HYDE PARK — After filing more than 40 eviction lawsuits in April, the CEO of a Hyde Park property management company said those in danger of losing their homes hadn’t “clearly” communicated their need for rent relief — despite evidence to the contrary.
Though they say they’ve kept their landlord updated on their financial situation for months, two East Hyde Park tenants still are facing an eviction lawsuit, as first reported by the Hyde Park Herald.
Hilary Leithauser and Takintayo Akinbiyi were named in one of eight lawsuits filed by TLC Property Management immediately before a statewide evictions ban went into effect. The suit, filed April 22, alleges damages of $1,430 plus court costs to cover April’s rent and fees, according to public records.
Emails provided to Block Club show Leithauser first offered documentation of her job situation in late March and continued to update management on her finances, applications for assistance and other information related to rent payment over the following weeks.
Despite Leithauser and Akinbiyi having made up their missed payments, the lawsuit is still active and they’ve been contacted by a debt collector seeking repayment of late fees.
“We were under the impression we were certainly cooperating, communicating constantly by email,” Leithauser said. “It was very weird to get this threatening debt collection letter from a law firm after we had been reassured that they understood we were working with them.”
TLC CEO Stuart Handler did not respond to Block Club’s request for comment. He accused Leithauser of failing to provide “proper documentation” of her financial situation in a statement to the Herald.
Handler was among the local landlords who signed Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Housing Solidarity Pledge, in which landlords vowed to provide relief to tenants who could show financial hardship due to the pandemic.
“For nearly four months we requested verification that [Leithauser] lost her job and she did not provide it to us,” Handler told the Herald, overstating the timeframe.
Three Months Of Communication
Leithauser and Akinbiyi live together at the Flamingo Apartments, 5500 S. Shore Drive. They first reached out to TLC management March 21 to request an extension on April’s rent, two weeks before payment was due, emails show.
Leithauser was furloughed for six weeks from her teaching job with childcare provider Bright Horizons, but she only received two weeks of paid leave. Akinbiyi, a University of Chicago doctoral candidate, was not going to receive a stipend until the end of April.
Nine days after Leithauser’s initial request, TLC management replied to her, saying, “We have some options for you in regards to your April’s rent.”
This began a weeks-long correspondence with various employees — mainly Marrion Willis, property manager of the Flamingo — as they worked out payments for April and May’s rent, according to the emails.
Leithauser, who has recently undergone treatment for breast cancer, and Akinbiyi depended on charitable organizations to pay all but $182 of their rent for those two months.
After an approval process through aid providers “overloaded” with applications, they received $1,382 — a full month’s rent — from The Samfund for young adult cancer survivors and $1,200 from the Salvation Army, Leithauser said.
They also received a $100 check from the Cancer Recovery Foundation, which went toward June’s rent, Leithauser said. The pair applied for but did not receive one of the city’s $1,000 rent relief grants.
Leithauser credits a social worker she connected with during treatment in Boston for helping her navigate the world of charitable aid for cancer survivors.
“Even if I’m unfortunate in terms of being [diagnosed] in the first place, only because of the relative position of privilege I have that I even knew where to look” for assistance, she said.
Though the Salvation Army sent a check for May’s rent April 29, TLC didn’t receive it until May 21 due to a mix-up on the charity’s end.
A Salvation Army caseworker was supposed to send the check directly to the Flamingo. Instead, they tried to send it to TLC headquarters but mistakenly wrote the wrong address. This delayed payment almost a month.
“I ask that your company not hold this against Ms. Leithauser,” the caseworker wrote in an email to Willis. “This mix-up was our mistake.”
TLC still charged late fees for May.
From the charities to physicians and tenant organizers, “I’ve had a number of really great advocates for me throughout this process,” Leithauser said. “TLC has chosen not to listen to them.”
Since the lawsuit was filed, Leithauser said she has caught up on base rent and pet and utility fees. She and Akinbiyi expect to pay July’s bills on time.
But they are refusing to pay $97 in late fees from May and June, arguing the charges are illegal under a federal moratorium on evictions. Their rent for May was nearly a month late due to the Salvation Army mix-up, and June’s rent was a week late.
The CARES Act prevents property owners with federally-backed mortgages from charging late fees or other nonpayment penalties through July 26. It is unclear, though, whether TLC is barred from charging such fees.
The Flamingo is not among the properties subject to the federal moratorium, according to a comprehensive list compiled by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Fannie Mae’s search tool lists the property as financed by the federal lender, with a disclaimer that the search’s accuracy is not guaranteed.
TLC officials say it is not subject to the fee ban.
Fannie Mae’s “website is not accurate, as it does not consider refinances, nor does it actually trace current mortgages,” TLC’s debt collecting firm said in an email to a law student advising Leithauser.
“Our client is authorized to charge late fees,” the debt collector wrote in the June 16 email. “I suggest that Ms. Leithauser pay the late fees that she was assessed due to her late payment of rent.”
As part of Lightfoot’s non-binding housing pledge, TLC vowed to waive late fees for tenants who can prove pandemic-related hardship.
Management instead told Leithauser and Akinbiyi waivers for late fees are a “courtesy” offered to tenants already on a payment plan.
The pair was told “payment arrangements … are closed” when they inquired in April, and Leithauser said they did not receive details when they asked about payment plans for May and June.
The landlord waived April’s late fees for nearly 100 tenants on an individual basis, Handler said. A screenshot in a provided email shows Leithauser and Akinbiyi also had the charge waived. Their account ledger shows a late fee issued April 6 but refunded days later.
Representatives from TLC have not contacted the pair about May and June late fees since the Herald’s article published earlier this month, Leithauser said.
“They’ve been leaving us alone,” she said. “I’m wondering if [the] article made a difference.”
‘An Opportunity To Be As Opaque As Possible’
What may have otherwise been resolved by “sensible” in-person conversations about finances turned into weeks of back-and-forth emails and misunderstandings due to the pandemic, Leithauser said.
Leithauser said the landlord has “capitalized” on communication difficulties in regards to rent payment, as well as other issues that have arisen during the pandemic.
In one instance, an “extremely strong” odor of smoke wafting into the apartment caused Leithauser’s recurrent bronchitis symptoms to flare up, she said.
Leithauser submitted a doctor’s note to property manager Willis, in which doctors requested TLC address the smoke issue or allow Leithauser to move to a smoke-free unit.
“Due to the severity of her disease, it is imperative that she not be exposed to smoke,” the note reads. “We would appreciate your cooperation in working with Ms. Leithauser, revising her lease if needed, to allow her to move as soon as possible to avoid more severe or permanent health consequences.”
In response, Willis said moving would require a “lease buyout” and offered to pass along options for early lease termination. Notices regarding smoking were posted in the building, but the smoke and smells continued.
Leithauser and Akinbiyi installed an air conditioning unit to try and improve air quality but were told to remove it.
“TLC’s policy is that no AC units are to be installed prior to” June 1, Willis wrote in a May 19 email. “You are in direct violation of your lease that is a safety hazard for the Flamingo Apartments.”
Prior to installing the units, the pair circulated letters asking if other residents smelled anything. A few said they had, but after a neighbor complained about the letters, Akinbiyi was warned against posting “unauthorized notices” to neighbors’ doors.
“Going forward, PLEASE DO NOT POST ANY NOTICES,” Willis wrote April 14.
Leithauser questioned the company’s motives for the warning, particularly in the wake of numerous tenant organizing efforts in Hyde Park since the start of the pandemic.
“On every level, they’re using this whole COVID thing as an opportunity to be as opaque as possible,” she said. “In a situation like this, where communication is so compromised, it puts all of the advantage … in the hands of people who already have more power.”
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