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Astor House Residents Say New Building Owner Wants Them Out

By Benjamin Woodard | March 28, 2013 4:28pm

ROGERS PARK — Residents at the Astor House on Pratt Boulevard said they have long suffered with bed bugs, poor heating and low-water pressure.

But since new owners took over in October, tenants say 47 of them now face eviction, threatening to put some out on the street.

"All of a sudden, they gave me a bogus eviction notice," said tenant Melvin Jennings, who claimed to have never stopped paying his rent. "They got me in court."

Property records show that a company called "1246 Pratt LLC" purchased the property for $6.2 million. Attorney Gerard Walsh is listed as the principal agent of that company.

Walsh has also represented other distressed properties, such as the Chateau Hotel, which is rumored to have been purchased by an investor group that includes Jamie Purcell, the principal of BJB Properties.

Walsh did not return emails or voicemails requesting comment.

Tenants say BJB Properties now wants to empty the building so it can be renovated and marketed to Loyola students and others at a higher rent.

The property management company owns three other buildings nearby, which are listed on its website.

"The Chateau — they said the same thing," said Marc Kaplan, a member of Northside Action for Justice. "This is a whole real estate speculation scheme that's going on all over the North Side."

Kaplan and other affordable housing advocates say developers are purchasing older buildings to fix them up, leaving many fixed- and low-income residents without a home.

"There's no affordable housing," Kaplan said in front of TV news cameras during a rally in front of the Astor House on Thursday.

In fact, some of the newer residents at the Astor House were former Chateau House tenants before they were told to leave.

Residents in Rogers Park said they have been meeting in their building's laundry room over the past few months to organize against the new owners.

Tenant Arbie Bowman, 45, said she'd lived in the building with her daughter for 2½ years before she was served an eviction notice.

Bowman said she's suffered through bed bug infestations that forced her 8-year-old daughter to sleep on a coffee table to avoid being bitten.

"My daughter can't even take a bath," she said, because of mold in the bathroom affecting the girl's asthma. Sometimes the water doesn't get hot enough to take a shower, she said.

"No one should have to live in these conditions," she said.

Bowman said she pays $550 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. Similar apartments offered by BJB Properties lease for up to $1,295 a month, according to its website.

She said because of the Astor House's reputation of being ridden with bed bugs, she has had a hard time getting landlords to accept her application elsewhere.

Bowman might have to move into a shelter, where she had once lived before.

"I told my daughter that she'd never see a shelter as long as I'm a live," she said, worrying she'd break the promise is she had to leave the Astor House.

Paul Bernstein, a lawyer specializing in landlord-tenant issues, represents a dozen of the tenants he said have been served eviction notices, including Bowman and her daughter.

"It certainly seems the intent is that the new owners want to get everyone out to rehab it," Bernstein said Thursday in a phone interview.

Bernstein said he's arguing in court that the evictions were given in retaliation to tenants who reported problems in the building, like pests and faulty elevators.

"I just think some landlords — they’ll take the second syllable of landlord too much to heart," he said. "It borders on class warfare."

Bernstein, a self-described advocate for the tenants, said the property owner's lawyers refuse to sit down with him to discuss ways to help the tenants of the Astor House find alternate housing.

"If BJB wants to do wonderful things, maybe they should start to be perceived as wonderful people and help people move on," Bernstein said. "This is America for God's sake. Why can’t these people be treated properly as human beings?"

The tenants have also faced attempted arson and flooding at the building.

In early January, an unknown person set fire to a garbage bag in the Astor House's stairwell. Then less than a week later, it happened again on a different floor, according to police reports obtained by DNAinfo.com Chicago.

Residents say they don't know who set the fires, but burn marks remain on two levels of the building.

In another incident, someone had unrolled permanent fire hoses on three different floors in the building's stairwell, turned them on, and flooded several apartments, according to another police report dated Jan. 6.

Damage from the flooding is still visible on the ceiling of Arbie Bowman's eighth-floor apartment.

Bowman said she called Ald. Joe Moore's 49th ward office and complained about her situation. Other residents had as well.

When reached by email Thursday, Moore said he had received the complaints and planned to sit down with the new owners, whom he had yet to identify.

"This building has been on our radar screen for the last several years," he said. His office had taken the previous managers through housing court.

Moore said he did not know if the new owners planned to "empty out the building" for renovations.

"But given the state of disrepair of the building," he said, it would not surprise him.