AVALON PARK — Residents at a 79th Street apartment building where a fire broke out last month allege their landlord is trying to kick them out without proper notice, after the building’s owners shut off the water and ordered them to leave the property for major repairs.
A fire occurred Oct. 1 at 1413 E. 79th St. in Avalon Park, causing damage to upper floors that’s visible from the outside. The fire and efforts to extinguish it caused smoke and water damage to apartments throughout the building and damaged the heating system.
With winter approaching, several residents who remain in the building are using electric stoves and space heaters to keep their homes warm. Their water was shut off early Saturday morning “to prevent the lines from freezing,” and all tenants were ordered to leave the building with no timeframe for returning.
Residents are calling on Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the city’s buildings department to ensure they and their neighbors — a group which includes older people, people with disabilities and recipients of federal housing assistance — have a safe place to live as repairs are made and the weather grows colder.
As of Wednesday afternoon, property owner 79th Acclivity LLC agreed to provide three residents with $2,500 each to help them relocate, and to provide them with temporary housing until long-term apartments are found, said Victor Owoeye, a spokesperson for Lightfoot’s office.
Resident Erwin Johnson confirmed Wednesday neighbors received the assistance and were staying in hotel rooms.
The buildings department and city attorneys are filing a lawsuit in housing court “to ensure that the tenants are successfully relocated and to ensure that the building comes into compliance,” Owoeye said.
“You can’t live in those kinds of conditions,” said Clifford Sullivan, a building resident, firefighter and fire inspector. “These are my neighbors, and my heart goes out to them, so I had all of them file a complaint with the city’s building department.”
Tenants also criticized building owner 79th Accliviti, alleging the company failed to give timely notice and has provided conflicting information about the building’s condition in the weeks since the fire.
“You’re not bathing, you don’t have no heat … it’s sickening for my age,” said Theressie Johnson, who has lived in the building for eight years. “All we’re asking is to treat us right, because we’re your tenants.”
Staffers from the city’s buildings department did not visit or inspect the property until Tuesday.
The buildings department received a complaint Nov. 17, but staffers were unable to access the building that day, Owoeye said.
79th Accliviti representative Craig Lane — the son of former Chicago Housing Authority head Vincent Lane — said the property was “a family building,” but would not specify the role he or his father play in 79th Accliviti.
Following the October fire, tenants were told “face-to-face” they would need to leave until repairs were finished, and they received written notices to temporarily evacuate the building, Lane said.
Lane declined to share proof of any notices, saying, “If the court, the city or somebody who is involved in this process wants it, then they’ll get it.” He denied any notices given were “eviction notices,” as tenants’ leases remain active, he said.
Residents “refused to evacuate,” Lane said. “We couldn’t physically move them,” so residents remained in their homes until “the temperature dropped. The insurance company will hold us liable for pipes busting, so we had to turn [the water] off because there’s no heat.”
Lane said he sympathizes with the residents’ situation, but it’s either their responsibility or the city’s to ensure they’re housed safely following the fire. Many residents didn’t have renter’s insurance that would have helped them as building repairs are completed, he said.
“They were saying they didn’t have nowhere to go,” Lane said. “That’s not our end … for us to find them some place to stay after a fire.”
Tensions ran high at a Tuesday news conference organized by tenants, with Lane in attendance and recording residents’ statements on his phone.
All parties involved agreed the fire and its fallout marked the first “major” conflict between the landlord and the building’s tenants, some of whom have lived there for a decade.
The tenants fear the owner is “trying to run us up out of here” — using the fire as a way to move renters out, renovate the property and cash out on the building.
The company, 79th Accliviti, intends to convert the building into cooperative housing, Lane confirmed to Block Club. Discussions about a conversion have been ongoing for several years, he said.
“That part has nothing to do with the [fire] situation, but we may be doing something with the building, yeah,” Lane said.
There is no timeframe for fixing the heat and restoring the water, Lane said. Residents may return once repairs are completed, he said.
Some tenants said they’ll refuse to return under any circumstances. Following the news conference, Sullivan and a few others hauled his belongings from his apartment to a moving truck outside.
“Never,” Sullivan said when asked if he’d consider coming back. “Under the conditions and what has taken place, no, no, no. That’s not an option.”
But Johnson said he’ll stay in place as long as possible.
“I’m not going to give you the satisfaction of tucking my tail and running,” he said.
After weeks of repairing fire-related damage himself, Johnson said he’d consider a lawsuit, file follow-up complaints with the city or take any option that would allow him to remain in place and restore the heat and water to his apartment.
“I’ve got family, I’ve got somewhere to go, but I’m not letting them get away with this,” he said. “I have a 12-month lease stating that I’m a resident here.”
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