Ruthie Dotson, a resident of the Shorewind Towers Apartments at 7000 S. South Shore Drive, received an illegal notice from her landlord on May 22, ordering her to vacate her residence. Seventeen of her neighbors were served with notices the same day, eight of whom are low-income tenants who receive assistance from the CHA. With no warning and in the midst of a pandemic, they were all told they had either thirty or sixty days to leave their homes.
Holding a framed portrait of her twenty-six-year-old daughter, who is smiling and sitting in a wheelchair, Dotson said, “I moved over here for mobility, to bring [my daughter] in and out….I’m the caretaker, I do what I’m supposed to do….I don’t have nobody to sit and watch her [while I go] running looking for a place. And I love it here, my daughter loves it.” Her daughter loves to look out the window of their eleventh-floor apartment at the lake, she said.
Dotson is a Section 8 housing choice voucher holder—meaning that the recently-passed CARES act ought to protect her from these notices. Since receiving the notice, Dotson says she has been worrying so much that her nose has started bleeding.
Fellow resident and Section 8 voucher holder Pamela West said she “had a breakdown” upon receiving her notice, which was for only thirty days, as opposed to Dotson’s sixty. “We already going through so much,” she said, “and I haven’t been working since March.” West has lived in the building for over four years, and appreciates its proximity to her job at Starbucks. As a result of the pandemic, she has started to use her sick days to pay for lost income.
The Shorewind is owned by Belveron Partners LLC, an affordable and workforce housing investment firm based in San Francisco that acquired the property in July 2019. Locally, the building is managed by the third-party manager Safe Harbor Realty. Both entities want to rehab the east tower of the Shorewind, which, according to managing broker Edward Reagan, has so many structural problems that tenants cannot live in it once repairs commence. In their estimation, the changes require tenants to vacate the building so that repairs can take place before winter, meaning they must leave during the ongoing pandemic. Reagan stated that there would be a rise in rent following the renovations, but that it was neither his nor Belveron’s intention to make windfall profits from the property, or, as he put it, “turn it into another Hyde Park.”
The tactic of sending out thirty day and sixty day notices, without explanations of the legal import of these documents, seems to be of a piece with the broader trend of landlords deploying “invisible evictions”, most recently reported earlier this year in Logan Square. There, property owners likewise successfully forced many tenants to leave without going through the trouble, and (especially with the CARES Act in place) legal complications of filing evictions that would result in court dates where a tenant might argue their case.
Dotson’s notice explains that if tenants have concerns about their order to vacate, they can contact management on May 28 or 29. “We will [sic] those time slots available for next Thursday and Friday,” it reads. During those meetings, according to Reagan, he and a representative from Belveron helped three tenants relocate into the west tower, and offered assistance in moving and finding nearby properties to other tenants. Reagan and Amy Johnson, an asset manager from Belveron, also stated that they had covered moving costs for some tenants. But it seems that Belveron and Safe Harbor did not offer financial moving assistance to all residents. According to Pamela West, who spoke with management, she did not receive this offer—she was only offered assistance in looking for nearby properties.
When asked whether tenants who received a thirty-day notice actually had to leave within thirty days, Reagan and Johnson both said no. But the notices Shoreland residents received—printouts of a written legal document that reads “Thirty Day Notice” in bold print on the header—doesn’t reflect this supposed flexibility, nor does the short letter they received with meeting instructions.
As Frank Avellone, senior attorney and policy coordinator at the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing (LCBH), explained, people not used to challenging “officialdom” are not always inclined to oppose landlords’ documents. Considering their work with Section 8 housing voucher holders in other cities, it would be surprising if Belveron did not know how its documents would be interpreted. Did Belveron truly expect that people would see thirty-day notices and think to themselves, “I guess I don’t have to leave in thirty days?”
Shorewind resident Anita Trammel, for her part, has already found another place to live at her personal expense. Trammel said that while she was able to move on short notice, her new apartment doesn’t have gas included and required a $500 deposit. She worried about how others would pay moving expenses. “I hate when motherfuckers start selling weed, ecstasy, pills, and all that shit, and then we got to go to jail to make our motherfucking rent,” Trammel said. “Motherfuckers shouldn’t have to resort to no shit like that.”
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Another resident I spoke with talked about how hard it was to find landlords to do showings during a pandemic, and guessed that in normal circumstances it would take her three to four months to find an apartment with the right location and amenities. The Shorewind is a rare find—close to public transportation, schools, and a grocery store in a part of the city where these things are not always close to where people live.
On top of all this, the CARES Act, which Congress passed in late March to address the economic impact of COVID-19, seems to state, according to LCBH, that it is illegal to send thirty-day notices to Section 8 housing choice voucher holders during the pandemic. According to Edward Reagan, Belveron’s attorney, who refused to comment for this piece or be named on the record, disagrees that the firm’s actions violated the act. However, Carl Sessions, an attorney also with the LCBH, explained that the most straightforward reading of the CARES Act prohibits these kinds of filings. “The CARES Act has been around for several months now, so the landlords or owners should have known about it. It prevents landlords from giving eviction notices to tenants who have rental subsidies, such as Section 8, until July 25th. So, in all reality, a tenant cannot be asked to vacate until thirty days from July 25th.”
Whatever the case, the damage is done. Tenants are scrambling to find new places to live; some, like Anita Trammel, have already shuffled their lives so they can vacate their present homes within the short timeframe. David Wilson, a community organizer with Metropolitan Tenants Organization, said he would be meeting with six tenants this week to discuss possible options for them and develop a housing strategy.
Pending proposals at the city and state level would make the Shorewind tenants’ situation dramatically easier, either by making the notices they received outright illegal for all the tenants in the building, or at least significantly less rushed and less financially burdensome. However, lawmakers at both the city and state level have challenged these proposals.
Avellone explained that LCBH along with other members of the Housing Justice League were working on a Just Cause Evictions proposal, which would require a contractor to come in and evaluate claims like Belveron’s. They would have to certify that the Shorewind building is so decrepit that all tenants must leave before it is renovated, and would have to do so before tenants are served with notices.
Then, if a contractor agreed with Belveron and Safe Harbor’s assessment that the building was so decrepit that all residents had to move, Belveron would have to offer tenants ninety days to move, along with substantial financial assistance, to the tune of $10,600 in moving assistance to each vacated tenant. Payments would be far smaller for smaller landlords, Avellone said.
Although Lightfoot’s administration had been in talks with advocates of the Housing Justice League’s Just Cause measure, the mayor — along with sponsors aldermen Walter Burnett, Roderick Sawyer, and Leslie Hairston, in whose ward the Shorewind falls — introduced a Just Cause eviction ordinance of their own a few weeks ago, with more modest tenant protections. Their alternative has drawn criticism from aldermen Byron Sigcho-Lopez, Daniel La Spata, and Housing Justice League spokesman Mike Saelens, for delaying landlord-provided payments for movers until a week after tenants move, leaning too heavily on landlord self-reporting, and not doing enough to keep tenants in place. The more landlord-friendly bill only requires advance notice and monetary assistance to renters with a lease of at least six months. Housing advocates’ Just Cause Eviction was defeated Wednesday, so Shorewind’s month-to-month renters will not be protected.”
At the state level, State Representative Delia Ramirez and State Senator Robert Peters’ recent “COVID-19 and Economic Recovery Emergency Renter and Homeowner Protection Act” proposed rent cancellation and a guarantee for short term statewide protections against any and all thirty-day notices filed during the pandemic. However, it failed to pass in the Illinois House of Representatives. According to Senator Peters, the real estate industry opposed it, and it was defeated May 24.
Peters connected the pain expressed by George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protestors to housing problems: “The pain and the hurt that people have been going through for years, generations, the inadequate response to the housing collapse of 2007 and 2008, led to this. The financialization of housing led to this. Now that people are increasingly unemployed or underemployed, increasingly at risk of getting sick and having to go to work without any protection, and worried about whether they can make rent—it’s all tied together. The pain and hurt that people have is right.”
The absence of Just Evictions clauses at the city and state level mean that, as of now, Shorewind residents could still face eviction without mandated financial moving assistance.
Reagan and Johnson, the Belveron representatives, repeatedly emphasized that they were trying to do the right thing: preserve affordable housing, rehab a decrepit building, not kick people onto the streets, not turn it into luxury condos, and only file evictions as a last resort. And indeed, their tactics are sufficiently less gruesome than locking tenants out—a totally illegal strategy that has seen a 90% uptick since the pandemic, according to Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara.
According to Reagan, a representative has met with fourteen of the eighteen east tower tenants, with plans to meet with more. Among them, some have already moved out, some have been moved to the other tower, and others plan to purchase a home. Reagan also indicated that news of the building’s situation had reached Novara and that they had cleared up details concerning the severity of the planned repairs in a private discussion. Reagan said that he did not offer tenants a right to return to their apartment post renovation, but that some expressed interest in returning.
It very well may be the case that the building’s structural issues require everyone to move out. But if Belveron and Safe Harbor were trying to do right by their tenants, they would not have filed illegal thirty-day notices against them during a pandemic. They could have made tenants’ options clearer in the two-paragraph letter they sent, provided written guarantees of moving financial assistance to all tenants instead of just to some, and given tenants more than a month’s notice about this shattering decision.
For Ruthie Dotson’s part, she doesn’t know where she will go next, or how she’ll fight the move. On the last Sunday afternoon in May, she reflected on her situation in the foyer of her apartment: “I just think it’s unfair because I’m Section 8, that I’m poor and I don’t have the right to look out the window at the lake.”
“They either buy me out or I’m gonna sit in here til they throw me out,” she said.
Correction, Thursday, June 18: The Fair Notice Ordinance, which passed Wednesday, June 17, only provides protections for renters with a lease of six months or more; it would not have provided protection to all Shorewind tenants, most of whom are on a month-to-month lease.