RIVERDALE — The Chicago Housing Authority and a prominent environmental justice group are trying to resolve a lease dispute that boiled over this week with allegations that Altgeld Gardens’ property manager attempted an illegal eviction.
People for Community Recovery and the housing agency are negotiating a way for the activists to remain in their Altgeld Gardens office, 13330 S. Corliss Ave., which the group has called home for more than a decade, representatives from both groups said.
People for Community Recovery was founded in 1979 by environmental justice icon Hazel M. Johnson, who fought to force the housing authority to fix contaminated drinking water and remove asbestos from apartment units.
She also advocated for clean air and water on the Southeast and Far South sides — a mission the group continues under executive director Cheryl Johnson, Hazel Johnson’s daughter.
People for Community Recovery was one of three South Side groups to file a civil rights complaint in 2020, alleging decades of city policies pushed polluters into their communities. The city settled the complaint and agreed to a series of environmental justice reforms after federal officials found Chicago’s systematic placement of polluters in Black and Brown neighborhoods was racist.
The environmental group has not signed a lease its current home at Altgeld since moving into the unit in 2012, Cheryl Johnson said. The housing authority considered the unit “offline” at the time and gave the group the space to use, she said.
“They told me for offline units, you don’t need a lease,” Johnson told Block Club. “Nobody came for 10 years to ask me for a lease.”
The housing authority discovered the group did not have a lease and asked Johnson to agree to one earlier this year, per federal requirements, officials said.
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Altgeld management met with Johnson in February, who told her to vacate the unit within 60 days, she said. She asked for the housing authority’s request in writing by April 1, she said.
“The letter never came, so I thought it was just squashed,” Johnson said.
Officials sent Johnson a letter June 15 telling her group “to vacate and relinquish possession” of the office within 30 days. Johnson refused and told officials they would need “to go through the due process” and formally evict the group, she said.
Staff with Altgeld Gardens property manager, Manage Chicago, then entered People for Community Recovery’s office without permission Thursday, Johnson said.
Management took unauthorized pictures and videos and threatened to have an employee of the environmental group arrested if they entered the unit, Johnson said. The staff’s actions amount to an illegal eviction attempt, she said.
“To be treated like that is inhumane, and I’m not turning the other cheek like my mother did,” Johnson said.
Officials “have reached out to Ms. Johnson and we have committed to working with her to make sure the organization can remain in the space,” Chicago Housing Authority spokesperson Karen Vaughan said in a statement. The housing authority “understands the long history of the People for Community Recovery and the importance of their work to the Altgeld community and the broader city of Chicago.”
The agency also will investigate Manage Chicago’s conduct Thursday and take “appropriate action,” Vaughan said. Housing authority officials denied the management company attempted to evict the activist group, as the dispute has not gone to court and only the Cook County Sheriff’s Office has the power to evict, they said.
City officials take intimidation allegations “very seriously,” said Ronnie Reese, spokesperson for Mayor Brandon Johnson. Officials “recognize the invaluable contributions” of Cheryl Johnson and her family “and will work closely with the CHA to continue to support those efforts,” he said.
Cheryl Johnson is a member of the mayor’s transition team on the environmental justice subcommittee.
Ald. Peter Chico (10th) vowed to support People for Community Recovery and Johnson “every step of the way” and follow up with the housing authority on its investigation.
“The way [Johnson] was treated today is unacceptable,” Chico said during a press conference Thursday evening. “We will not tolerate it. We are all going to stand with her through this process, after a meeting next week and beyond that.”
The spat raises concerns about the management company and housing officials’ conduct toward Altgeld Garden residents, Johnson said. She isn’t sure of her immediate next steps, but plans to rally residents around this week’s incident to demand better living conditions and treatment, she said.
“If they did this to me, what other residents have they done this to who don’t know due process or don’t know their tenants’ rights?” she said. “It’s bigger than People for Community Recovery now.”
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