PI Original Ashlee Rezin Thursday August 15th, 2013, 2:03pm

Seniors Say They Endure Deplorable Conditions, Inept Management At South Side CHA Housing Complex

The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) is allowing roughly 250 residents of the Judge Slater Senior Apartments and the Judge Slater Annex to live in deplorable conditions with hostile management, according to a group of residents who are calling for agency officials to halt contracting with the building’s management company, the Woodlawn Community Development Corporation (WCDC). Progress Illinois takes a closer look at the seniors' allegations.

The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) is allowing roughly 250 residents of the Judge Slater Senior Apartments and the Judge Slater Annex to live in deplorable conditions with hostile management, according to a group of residents who are calling for agency officials to halt contracting with the building’s management company, the Woodlawn Community Development Corporation (WCDC).

The residents, backed by the grassroots advocacy group Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), allege the building is infested with mice and bugs, and many of the apartments have mold and holes in the walls. The tenants, who pay 30 percent of their income toward rent while the government pays the rest, also claim management often subjects seniors to a “culture of intimidation.”

“We want the WCDC out,” said Alphonso Jones, 67, who has lived at Judge Slater for five years as a care-giver for his 69 year-old brother. “It’s ridiculous what we’re put through ... The conditions we are forced to live under are disgusting, the building is infested with mice and roaches from wall to wall.”

Jones and several tenants first started complaining about conditions and mismanagement in the building, located at 42nd Place and Cottage Grove Avenue in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, back in February. But he alleges little has been done to address the seniors’ concerns, and instead, he claims, management has only bullied many of the residents into submission.

“The residents are too scared to complain or challenge the management company because management is always threatening to evict them,” he said, adding that he has sent more than 40 letters to CHA regarding the building’s conditions. “We live in a constant state of fear, we’re treated like prisoners in our own homes.”

But in 2010, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave the Judge Slater Apartments an overwhelmingly good score of 80 out of a possible 100 points.

Also, the CHA has allocated $13.5 million toward capital maintenance for the senior housing development, and the agency reports the first phase of construction should be completed by early next year.

Jones, a retired educator from Malcolm X College, called CHA's renovations “shoddy” and “cosmetic.”

“The changes they’ve made aren’t something they should be proud of,” he said. “And we can’t even talk to the CHA about it because the WCDC is so disrespectful and threatens us with retaliation.”

WCDC was founded in 1972 by the politically-connected Rev. Leon Finney Jr., who formerly served on Chicago’s planning commission and, according to the non-profit’s website, currently manages 4,000 units of public rental property and private real estate, with more than 10,000 residents in the city of Chicago. According to a report by the Chicago Reporter, WCDC's contracts with the CHA amount to some $8 million.

But Finney’s WCDC and its now-defunct sister organization, The Woodlawn Organization (T.W.O), have for years been scrutinized for mismanagement and improper use of public dollars.

As early as 1986, HUD revoked the WCDC's management of a public housing property on the South Side of Chicago for alleged mismanagement and misappropriation of taxpayer funds.

More recently, in 2011 a handful of publically-subsidized properties managed by Finney’s non-profit were cited by the city for "building code scofflaws.” The four properties on South Kimbark Avenue, which have since been sold, were cited for more than 100 dangerous code violations, including no heat or hot water, and thus barred the non-profit from contracting with the city.

Last year, several employees of a substance abuse treatment center — run by T.W.O — complained of working months without pay, prompting a state investigation into the agency. Also, the state pulled millions of dollars in contracts with the non-profit after an audit of the group’s Neighborhood Recovery Initiative program found a "lack of clear accounting and record keeping.” According to the audit, taxpayer money budgeted for at-risk youth development programs was instead spent on items for employees’ personal use, including $2,000 in American Express gift cards.

Chicago Inspector General Joseph Ferguson attempted to launch an investigation into Finney’s finances, specifically his taxpayer-funded contracts and development projects, by issuing a subpoena for his bank statements in April 2012.

By allowing WCDC to continue to manage housing developments, despite a questionable contracting history, the CHA is supporting a “known slumlord", claims Shannon Bennett, deputy director of KOCO.

“If the state and HUD have removed Finney’s organizations from managing public housing, why is the CHA contracting him to manage senior housing,” he asked.

Dorothy Ellis, 71, a lease-holder at Judge Slater Apartments for five years, said the WCDC management treats her and other tenants “like animals.”

“We have roaches and mice, but most people are too scared to say anything,” Ellis said, adding that she spends her own money on rat poisoning. “We need somebody to come in here and fight for us.”

A small group of residents and KOCO guided CHA representatives and Ald. Will Burns (4th), who Jones said should “do something about this” on a walk-through of the buildings last week.

Burns said he didn’t see “the parade of horrors that KOCO purports to exist.”

“I didn’t see any roaches, I didn’t see any mice,” he said. “I did not see units that could not be occupied, or were not safe, or clean, or decent ... And I would say that everyone else on that walk through didn’t see it either.”

He added that he would never allow a housing management company to mistreat 4th ward residents.

When questioned about WCDC’s controversial history with public housing and taxpayer-funded contracts, Burns said “each development should be viewed in context.”

“The CHA has to make sure each of its managers are doing the right thing by its residents,” he said, pointing out that the building code violations at the public housing development on South Kimbark Avenue happened outside of his ward. “I worry about my ward and that’s my job.”

In a statement, the CHA said the WCDC issues monthly pest control inspections and treatments to address issues around pest management. Also, the housing agency hosts monthly Tenant Services and Senior Housing Advisory Council meetings to address resident concerns. All CHA properties passed the annual HUD inspection standards in 2012, the agency reports.

CHA CEO Charles Woodyard is scheduled to meet with tenants of the Judge Slater Senior Apartments and Judge Slater Annex later this month.

“The property management team will also continue to work to respond to issues as presented,” the agency’s statement reads.

Meanwhile, Yvetta Mack, 73, who has lived at Judge Slater for more than 10 years, said the building’s “rotten” management company has repeatedly dismissed her claims of a mice infestation in her unit.  

“They need to get rid of WCDC and get another contractor in here because I’ve been called a liar and that’s not right,” she said. “They just don’t want to lose the contract.”

Mack added that her building hasn’t seen any renovations. She claims the walk through, for which Burns attended, was a “sham.” She alleges the management company cleaned for “two-days straight” leading up to it, and “of course, they didn’t show him the right apartments.”

She claims her unit has been infested with mice since the day she moved in, but when she complains to management, they allegedly accuse the senior, who has limited mobility, of not keeping a clean apartment.

“We’re not kindergarten kids,” she said. “They do not know how to treat seniors and they do not respect us at all.”

Bennett said because the seniors have been attempting to advocate for change since February, KOCO will take their fight to the mayor’s office.

“We need to make sure Mayor Rahm Emanuel knows we are calling on him to intervene,” he said.

He also mentioned filing a lawsuit or reaching out to HUD to step in, but added that the seniors haven’t yet decided on the next course of action.  

“They need a manager that will respect them and improve their quality of life,” he said. “It’s not over by any means.”

Exterior photos provided by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). Interior photos provided by Alphonso Jones, taken in 2013.

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