Some days, the roaches are so bad in Nicole Rappaport’s unit that her daughters are scared to get out of bed during the night. Her sons go around stomping them, she says.
Over the last several years, Rappaport says, conditions in the Hilliard Homes building she lives in have gone downhill. It’s not just roaches that plague the iconic mixed-income housing complex on the Near South Side, Rappaport and other tenants allege —it’s the leaks, the recurring mold growth, the smell of sewage, and the poor building security. To take on these issues, Rappaport and other tenants recently joined together to form the Hilliard Tenants Association.
“It’s sad that they’re having to live like it’s normal with cockroaches,” Rappaport said of her children, the youngest of whom is five years old. She and her family have lived in the building for six years. “We pay a lot of rent and I would like them to use our money to actually have a nice place to live.”
Rappaport is one of forty-nine tenants from two buildings in the Hilliard Homes complex who signed on to a letter demanding that management company Holsten create a plan of action to address the “persistent issues” in their apartments.
Altogether the campus consists of four 22-story brutalist-style towers with 654 units. The two round towers on Cermak are senior buildings and the two crescent-shaped towers to the north are family buildings.
On Friday morning, a small group of tenants representing the Hilliard Tenants Association delivered the letter to Holsten’s on-site management office. Copies of the letter also went to the offices of 3rd Ward alderperson Pat Dowell, the mayor, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
In that letter, tenants documented concerns about building conditions and the professionalism of Holsten’s management team at Hilliard. In interviews, several tenants told the Weekly that their maintenance requests are often ignored or dismissed, and that repairs, when made, are delayed or shoddy.
“We hope that you will engage with these demands in good faith and that we can collaborate to make Hilliard Homes a healthy and thriving community,” the letter reads.
A prominent developer of affordable housing, Holsten owns and manages the four Hilliard Homes towers at Cermak Road and State Street, along with dozens of other properties in Chicago and surrounding suburbs. Holsten has also developed several mixed-income buildings as part of the redevelopment of the site formerly home to Cabrini-Green.
The Bertrand Goldberg-designed Hilliard complex previously operated as public housing. Built in 1966, the towers were recognized as a “model community, socially as well as architecturally,” according to Maya Dukmasova of the Chicago Reader.
As part of a 1999 redevelopment agreement with the CHA, Holsten assumed ownership and oversaw a $98 million rehabilitation of the buildings and the 12.5-acre campus.
The four buildings continue to serve low-income renters. Of the complex’s 654 units, around half are CHA rentals and half are designated as affordable rentals, or rentals that would be affordable to someone making sixty percent or less of the area median income.
The Hilliard Tenants Association currently represents residents from the two family buildings. Organizers said that they hope to engage with residents in the senior buildings as well.
In response to a request for comment, Holsten senior vice president Jackie Holsten confirmed that they had received the association’s letter.
“We are in the process of preparing a response updating them on what items are currently being addressed and those that need to be inspected so they can also be properly addressed,” Holsten wrote. “We take their concerns seriously and will work with the residents of Hilliard to resolve their concerns.”
Holsten did not respond to more detailed questions about specific issues and management practices.
Tenants first started meeting in late summer, after attending a know-your-rights workshop hosted by the Chicago Union of Tenants (CUT). When Hilliard tenants approached CUT about unionizing, CUT organizers agreed to assist them, organizer Jason Flynn said.
At these meetings, the newly-formed association learned that many tenants in the two family-designated buildings have been battling water in their units for years.
“People’s apartments have been getting flooded,” said Emma Chandler, a Hilliard tenant of five years. She said that water recently leaked in through the wall of her children’s room, soiling the carpet.
Rappaport said that her apartment has also had several serious leaks. In the most recent incident earlier this year, a combination of water and sewage leaked down the walls of one of her son’s rooms when an upstairs toilet backed up. The contaminated water spread into other rooms of her house, she said.
She said that it took persistent calls to management to get the carpets cleaned and then weeks more of calls to get the carpets removed when it became clear that carpet cleaning would not remove the smell of sewage.
Public records show that city inspectors identified a leaky roof as one of the causes of water infiltration in the 2031 S. Clark St. building in 2022.
In a March inspection, building inspectors documented “black and brown staining” on the walls in five different apartments on the top three floors of the building. They also issued a violation for weathered and spalling masonry on the building’s exterior. The violations remain open.
At the 2030 S. State St. building, inspectors cited the property multiple times over the past two years for serious structural damage in the building’s exterior walls, balconies, and stairways. “Concrete particles are falling down in front of tenants apts doors,” the notes from a November 2021 inspection read.
During a follow-up visit to the building earlier this year, inspectors noted that building ownership did not appear to have taken any action on the issue since then. Those violations also remain open.
A spokesperson for the Department of Buildings confirmed that there is no permit for roof or masonry work on file for either building.
Along with the leaks, tenants said they’re struggling with mold in their units—and allege that maintenance staff paints over the mold rather than removing or remediating it. Studies show that untreated, persistent mold in a home can cause minor to serious health issues.
In the letter, the tenants association demands a thorough mold inspection and remediation where necessary, and for management to address the root issue of the mold. “(We want management) to resolve the problem and not just put a bandaid over it and cover it up,” Chandler said.
Tenants are also asking for roach extermination, investigation of a pervasive sewage odor in apartments, repairs to broken in-unit appliances like refrigerators and ovens, broken washers and dryers in the communal laundry room of one of the two family buildings at Hilliard, and enhanced security in the parking lot and building entryways.
“I’m frustrated and disappointed by management, for this to be going on for so long,” said one tenant, who’s lived in the building for ten years and requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. She says she has also experienced leaks, mold, and sewage backups over the course of the decade she’s lived there.
But one of her biggest concerns is the complex’s security and accessibility.
At the front doors of her building, she said, the automatic door buttons don’t work and the key card residents use to enter the building sometimes malfunction, leaving people stranded outside. “There is no one, (management) never answers,” she said. “You just have to wait for someone to come down and answer the door.”
Other times, the front door sits wide open for hours, she said.
“Before I moved here, I didn’t have issues like this. I didn’t have to worry about whether or not it was going to be safe for me to live in my apartment,” she said.
In advance of the letter delivery on Friday morning, members of the tenant association said they hope that the city and other agencies with jurisdiction over the building, like the CHA and HUD, will keep an eye on Holsten’s response to their demands.
The tenants association gave Holsten ten business days to produce a plan of action for addressing the health and safety issues or the association will seek other recourse, members said.
Meanwhile, Chandler said she is heartened by the dozens of tenants who have shown up to tenant association meetings. She hopes they’ll be able to improve living conditions across the two family buildings, as well as the larger complex. “Numbers is power,” she said.
Emeline Posner is an independent journalist covering housing and government accountability. They last wrote for the Weekly about an investment company’s stake in a South Shore condo building.