Affordable housing activists and tenants of the Astor House on Pratt Boulevard held a prayer vigil and protest outside Ald. Joe Moore’s (49th) office in Rogers Park Wednesday evening.
The approximately 30 protestors called on Moore to “stand for affordable housing” and help convene a meeting between the Astor House’s low-income tenants and the building’s new owner, BJB Properties, which took over the property in October.
The activists say the Astor House, 1246 W. Pratt Blvd., is one of the only remaining affordable housing buildings left in Rogers Park, and BJB is attempting to evict some of the lower-income residents so the property can be rehabbed and marketed to Loyola University students at higher rents. A handful of the building’s tenants are set to be evicted in the next two weeks, the protestors said.
“Many of these families have nowhere to go but the street,” said the Rev. Kenneth Wesbrooks of a Work of Faith Ministries in Rogers Park. “They wont be in shelters. They wont be in SROs. They will be on the street.”
According to the protestors, the building’s former landlord did not respond to issues of bedbugs and mice, which made conditions in the building unlivable for the tenants, said Megan Selby with Communities United Against Foreclosure And Eviction. Protestors alleged that some of these poor living conditions still exist in the building.
In a statement issued Wednesday, Moore wrote that he is “very sympathetic to the tenants who were forced to endure unforgivable living conditions under their old landlord.”
Moore said that his office as well as the Metropolitan Tenants Organization helped to “bring the old owners to justice and get the building in good hands.”
Now that BJB has taken over, the company have reportedly been making the repairs necessary to rectify the building’s issues, Moore said. BJB did not return Progress Illinois' calls for comment.
Moore went on to say that he’s not clear on what the activists hope to accomplish in a meeting with the building's owner, BJB Principal Joe Slezak.
“Several tenants and the Northside Action For Justice organization in the past have demanded that the owners cease and desist from evicting some of the tenants for non-payment of rent and provide them with an unspecified amount of money to cover their moving expenses,” the alderman said.
Arbie Bowman, 45, who has lived in the Astor House for the past three years in a one-bedroom apartment for $550 a month, said the tenants currently do not have hot water, and the elevator gets stuck. BJB doesn’t “want to come in to fix anything,” she said.
Bowman, who was scheduled to be evicted in two weeks, said she is moving out of the building next week thanks to a work acquaintance who offered her and her 8-year-old daughter a spare room. But she added that she’s not going to stop fighting for the other dozen or so lower-income and long-term tenants who remain in the building.
“It’s a shame what we have to go through at the Astor House, and BJB owns a lot of property, and all they want to do is rent to college students and stop affordable housing,” she said. “They should keep affordable housing available.”
Here’s more from Bowman:
According to Moore, the new building owner has applied for a permit to make even more “extensive repairs” at the building, including repairing the elevator and replacing the boiler.
Moore said BJB has indicated that it would allow any tenant in good standing to remain in the building during the repairs, but that the “tenants who remain must be willing to relocate to a different unit when their units are undergoing repairs.”
Moore also noted that the company does not plan on increasing the rents in any “significant manner.”
But Selby said some of the tenants in the 147-unit building have actually been pushed out of the Astor House while apartments undergo renovations, which “really just seems like painting things over.”
The protestors said these new rehabbed units are being rented as non-negotiable six-month leases at higher rates of $695 to $825. Some of the new tenants who have signed those short-term leases reportedly have seen mice and roaches in their units despite the renovations, the group said.
“BJB did not disclose these problems to new tenants, or the fact that they are in housing court,” Bowman said. “Several new tenants left almost immediately after seeing these poor building conditions.”
Moore noted in his statement that he met with six Astor House tenants in July who claimed mistreatment at the hands of the company.
According to Moore, one tenant acknowledged that she had not paid her rent in years due to the unsatisfactory conditions of her apartment, while other tenants claimed they paid their rent on time but are still facing eviction. Others told Moore that they offered to pay rent, but a representative from BJB did not accept the payment and told them to leave the building. One tenant simply wanted to move to a different building, Moore said.
“I listened to each of the tenants and asked them to provide any documentation, such as rent receipts, money order receipts or cancelled checks that would support their claims,” the alderman said. “To date, I have received nothing from five of the six tenants despite repeated requests from my staff assistant. The only tenant who has worked with my office is an elderly woman who made no claims of mistreatment, but simply expressed a desire to move to another building. We are currently working with her and her attorney to secure other living arrangements.”
Without any evidence that the evictions are without cause, “I have no desire to arrange a joint meeting with the landlords that appears to be nothing more than an attempt at extortion and to justify the existence of this new advocacy group,” Moore said.
But Selby pushed back against Moore’s statement and said he did not address the fact that affordable housing in Rogers Park has been greatly diminished over the last 30 years.
“BJB Properties and other giant corporations are buying up properties all over Rogers Park, Uptown and other places that have historically had affordable housing,” she said. “They’re buying them up, and flipping them basically and increasing the rents so they can make more money, and there are no new places for affordable housing that’s being set up.”
Astor House tenants should be able to stay in their units, and BJB should maintain its affordable housing, which the company claims it is doing, Selby said.
“We’ve seen this over and over again, and that’s not what actually ends up happening,” she stressed.