[Hpn] Highwood renters ordered to pack up
Thu, 8 Jul 2004 06:42:09 -0700 (PDT)
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Highwood renters ordered to pack up
Suburb, activists at odds on move
By Trine Tsouderos and Manya A. Brachear
Tribune staff reporters
July 8, 2004
About 70 renters in four Highwood apartment buildings were informed by the city early last week that they had 48 hours to 14 days to vacate their homes if their landlord did not satisfy a list of repairs and improvements.
The action sparked outrage among local housing activists, who accused the city of targeting Latino renters.
"This is like ethnic cleansing," said Gail Schechter, executive director of the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs. "That's a strong term, but I can't get over this."
Highwood City Atty. Paul Diambri said that the city is concerned only for the safety of tenants and that ethnicity has nothing to do with it.
"We are targeting the landlord, who is not Hispanic," Diambri said. "And we are targeting this housing to make it safe for the occupants. They will benefit from the city's intervention because they will have safe, code-compliant housing."
By Friday, 319 Euclid Ave. was abandoned, four residents remained in Unit 5 of 550 Green Bay Rd., where water had been shut off, and all of the residents remained at 8 and 11 Walker Ave., where they had received a reprieve.
"People got scared. [The city] insisted they be out," said landlord Michael Scornavacco, who signed an agreement Tuesday with the city detailing a schedule of repairs and agreeing to tear down his building at 319 Euclid. "If I was to evict someone for non-compliance of payment, it would take me forever. I've got to go through the proper channels."
In a letter to Scornavacco, Highwood inspectors listed dozens of alleged code violations at each property, including overcrowding, electrical system hazards, boarded windows, leaking sewage, unsafe staircases, cracked and peeling paint, mold, and insect and rat infestations.
Attached to the letter was a list of area homeless shelters and motels.
"The city's philosophy is that tenants' rights have to be protected, and in some cases the landlords are not providing the tenants with decent, code-compliant housing," Diambri said.
But Schechter said the city is moving Hispanics aside to make way for urban renewal.
"They are pawns in this whole Highwood face-lift," she said. "They want to redo their central business district and put in their fancy restaurants and hide the multiethnic flavor of their town."
About 40 percent of Highwood's residents are Latino, according to 2000 census data, and most of the Latino residents are renters.
Highwood passed its rental-inspection law in December in the wake of a non-fatal fire in a downtown apartment house that amounted to a modern-day tenement.
Landlords of non-owner-occupied apartment buildings are now required to apply for city inspections of all of their units. Four hundred units have been inspected, Diambri said.
The inspections are drawing criticism from some landlords, who say inspectors are too picky.
"A lot of people are not happy with the city," said Silvana Magnani, landlord of 6 Walker Ave., who said she was being forced to replace a balcony railing because the slats were a half-inch wider than codes allow.
Rental inspections have fueled debate nationwide. Advocates say they are weeding out unsafe living conditions while critics say cities use them to weed out minorities.
"Show me a town that is overzealous in their enforcement of the codes and I will show you a town with a growing Latino population," said Bernard Kleina, executive director of the Wheaton-based HOPE Fair Housing Center, which brought complaints against Elgin, Addison and West Chicago.
"A town that is all white, they won't bother much with the housing code or occupancy issues," he said. "These are only issues with a significant minority population."
Across the Chicago area, a handful of communities have settled lawsuits relating to accusations of discrimination during inspections.
In 2002, Elgin officials settled with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Justice and HOPE, agreeing to set aside money to compensate alleged victims of discriminatory inspections. In 1997, Addison reached an agreement with the Justice Department over similar complaints, paying $1.5 million to affected tenants, building owners and others.
Also in 1997, the City of Waukegan settled with the government and paid $175,000 to Hispanic accusers and $25,000 to the federal government.
Nationwide, rental-inspection programs have produced local ire. Earlier this year, a jury awarded $200,000 to tenants of a building given just a few hours to vacate their apartments in Washington after the city found code violations in 2001.
"It is small compensation for what had happened to them," said tenants' lawyer Hassan Zavareei.
In Highwood, city public works employee Jose Guzman, who also maintains Scornavacco's buildings, found himself without a home last week after being given 48 hours to leave 319 Euclid.
During the day, when they are not working, Guzman and his wife roam the streets or stay in their car. At night, they go to a cramped studio apartment where another family is letting them stay until they find a permanent place.
Scornavacco acknowledges the buildings he leases are not luxury living. They are affordable options for "hardworking people," he said.
"People like me trying to run a fair business for fair prices are sometimes looked at as slum landlords," he said. "There's a place and purpose for these kinds of rentals."
Diambri said Scornavacco's buildings have been cited in the past for code violations, trash and other problems.
While Scornavacco, Guzman and his building manager inspected the building on Euclid on Friday, a city official called Scornavacco to tell him that the residents still at 550 Green Bay had to go.
Diambri said 550 Green Bay was unsafe because the only fire exit was across the rooftop of the adjoining restaurant.
Copyright (c) 2004, Chicago Tribune