Editor's note: This piece is co-published with the South Side Weekly
In the second summer of the pandemic, Melissa* was scrambling to find a new house for herself and her teenage son. Her on-and-off home over the past 14 years, the Tudor Gables Building Cooperative, a grand, three-story apartment building that looms over the 4800 block of S. Drexel Blvd. like a castle, had sold in March with only a few months’ warning from the coop’s board. The new owners, up-and-coming area landlords 312 Properties, had given residents until early June to vacate their units.
*Melissa is not the tenant’s real name. The Herald granted her anonymity to protect her job security and her family from accusations of endangering a minor.
Some shareholders and renters of Tudor Gables, one of the first Black-owned housing cooperatives established in the city, had a hard time finding new housing. The money from the sale was being disbursed to shareholders in segments and many, especially seniors, were on fixed-incomes. Some worried they wouldn’t be able to make it out of the building in time.
Initially, the sale of the building didn’t worry Melissa. One of a number of renters in the 114-unit building, she had just signed off with her landlord on another year-long lease in December. Her unit was in good shape, having been rehabbed and the appliances updated sometime before she moved in the year before. Melissa did want to get out of the Gables, since the building had changed hands, but she assumed that her lease would give her some extra time to relocate.
She felt hopeful, even: Earlier that spring, she had started a new job that was demanding, keeping her out of the house for long shifts that sometimes stretched up to 14-16 hours, but it was stable and well paying. She wanted to stay in the Hyde Park-Kenwood area in order to keep her son within his school’s attendance boundaries, and the new job’s higher, union wages would put that in reach, though the hours and the exhaustion that followed made it difficult to schedule viewings for the few units that were available and within her budget.
But as the deadline to move out, June 10, came and went, the building became a living nightmare for Melissa and several other residents, who remained in their units past the move-out date either because they could not afford to move or did not yet have anywhere to go.
“It was just terrible,” Melissa said. “They (312 Properties) turned our water off, they cut the gas off, then they started gutting everything.”
“We were stepping over shards of glass just to go down the stairs. It was insane. It was unbelievable.”
In addition to Melissa and her teenage son, at least four shareholders and one young child remained in the building as the new owners removed the locks from all 20 front-door entrances and basement entries in June, an action that these residents allege was an all but open invitation to squatters and looters to break into units and take appliances, pipes and former and current residents’ possessions.
“They came in late at night, sneaking in, stealing the radiators, taking our doors off, people were breaking into apartments and stealing stuff… fridges, stoves,” said Derek Woods, a shareholder of six years, who remained on the property past the move-out date of June 10.
Woods was alarmed and worried that conflict between the scrappers and remaining residents might escalate. “I came in one day and caught guys taking my doors off,” he said. “They said ‘We were paid to take these doors off,’” but ran away after being confronted by him. “People could’ve been killed.”
In desperation, Melissa posted a sign on her door reading, “We are still here, so please leave this apartment alone.”
Owners of 312 Properties, brothers Ariel and Raphael Lowenstein, did not respond to the Herald’s requests for comment.
Then, in mid-July, at the peak of Chicago summer, the water and gas utilities started to go on and off, according to residents’ testimony and 311 complaints obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. On July 14, the Department of Buildings issued a permit for a full interior gut rehab of the building, worth an estimated $6 million, to 312 Properties and their general contractor, Asbridge Enterprises LLC.
Woods was in tens of thousands of dollars of debt from rehabbing his unit several years prior, and he, like other shareholders, had received only a portion of what he expected to receive from the sale payout. The board withheld $3 million of the $11.5 million in sale proceeds from shareholders until December 2021, allegedly for tax liability purposes. (No former board members would speak to the Herald on the record; some citing a non-disclosure agreement.). In debt and struggling financially, he delayed his move-out until the walls started coming down. Eventually, he was able to temporarily move in with family members.
Melissa and her son didn’t have that option, leaving them stuck in an active construction zone for the next month. As her long hours kept her out of the house for most of the day, she had no choice but to leave her son alone at home after school, and then all day once summer break began. All the while, construction proceeded around them. She felt relief from worry for his well-being only on the few days that her brother was able to come into the apartment to stay with her son while she was at work.
When Melissa’s sister, who the Herald also granted anonymity to protect the tenant’s identity, came up from Atlanta for her nephew’s birthday in early August, she hadn’t realized how dire the situation was.
“I’ve lived in New York City for most of my life, and I’ve never, ever, ever seen a building (gutted) around a tenant and child.”
The actions of 312 Properties, which has bought up at least thirteen apartment and condominium buildings in Kenwood, Bronzeville and Woodlawn since its founding in 2014, likely amounted to a constructive eviction, an indirect and unlawful eviction in which landlords effectively force their tenants out, typically by making the unit unlivable in some way.
Any action by a landlord that breaches the “warranty of habitability” of a housing unit is considered a constructive or informal eviction. According to the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing’s (LCBH) website, common examples include illegal lockouts, utility shut-offs and intimidation of tenants, but can also look like “unconscionable” rent increases and coercive deals, such as offers to trade keys for cash.
Woods, the former shareholder, alleges that 312 Properties owners Ariel and Raphael Lowenstein had spoken with residents in June and offered $200 for keys.
The Lowensteins did not respond to the Herald’s repeated requests for comment.
By law, evictions must be filed and enforced through the county’s eviction courts; there is no other legal way to remove people from housing. At the time, however, the state was under a COVID-19 eviction moratorium that prevented most eviction filings from being enforced. The moratorium was lifted on October 3, 2021.
“There’s no license under the law for a new owner to constructively evict lawful occupants or create hazardous conditions or nuisance situations,” said Mark Swartz, executive director of the LCBH. While he was unable to comment on the particulars of Tudor Gables or the legal status of Melissa and other remaining occupants, he said, they were likely “known occupants, lawful occupants, and maybe a lot more—I’d say they were still tenants.”
LCBH specializes in active eviction cases, representing renters in eviction court and advocating for renters whose landlords are failing to provide basic services or habitable housing. LCBH also provides a public-access eviction-tracking platform that pulls data from the courts. The data show that Kenwood saw 348 eviction filings in 2019, the most recent year for which data has been reviewed and analyzed.
There were only 15 evictions filed in Kenwood in 2021 from January to April 2021, according to LCBH’s preliminary review of 2020-2021 data. By comparison Hyde Park saw 28 and South Shore saw 99 in the same time frame.
Kenwood’s 2019 eviction filing rate, the number of evictions per 100 renter homes in an area, is 4.9% compared to the citywide rate of 2.9%. In the census tract that Tudor Gables is in, the eviction rate is 6%.
LCBH notes that in 2019, Black neighborhoods on average had a filing rate (6.1%) five times higher than majority white areas (1.2%).
Swartz noted that these rates also underrepresent the true number of evictions because the courts only report legally filed evictions; the total number of constructive evictions is untracked and unknown.
“All of this stuff does need to go to court so that there can be fair process,” Swartz said. “If there’s a dispute it needs to be dealt with in court. We want eviction court to work fairly.”
How does this happen?
According to 311 complaints, the Departments of Buildings and Water Management had been alerted to the unsafe conditions around the time that construction started on the building. A no-water complaint was filed on July 16 — just two days after the Dept. of Buildings issued a permit for a full interior rehab — and three other complaints about utility shut-offs were filed on July 21.
The complaints filed on July 21 were directed to the Dept. of Buildings’ Plumbing and Conservation divisions. One complaint was closed by Aug. 27, citing an “active case.” Of the remaining two, one was not inspected until October 30; the other lists no inspection date. Both were closed Nov. 9, long after the last tenants had left.
The no-water complaint directed to the Dept. of Water Management (DWM) on July 16 was closed the same day because it was a tenant-landlord dispute, notes on the work order read. “Spoke to tenant over the telephone … landlord and tenant keep turning the water off and on, landlord tenant dispute.” The activity outcome reads “Owner’s Responsibility.”
When asked for comment, DWM spokesperson Megan Vidis said that the department “does not get involved in private landlord-tenant disputes.”
In spite of the recent record of the dispute, on Aug. 2, a water shut-off request was filed with DWM via 311 (identifying information of the entity that filed the request was redacted) at 4844 S. Drexel Blvd., one of the building’s 20 addresses. The request listed the property as “vacant” and the DWM arrived to turn off the water valve the next day.
Dept. of Buildings Public Affairs Director Michael Puccinelli told the Herald that the building was not registered as vacant in 2021.
When asked how DWM verifies a building’s “vacant” status, Vidis responded: “It is the owner’s responsibility to register a vacant building with the Department of Buildings. If that procedure is followed, water service will be terminated.” On June 1, the Herald asked Vidis to elaborate on the procedure for shut-off requests when the building is not registered as vacant; the story will be updated with comment.
The building certainly looked vacant. Pictures from former shareholders taken between June and September show torn-up courtyards and several towering evergreen trees downed, left lying across its walkways. Dumpsters and furniture removed from apartments overwhelmed the back alley. So, even though the building wasn’t registered as vacant, postal workers skipped the building, returning mail to sender.
In mid-July, when the gas went out, Tytus Cousins called People’s Gas out to the Gables. Cousins also remained in his unit, a four-room apartment on the first floor, well into construction as he searched for a new home that he could afford. Like Woods, he had rehabbed his unit out of pocket several years prior. Cousins alleged that 312 Properties had put a lock on the gas meter—which shuts off the gas flow completely—and when Peoples Gas employees arrived, they acknowledged that “they (the owners) was not supposed to do that.” Instead of removing the lock, however, Cousins said the workers inexplicably removed the entire meter. The remaining Gables inhabitants were left without gas through August.
Melissa alleged that People’s Gas wouldn’t talk to her “because the building was ‘vacant.’”
But though the building may have looked vacant from the outside, Melissa and Cousins alleged that the new owners were well aware that they were still on the property.
“I kept telling (Ariel Lowenstein) that I was trying to get out of there, to please leave this particular building alone,” Melissa said. “There were three other buildings he could’ve started on, but… they started (construction) on my building. It was a nightmare.”
“I had been there a year and just signed a new lease, so that’s what I kept telling him—I understand that y’all bought this building but you can’t do what you’re doing because I have a lease.”
Cousins provided a text exchange between himself and Ariel Lowenstein in which it was acknowledged that Cousins was still on the property as of Aug. 3. Cousins said he moved out on Aug. 10, when he was able to secure a new lease.
In a text message dated Aug. 3 obtained by the Herald, Cousins wrote to Lowenstein, “Good afternoon. I did not hear from you today. I need to let my new landlord know if I’m good and I can move in on (Aug.) 10th with the 3000… I started packing today.” (Cousins told the Herald that he had requested money in exchange for his returning his keys, and was written a check for $3500 on his Aug. 10 move-out date.) Lowenstein responded, “Yes thanks for getting in touch … We will make that happen … I will be there on the 10th.”
For Melissa, there was no such deal. She had found a new unit in a nearby Hyde Park apartment building, but it wasn’t going to be ready for move-in until around August 20. In the meantime, she and her son were living without water for toilets or showers or drinking water, and the construction work shook the building around them.
“Some days I would go to work and just cry,” she said.
One year later, the experience of living through a building under construction continues to weigh upon former Gables residents. Melissa says she’s exploring suing for damages over the constructive eviction and the distress she and her son experienced that summer.
“At this point, I thought it was over with, but every so often the nightmare comes back,” Woods said.
“For you to do something like that and don’t even care?” he said, referencing the disregard 312 Properties and their contractor displayed for the well-being of the people who remained on the property. “Contractors and construction workers don’t do this—they don’t tear walls down around nobody.”
This article is the first in a series. Have tips or information you’d like to share regarding the Tudor Gables or 312 Properties? We’d love to hear from you. email@example.com or 773-324-5374