Desperation was in the air Friday at 7270 S. South Shore Drive where some 75 residents have until 9:30 a.m. Monday to vacate their rundown apartment building.
Sheila Sykes, 61, broke down while telling me her worries about finding a new place to live in such a short time.
“I’m a senior. I’m disabled. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m going to look for an apartment today, but I have bad credit. That’s why I came here,” Sykes said as tears started trickling down her face.
Belinda Miller, 57, stepped in to comfort her.
“Don’t cry, honey. We’re gonna be OK,” said Miller, who didn’t sound entirely convinced, one reason being her 73-year-old “fiancé” in a wheelchair who she’d left behind in the room they share upstairs.
“All these people here got nowhere to go,” Miller told me. “It’s crazy.”
Crazy only begins to describe the situation I walked into at the former nursing home that city officials say was illegally converted into single-room rental apartments — with no kitchens and shared bathrooms in the hallways.
We were gathered in the lobby of the five-story building, where a swarm of residents clamored for attention from a pair of housing activists trying to help.
Many of the residents were older. Others looked young enough to be teenagers, some of them agitated or strung out. A lame little dog skittered among everyone, as did a very displeased building manager.
Upstairs, a strong smell of marijuana wafted through the hallways where private security guards stood sentry as “fire monitors” in place of the non-working alarm system.
Just a week ago, a Cook County judge ordered the building closed at the city’s request for being a fire hazard, fire safety being just one of many problems at this grossly mismanaged property. Another was no heat. The city agreed at the time to pay the tenants $800 in relocation assistance.
After I wrote about that, the city increased the relocation payment to $2,000 with the owner, Middleway LLC, now responsible for paying half. But the city refused to relent on the March 9 deadline to move.
From the city’s point of view, it can’t take the risk of waiting until some resident is killed in a fire — or a firefighter is hurt attempting a rescue — before it takes action.
But that’s hard to explain to a group of poor people faced with moving on short notice in winter. Most of them wouldn’t be living there in the first place if they thought they had a better option.
City Building Commissioner Felicia Davis gets it.
“We’re saying, we’re here to help you, and they say, ‘Then why are you kicking us out?’ ” Davis told me Friday afternoon.
That’s exactly what they were asking me. So why are you kicking them out?
“When there is life safety at risk, we’re kind of boxed in a little bit,” Davis said.
Davis told me she agrees with the central point of Wednesday’s column: there has to be a better way of conducting these emergency building closures.
But we didn’t seem to agree on what that better way might be.
Davis says the city’s best approach is to show up in force at the building for the Monday morning deadline to help those who have been unable to relocate.
In the meantime, she argues the responsibility for helping the tenants find new housing lies with the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, which is paid $150,000 a year by the city to help renters in these situations.
Having worked pretty closely with that organization in several of these problem buildings, I can tell you MTO organizers see their role quite differently as advocates who help organize tenants, fight to protect their rights and steer them toward whatever resources are available. They were there Friday morning, working with the tenants to help them get paid.
But they aren’t set up to be a relocation service.
And if you tell a person who may not even have a working telephone, let alone a car, that they have one week to move, then it seems to me you’re duty-bound to devote some resources to helping them — immediately.
Most of those living at 7270 S. South Shore are African-American.
Edward Buckman, 53, an Elmhurst native, is among several white residents, some of them veterans, who began renting here a year ago after a nearby halfway house closed.
“I have no place to go,” he said as he sat on a broken picnic bench staring at the floor. “I can’t afford to wash my clothes. Look at my pants.”
Buckman said he has been homeless before. If he doesn’t get help, he could soon be homeless again.
On the bright side, living on the street should cut down his chances of dying in a fire.