."
On Monday, Robinson-Parsons was told that her eviction would be halted while IHDA investigated her case. This minor victory came after several actions spearheaded by Robinson-Parsons last week: a press conference outside of Northpoint and a call-in campaign by supporters. It is unclear, however, how long this delay will last. At a press conference outside of the Chicago Department of Housing and Urban Development today, she and other tenants called for the urgent intervention of federal housing authorities.
Northpoint Apartments is owned by AIMCO, the largest private owner and operator of apartments in the country. HUD provides rental subsidies to AIMCO and is responsible for monitoring public and subsidized housing, though the Illinois Housing Development Authority, a state agency, has direct oversight of Northpoint Apartments.
This morning, a crowd of about 20 tenants and supporters gathered to deliver petitions to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offices in Chicago asking HUD to investigate what they say is a pattern of abuses at Northpoint, including unjust evictions and substandard living conditions.
Robinson-Parsons is primarily concerned with the future of her 3-year-old grandniece, Lamariana. She has taken care of the little girl since 2010, when Lamariana's mother was declared unfit. If Robinson-Parsons is evicted from her apartment, the girl will likely be put into foster care.
"I took the issue to the property manager of Northpoint Apartments," said Robinson-Parsons. "I went to her, I cried to her, I pleaded with her to let me keep this apartment, to adjust the rent to my income. She said, 'No. I want the unit.'"
Another tenant at Northpoint is also fighting eviction. Mary Wells, 65, has lived in the building since 2000. In June, Wells was robbed while coming back home after receiving her Social Security check. Without her Social Security, Wells could not afford to pay her rent. Ironically, Wells says, she was robbed due to a broken front gate that Northpoint had left unfixed for over a year. Catholic Charities gave her emergency funds in order to pay her rent. However, according to Wells, the check arrived to Northpoint management a few days after it was due, and Northpoint refused to accept it and moved to evict her.
This is not the first time that such charges have been leveled against Northpoint Apartments. In 2009, Erica Bledsoe moved into Northpoint to take care of her nieces and nephews after the death of their grandmother, who lived in the building. The company tried to evict Bledsoe, arguing that she was not on the lease. HUD intervened and prevented the eviction.
Situations like the ones facing Robinson-Parsons and Wells are common throughout the city, says Reverend Kenneth Wesbrooks, CEO and Founder of A Work of Faith Ministries, Inc., who spoke at the press conference on Robinson-Parson's behalf.
"We're all here to support Merlene. She's an example of residents of Rogers Park. She's an example of residents throughout Chicago," Wesbrooks told the crowd. "Many have contacted management, and received nothing at all. There are may landlords that don't follow landlord-tenant ordinances."
Tenants say they have been intimidated by management into keeping quiet about conditions. "People are frightened," said Michelle Love-Wesbrooks, a community activist and Wesbrooks' wife. "They don't want to rock the boat because they're afraid they won't have a place to live."
After receiving the petitions from protesters today, HUD Chicago Multifamily Hub Director Ed Hinsberger agreed to sit down with Robinson-Parsons and Tony Hernandez, the Director of Asset Management at IHDA, to discuss the case further.
Many in the crowd hope that if people hear about stories like Robinson-Parsons', they'll be more willing to speak out.
"A lot of people don't know there are ways to fight back," said Love-Wesbrooks. "If we get more stories like these out there, hopefully it will inspire them to take up the fight as well."