Couple Moves Belongings Out of 'Dream' Home That Wasn't Theirs

By Benjamin Woodard on May 17, 2013 6:12am 

ROGERS PARK — The couple arrested after moving into and fixing up a vacant home on Birchwood Avenue was given two hours Thursday to have their furniture, electronics, clothing and dozens of boxes of their possessions removed.

A few friends of Michael Donley, 46, and Carmilla Manzanet, 43, showed up Thursday morning at the building in the 1500 block of West Birchwood Avenue with a rented U-Haul truck to help the couple retrieve belongings left behind after they were kicked out last month.

But representatives of Invitation Homes, the Texas-based company that bought the long-vacant home in early April, wouldn't allow the couple on the property, citing judge's orders.

"We know the type of people we're dealing with," said Donley, standing down the street as friends filled the truck with his stuff, including a dozen boxes containing his vinyl record collection. "It definitely stings."

The couple of 15 years moved into the two-story, three-bedroom stucco house on April 1, had the gas and electric utilities turned on, and spent $3,000 on repairs. They hoped to live there for at least a few years, but the owner learned of their presence and called the police. The couple was arrested and their belongings, including a cat and pet turtle, were locked inside.

While the cat was retrieved earlier, the pet turtle, a birthday gift, was nowhere to be seen Thursday as friends removed box after box of stuff and loaded them on a U-Haul rented by Elliot Zashin, 72, a member of Northside P.O.W.E.R.

"I care about them," said Debbie Southorn, 23, when asked why she was helping out. She took off work, along with a few other members of neighborhood activist groups. "It's just that basic concept of being a good neighbor."

From 10 a.m. to noon, the group worked in the house and garage — which was also full of items — to move the belongings outside the home before the doors were locked again by the company representatives, who stood by and watched closely.

A small flat-screen TV, a record player, a DVD player and boxes of clothes were pulled from the house.

Some bigger items that couldn't be quickly taken from the house, like a refrigerator, were left behind, while the back alley was filled with boxes, furniture and Donley's record collection to be picked up later.

At one point, a postal worker stopped outside the house to drop off a ComEd bill addressed to Donley. When Invitation Homes employees informed her the house was in fact vacant, she said, "I figured it was what it was. It's a bit of a hot mess over here."

Donley, a legal services salesman, said he rented a 10-by-15-foot room in a Howard Street storage facility to hold the belongings for now. He said he and Manzanet were staying with activist Megan Selby, 30, who also was there to help them move.

Donley said there was "no sign of the turtle" in the house, and his wife's laptop and digital camera were missing.

"It's definitely a taxing situation," he said. "We knew anything could happen with what we did, but we didn't expect this."

He said he moved into the home because he and Manzanet and her two teen children had nowhere else to go after they lost their eligibility for Section 8 housing assistance, fell upon hard times and were forced to move out of their apartment north of Howard Street in Rogers Park.

"We did this move because there are more empty homes than homeless people," he said. "It was bad timing, but it exposed a larger evil, too. ... They didn't have to treat us like criminals."

Donley said it took a whole weekend to move into the house, and the two hours allotted by Invitation Homes to move out wasn't enough.

Afterward, Invitation Homes spokesman Eric Elder said the company will "continue to act in good faith and help them get anything [left inside]. We’re not going to throw anything out."

"I totally understand the plight of folks as it relate to their home. A home is a very personal and emotional thing — no matter what situation you’re in," he said. "We’re doing all we can to help them continue on a better path."

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