ROGERS PARK — A couple thought they found their dream home when they moved with their cat and all their possessions into a two-story, three-bedroom stucco house on Birchwood Avenue, had the gas and electric utilities turned on and spent $3,000 on repairs to get it into shape.
But there was one problem with the house, which featured a garage and nice backyard: It wasn't theirs.
Late last month, four weeks after they moved into the long-vacant home, the rightful property owner gave them the boot, had them arrested and locked the place up with their possessions still inside.
Now, Michael Donley, 46, and Carmilla Manzanet, 43, face trespassing charges and have no place to live.
On Tuesday, the couple of 15 years stood outside the home at 1527 W. Birchwood Ave. along with some supporters to ask for their stuff back, but also to call attention to the fact that they and millions of others have a "lack of access to the American dream, which is home ownership."
"It's obvious we occupied this house because of lack of funds," said Donley, who works as a salesman for a service that connects people to lawyers. "We needed a place to stay.
"We know what we were doing was an occupation," he added. "The American Dream is home ownership, not home renter-ship."
The couple explained that they began squatting in the home April 1 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.
They considered moving to a shelter, but hated the idea.
"Shelters are what they are. You're almost in some state of captivity in a shelter," Donley said. "The need for the address is right up there with oxygen. You need it."
After reading about an Illinois statute known as "Adverse Possession" — which allows someone to claim ownership of an abandoned or unclaimed property under certain circumstances after 20 years of occupation — the couple started searching for a vacant home. They found the Birchwood place not far from where they had lived.
They first entered the home on Feb. 25 to assess whether it was livable. They then spent $1,000 of their own money and $2,000 in donations from groups like Communities United Against Foreclosure and Eviction to remove portions of the home's ceiling and floor after apparent water damage caused by a busted toilet and sink on the second floor.
They enlisted their friends to help, and rented a 20-yard long trash bin after amassing a few tons of refuse.
"We could live here and still do some good for the community," said Manzanet, who is unemployed. "We did something that the banks didn't do — all they did was board it up and lock it up.
"We weren't there to destroy the property," she added. "We were there to beautify it."
They said neighbors had a mixed reaction to their presence, since they did fix up a home that had been empty for years. As far as they know, no one on the block called police or the home's owner to alert them.
But on April 25, Invitation Homes, which purchased the bank-owned property about the time the couple moved in, took notice after a locksmith came to change the locks and saw the couple. The owner called the police a few days later.
"We purchased the home under our normal business plans of buying homes and renovating them and renting them out," said Eric Elder, a spokesman for the Texas-based company, which has 1,200 homes throughout the Midwest. "Somewhere along the way these folks moved in. By definition, they are trespassing. We are obligated to get the authorities involved for everybody’s safety."
Donley said several officers raided the home on April 30. During the raid, Donley said, an officer was boosted through the dining room window and drew his gun, arresting the couple.
They returned to the house the same day to find the locks had been changed — with their furniture, pet cat, pet turtle and clothing still inside.
So a few days later they made arrangements with friends to help them move their belongings into storage while they figured out where to live next.
"We stormed the castle for a second time in protest," he said. But they ended up being arrested again and charged with criminal trespassing.
Fortunately, Donley said, he was able to convince the owners to let him get the cat, which has spent most of its time since then at a friend's house.
The turtle was never recovered from the home, he said.
Rachel Rosa, one of several protesters who came out in support of the couple Tuesday, chastised police and the home's owner for kicking the couple out.
"They're putting this family through hell and dragging them through the mud," said Rosa, who said she occupies a vacant home with her sister in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood, west of Logan Square.
On Saturday night, the couple rode the Red Line through the night after they couldn't find a place to stay.
Elder, of Invitation Homes, said the property would be renovated and rented out within the next several months.
He said the company had no plans to compensate the couple for the repairs they made.
"They’re not owners of the home in any way, so I don’t think that has any connection to us," he said.
But he said he was working with Donley and Manzanet to grant them access to their belongings, even though the company has no legal obligation to do so.
"We realize how important a home is to somebody and how important their possessions are," Elder said. "This is definitely an unfortunate and very unusual situation in our company's business."