Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Thursday October 31st, 2013, 5:16pm

Astor House Tenants Protest Building Conditions, Management As Original Renters Continue To Be Pushed Out

One the last remaining affordable housing tenants at the Astor House in Rogers Park saw support from a small group of activists who gathered outside the Daley Center Thursday morning prior to his eviction trial.

The tenant, Melvin Jennings, 58, lives in the 147-unit Astor House, which some say is one of the last affordable housing developments in the Rogers Park nighborhood on Chicago's far North Side.

Jennings moved into the Astor House, located at 1246 W. Pratt Blvd., in October 2012, shortly before BJB Properties stepped in to whip the troubled property into shape. The housing organizers argue, however, that BJB took over the property with the intent of quickly rehabbing the units and then marketing them to higher-paying renters, specifically students from nearby Loyola University. The company manages three other buildings in the Rogers Park area and more than 30 others on the North Side, according to its website.

Jennings said he pays $700 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, and BJB Properties has already hiked the rent for similar units.

"Now they're asking for the same one bedroom [for] $850 [to] $900, and you got an elevator problem, you got rodent problems," he said.

The building had a long history of issues before BJB Properties purchased the building, including a bed bug and mice problem as well as other code violations. Activists with Northside Action for Justice and Communities United Against Foreclosure and Eviction, which have been fighting against gentrification in the building, maintain that some of these issues have yet to be resolved.

"I just hope and pray that BJB gets everything that's coming to them, because I'll tell you what, what they put us through, I wish nobody in life would have to go through that," said Arbie Bowan, 45, who lived in the Astor House in a $550, one-bedroom apartment for three years before she was evicted in September. Bowman and her daughter were able to stay with a family friend after they were evicted.

The number of tenants living in the affordable units has been dwindling ever since BJB Properties took over the property. The organizers say the tenants have been forced out either because they cannot pay the higher rent or because BJB Properties has found a way to evict them. Others have left due to the reportedly poor living conditions.

As of June, there were about 30 affordable housing tenants in the building, but now only three are left, including Jennings. The housing organizers say more than 60 tenants have either moved out or were evicted since BJB purchased the building.

Jennings plans to leave Astor House at the end of November. 

The Lawyers' Committee For Better Housing is representing Jennings in his eviction case, and he reportedly owes BJB Properties $4,700 stemming from a January rent dispute. Jennings said he has been tied up in court with BJB Properties ever since he was three weeks late on rent in January, which he says he tried to pay back shortly after he was formally notified about his past-due payment. Jennings, with the help of his legal counsel, reportedly reached an agreement to pay BJB Properties $2,500 and vacate the premise by November 30.

Even though Jennings is set to leave, those at Thursday's gathering say they will continue to make their voices heard about the building's conditions.

Sarah Weinman, 32, moved into Astor House this September, but only lived in the building for about two weeks before she asked to break her lease. During her first week in the $725 studio she rented, Weinman said she was unable to fully use the bathroom because the sink had been torn out as part of the remodeling process. A few days later, after the sink was reinstalled, Weinman said she had no hot water. Weinman maintains that management never told her about the building's issues, including faulty elevators and problems with hot water and heat.

"By then I had started talking to other tenants and learned stories and realized that this company was very bad, and I was going to do everything in my power to try and get out, and also to try to help the tenants, who are still there, with their voice," Weinman said.

BJB Properties did not return Progress Illinois' request for comment for this story.

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