LOGAN SQUARE — A months-long battle between a group of M. Fishman tenants and the well-known Logan Square landlord is intensifying, with the tenants now suing Fishman over a rent dispute.
About 20 tenants of an M. Fishman-owned apartment complex at 2330-38 N. Spaulding Ave. withheld rent last winter after going without consistent heat for more than two weeks.
At a rally in January held outside of the building, tenants said indoor temperatures got as cold as the low 50s, far below the city’s legal standard, and they were forced to buy heated blankets and space heaters to stay warm. Attempts to resolve the issue were dismissed by building management, they said.
The lawsuit, filed last month in Cook County Circuit Court, alleges Fishman hasn’t acknowledged the rent strike or damage caused by the loss of adequate heat and is instead charging tenants late fees for unpaid rent.
Some tenants have been charged more than $300 in fees for rightfully withholding rent, according to the suit.
The tenants’ attorney, Sam Barth with the Law Center for Better Housing, called the fees “inappropriate.”
“The landlord does have the right to charge late fees for unpaid rent, but it’s our position that this isn’t unpaid rent — the tenants correctly held partial rent in response to a complete loss of central services,” Barth said.
Fishman owns hundreds of properties in Logan Square and has faced widespread criticism for hiking up rents and displacing longtime residents and businesses. His critics have painted him as the mascot of gentrification in the neighborhood.
Heat issues in the 30-unit Spaulding Avenue apartment building started in December, the lawsuit said.
Several apartments had “intermittent” heat for days. Then the building saw a “major heat failure” Dec. 18, where no units had heat at or above of the legal standard of 68 degrees, as Chicago was experiencing a cold snap, according to the lawsuit.
Under the Chicago Heat Ordinance, landlords must supply adequate heat to tenants — at least 68 degrees during the day and at least 66 degrees at night during the heating season — or face up to $500 per day in fines.
Tenants said they submitted several maintenance requests, but they were either ignored or marked “resolved” immediately without work being done, so they had to sleep in coats, buy heated blankets and stay with family.
“It was so cold that we had run to Target, buy heated blankets in the freezing cold, pump up our space heater, which of course is driving up our electricity bills, and just snuggle up under blankets,” tenant Becca Smith previously said. “I have a little chihuahua who was freezing cold the entire time.”
Fishman didn’t return messages seeking comment.
M. Fishman officials notified the tenants on Jan. 13 they had breached the terms of their lease agreement by withholding rent and started charging late fees later that month. They also said they’d send tenants to debt collectors if they failed to pay, according to the lawsuit.
But in filing a lawsuit, the tenants are arguing they acted “within their legal right,” Barth said.
Under the Residential Tenant Landlord Ordinance, a law that covers Cook County and took effect in 2021, tenants are allowed to “[w]ithhold from the monthly rent an amount that reasonably reflects the reduced value of the premises due to the material noncompliance or failure if the landlord fails to correct the condition within 24 hours after being notified by the tenant,” the lawsuit said.
The tenants filed the lawsuit as members of the North Spaulding Renters Association, a union formed in 2020 by residents of Fishman-owned buildings in Logan Square and Humboldt Park.
They’re asking Fishman to accept the two weeks of unpaid rent and waive late fees, and reimburse them for space heaters and other items they had to buy when they had little or no heat, according to the suit.
“This lawsuit isn’t a fishing expedition or some attempt to extort Fishman & Co. This is just trying to validate the rights these tenants have and have them be credited back rent that was properly withheld and late fees waived that we believe were improperly assessed,” Barth said.
Facing a $125 rent hike and about $200 in late fees, Miles Bennett Hogerty, one of the tenants involved in the lawsuit, said they moved out of the Spaulding Avenue building earlier this month.
Hogerty, who works as a graphic designer, said they were able to find a new apartment at Armitage and California avenues. But the search was difficult, in part because Fishman’s company refused to let them rent another one of their apartments over the rent dispute, effectively shutting them out of the M. Fishman portfolio.
“We were damn near just kicked out of Logan because [Fishman] owns so much sh–,” Hogerty said.
Hogerty was one of about 25 people, a mix of M. Fishman tenants and supportive neighbors, who participated in a demonstration at Fishman’s office at 3215 W. Fullerton Ave. over the weekend.
The event was held to raise awareness about the lawsuit and tenant rights in Logan Square and beyond. The group circulated a petition and wrote messages in chalk in the parking lot, answering prompts like, “Dear Fishman…” and “If your landlord was a creature, which would it be?”
The rally was a success despite attempts by Fishman supporters to sabotage the event, group member Ben Avis said. A few people, including local developer Nick Katsafados and a person wearing a shirt with a Fishman logo, were spotted tearing down event fliers posted around the neighborhood, according to residents and photos taken of the event.
“It was honestly just kind of funny and affirming,” Avis said. “It was obvious that, in some way, we’re getting to Fishman. We’ve been doing this for over three years now and they still have not acknowledged us, so we felt like we are making ourselves known.”
Katsafados declined comment.
Barth said the lawsuit is in the “very early stages” and parties are still being served. The first hearing is scheduled for September, he said.
“This isn’t just quibbling over a few hundreds dollars — it’s about the bigger relationship between the tenant and the landlord that we seek to change,” Avis said.
Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: