Trash, permit violations and mud: why some Chicagoans hate ‘Windy City Rehab’
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A reality TV show that transforms Chicago fixer-uppers into million-dollar homes is creating lots of buzz — but angry residents and an alderman say the show is a bad neighbor.
Complaints abound from residents upset about trash, noise and unsecured work sites — and how the older homes rehabbed by HGTV’s “Windy City Rehab” have changed the character of neighborhoods.
One of the show’s projects got slapped with two stop-work orders for doing work outside the scope of city permits.
The city Department of Buildings said Friday it will ask the show’s co-star, builder Donovan Eckhardt, to meet with department officials “to make sure they are meeting our standards and to bring the concerns of neighbors to their attention,” spokesman Gregg Cunningham said.
“We will continue to monitor their work closely and will take further enforcement action if necessary,” Cunningham added.
Besides the complaints, some viewers are scratching their heads over the reality show’s purported profits, wondering in online forums how the rehabbed homes, some of which haven’t sold yet, could be making profits in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for the developers.
The show wrapped up its first season on HGTV this past week and signed on for a second season. HGTV says it’s one of its most popular new series, claiming 9.3 million viewers in its first month and a half on the air.
Taking over Chicago
The show follows luxury home designer Alison Victoria and her rehabbing pal Eckhardt, president of Greymark Development Group, as they buy and rehab properties with the goal of flipping them to sell to wealthy buyers. Victoria — whose full name is Alison Victoria Gramenos and who grew up in Chicago and the suburbs — previously hosted “Kitchen Crashers” on the DIY Network.
All 11 of the homes featured in the show’s first season are on the North Side, in neighborhoods such as Wicker Park, Bucktown, Ukrainian Village, Lincoln Square and Lincoln Park.
NOTE: Purchase date is when developers bought the property. Rehab costs are according to information presented on the show. Sources include Illinois property transfer-tax records, the Cook County recorder of deeds and the Multiple Listing Service. The public recording of property closings can be delayed.
Victoria, whose own home is in Bucktown, describes her goal as “taking over Chicago.”
“Bringing sexy back to the city is what I’m doing, why I got into this business. To make sure that I’m putting my stamp on every neighborhood in Chicago,” Victoria says in one video promoting the show called “High Heels, High Stakes.”
“A hundred years from now, people will be saying my name. I absolutely think I’m changing Chicago one house at a time.”
The two declined to comment to the Sun-Times, saying they’d consider an interview after next season premieres.
While the show has plenty of fans, critics have flocked online to skewer what they say are clumsy techniques and an arrogant attitude toward long-established neighborhoods.
“This show is everything that is wrong with Chicago,” one viewer wrote online. Wrote another: “Chicago does NOT need more 2 flats turned into million dollar single family homes, driving out renters.”
A spokeswoman for HGTV responded: “We respect the concerns of neighbors who are impacted by common renovation-related issues that come up during home transformations. Issues linked to ‘Windy City Rehab’ are carefully reviewed so that we can bring them to resolution with input from local officials and continue to follow Alison on her journey to buy, renovate and sell homes in Chicago.”
‘You guys couldn’t clean this up?’
But some residents wish the TV show had stayed away from their neighborhoods.
Neighbors of a “Windy City Rehab” home at 1929 N. Leavitt St. in Bucktown — featured in an episode that aired March 5 — say the construction crews swept in like they owned the block.
“The work crew that cut bricks, they didn’t use anything to block the dust,” said Robert Baran, who rents next door. “One of the neighbors came out and just started yelling at them.
“One crew left a bunch of saw dust and debris. It was a mess, and it snowed and then everything froze. One of the guys was out there with a big blow torch melting the snow to clean up this area, but really they just pushed it over to the side in front of the neighbor’s property so it wouldn’t be in view of the camera,” said Baran, a retired information technology worker.
“It was noticeable, and it was like, ‘You guys couldn’t clean this up?'”
Jane Kasper, a teacher whose great-grandparents bought the building next door to 1929 N. Leavitt around the late 1800s, said “it’s crazy the stuff they’ve been doing.”
Besides the trash, other inconveniences included noisy work on a holiday, leaving scaffolding and bricks in the gangway and ringing her tenant’s bell to access her building’s water. The rehabbers also added a 20-foot extension that blocks her view.
Kasper said she complained to Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) and was told she wasn’t the first to call.
“Honestly, these people make me sick — they’re so annoying,” she said.
A lifelong resident of the block, Kasper says the arrival of the uber-wealthy in Bucktown has brought some beautiful renovations to old homes — but a lot of downsides, too.
“It doesn’t feel good to me,” she said of her neighborhood, which she said used to be more family-friendly. “Everybody knew everybody and took care of everybody. Now I don’t know most of my neighbors, truthfully.”
An episode featuring a home at 2123 W. Thomas St. in Ukrainian Village ended with a beautifully furnished home with immaculate front and back yards. Victoria and Eckhardt even built a custom-made chicken coop in the back.
In reality, the project still isn’t done. A little over a week ago, there was a small patch of fake green turf in front, strewn with trash. The parkway and back yard were a muddy, littered mess. The chicken coop was gone.
The block of historic landmarked worker’s cottages has seen other rehabs, but this one drew residents’ ire.
“Pain in the ass,” said next-door neighbor Tony Ruiz. “It’s been a nightmare.”
Ruiz ticked off a list of complaints he’s experienced since April 2018: trucks double-parking on the street or taking up the alley; construction debris littering the front yard, parkway and gangway; damage to his garage and fence repaired only after he threatened to close the gangway; the back area left open and unsecured; workers using loud equipment early in the morning.
And worst of all, he says, a huge 20-foot long addition tacked onto the back of the home that blocks light to Ruiz’s backyard.
Neighbor Patricia Campos, a homeowner on the block since 1987, says flipping has disrupted the once-serene block.
“I think it’s a bonanza for developers and for people that want to flip property and just make a buck off things. But I don’t find it beneficial to me,” Campos says.
In the Thomas Street episode, the rehabbers claimed they made a profit of $255,000 flipping the house for a sale price of $1.3 million.
But it’s unclear whether the house has sold; state records do not reflect a new buyer. A building permit was still posted in the front window earlier this month and workers were busy in back.
Ruiz grew up near the block and bought his historic 1898 home two decades ago. He’s annoyed that the show claims it’s enhancing old, broken-down buildings. In many cases all that is salvaged is the outer walls.
“Ukrainian Village doesn’t need any enhancement. We love our homes,” Ruiz said.
A sense of ‘arrogance’
Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) says the reality show stars have operated with a certain sense of “arrogance” that’s prompted him to rethink the rules of engagement.
“If they seek to do another project in my ward, I’ll insist on a firm commitment from them to focus on neighborhood relations and take steps to mitigate the complaints that are typically associated with a construction project in a residential neighborhood,” Hopkins told the Sun-Times.
Hopkins says he soured on things after a meeting between Eckhardt and neighbors of the home on Thomas yielded little progress.
“Donovan was conciliatory, but the complaints continued afterward,” Hopkins says. “Indications from neighbors seemed they weren’t responsive any longer. They knew they had their permits … and didn’t feel the need for any continued negotiations.
“There was a certain amount of arrogance involved — ‘This is a TV show and we can do what we want,’ ” Hopkins says.
For her part, Victoria believes she deserves a warmer welcome for her efforts at preserving some of the homes’ historic elements.
Her greatest surprise, she told an interviewer for People, is “that we don’t get the support that I was hoping we would get. … We are trying to make the neighborhood great and better. We are trying to bring the history back with the builds. So it’s not like we are coming in making crap and just trying to make a buck.”
To its credit, the show gives an honest account of some of the problems that plague rehab projects, especially as Victoria and Eckhardt run from job to job (Victoria told an interviewer the crew had 14 going at once, although the first season only features 11). It also documents some head-scratching mistakes that got the attention of city inspectors and irked neighbors.
In a rehab of a home at 1800 W. Wabansia, Eckhardt — who lives nearby — tells how a neighbor woke him up one night to tell him there was “water pouring out of the basement.” It turns out a water line cracked and a shut-off valve failed. The burst pipe also flooded a neighbor’s basement.
The mishap came after several days of freezing temperatures; it was unclear if crews were running heaters during the project.
“This is a total disaster,” Eckhardt says on the show. “ … In the winter you put in a contingency for bad weather. I just assumed we were going to be running a furnace the whole time. … I made a mistake there.”
Other mistakes led the city to halt construction at another “Windy City Rehab” project.
At 1803 W. Wabansia, the city issued two stop-work orders in 2017 after crews erected a new frame garage with a roof deck and removed several walls of the home.
On the show, Victoria and Eckhardt had made plans to save the exterior walls and facade of the house, but the structure fell while they were gutting the house. The two can be seen sitting on the home’s front porch, the entire house in rubble behind them.
While she calls the accidental teardown “a letdown,” she also says “it’s kinda nice … we really get a fresh start.”
City officials said the wall removal was outside the scope of the permit but said the rehabbers later secured the necessary approvals.
A city official said the buildings department has been aggressively going after violators after a “bad actor” ordinance enacted in 2017 gave it greater ability to clamp down on rogue rehabbers. The department has suspended permitting privileges for nearly 75 contractors whose illegal work was cited as compromising safety and has issued cease-and-desist orders to 15 unlicensed contractors.
Affordable housing concerns
Apart from construction hassles and other problems, some critics say the show glorifies flipping, which drives out affordable housing and destabilizes neighborhoods.
In its episode featuring a home at 2308 W. Giddings St. in Lincoln Square, the show claimed it was restoring a two-flat “back to a single-family home” — even though brick two-flats around Lincoln Square and elsewhere in Chicago were never built for one family.
A quintessential Chicago type of residence, two-flats, typically built between 1900 and 1920, allow middle-class homeowners to also be landlords, renting out the second unit for income.
In recent years, affordable housing advocates have decried the conversion of two-flats to single-family homes, saying it’s one reason rents are skyrocketing in places like Lincoln Square and North Center.
Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) says turning two-flats into luxury homes is partly why his ward has lost 4,000 units of housing over the past 15 years.
While he doesn’t begrudge people wanting beautifully rehabbed, large homes, with that loss of housing comes fewer school children – and lower per-pupil funding for schools.
“I see a school funding crisis in gentrifying areas,” Pawar says. “This is all connected.”
The show’s Giddings Street episode, which aired in January, ended with a gorgeous rehabbed home filled with elegant furnishings. For the show’s big reveal at the end, a couple of stand-ins substituted for the real buyers, who didn’t want to go on-camera, a relative said.
Even though the project looked finished on the show, months later workers were still completing details and the backyard was a mess of winter mud.
Ruth Egofske, the mother of buyer Anna Morrissey, told the Sun-Times the TV show spent more on the rehab than planned and tried to get the couple to pony up more money. They refused (“They’re both lawyers,” Egofske said), but the deal finally closed earlier this month.
In another episode, Victoria ends up turning down a buyer that offered more than they sought — but wanted to change elements of Victoria’s designs (the rejection led Eckhardt to question on air whether he should continue the partnership). The home, at 1906 N. Hoyne, still hasn’t sold, according to state records. It, too, has an unfinished backyard, and the beautifully staged furniture inside — featured at the end of every show — is gone.
So are some incredibly pricey doorknobs she put on doors inside a 1820s-era hand-carved golden, giltwood door frame from southern France that she had installed on the front of the house. The doorknobs — which she said cost $2,000 — were taken down shortly after she revealed their cost on the show.
“Is it weird to be inspired by your own design? I inspired myself today,” Victoria says on the show.
Neighbors, though, aren’t too excited by the house.
“We’re not in love with it,” said neighbor Chris Gashoff. “It doesn’t really fit with the neighborhood. It’s just not our style.” Said another neighbor: “It certainly wouldn’t be the front of the house I would choose.”
Money is a big focus of every episode, with Victoria and Eckhardt touting the cash they’re pocketing on each project.Each episode highlights the purchase price, rehabbing cost, selling price and net profits of up to 35 percent.
Though figures like that might make viewers run for the nearest Home Depot, one longtime Chicago rehabber says he suspects some of the numbers are overblown. “There’s a lot of different ways you can calculate ‘profit,’” says Dan Zolkowski, vice president of CA Development and former owner of Artifex Builders with more than 30 years in Chicago rehabbing.
After deducting all the construction and closing costs and then subtracting fixed costs such as liability and worker’s comp insurance, office space, attorney and accountant fees — not to mention your vehicle, gas and phone — an experienced contractor could expect to earn 10 to 12 percent of the purchase price as profit, Zolkowski says.
“Flipping” houses may look easy on TV, but the reality is a lot more complicated.
“I get it — it’s TV. It’s dramatic and it looks awesome,” Zolkowski says.
What’s more, if a house doesn’t sell quickly, the interest on the loans “just eats away your profit so there’s nothing left,” he says.
Some of the TV show’s houses haven’t sold, even months after they were originally listed.
In on-screen info graphics, the show claimed seven of the 11 properties did sell. However, state property transfer tax records and the Multiple Listing Service only confirm four of them have closed, although the recording of sales can be delayed. A spokeswoman for HGTV did not respond to questions about sales.
The show’s biggest claimed success came at a 130-year-old home in Lincoln Park at 2433 N. Janssen Ave. Among other flourishes, developers used reclaimed wood from a barn outside Chicago in some of the units.
After they rehabbed it and turned it into four apartments, they showed several potential renters praising the quality and value.
“Janssen was a huge success,” Victoria says on the show, which aired Jan. 8. “… We ended up closing at $2.2 million” — resulting in an “unreal” profit of $780,000.
She also boasted that the developers “ended up getting one-year signed leases on all four renters” — which made it attractive to buyers.
“I knocked it out of the park,” she said.
According to records on the Multiple Listing Service, three of four units sat unrented for more than four months. Rent has been dropped by hundreds of dollars since the units went on the market in the fall.
Neighbors haven’t seen anyone going in or coming out of the building, which includes some boarded-up windows, for weeks.
“They said they rented all four, which is laughable,” said neighbor Tim Johnson, who watches the show and praised how the building now looks.
Annie Schweitzer, a broker for the property, says they recently signed two more leases — including one this past week — but the renters haven’t moved in yet.
The building was sold but has yet to close, said Schweitzer, who declined to give more details.
Past owner praise changes
For all its critics, the show — which is airing reruns through April — has plenty of fans.
Charles Janda, the previous owner of the 1929 N. Leavitt St. home, said his house was “pretty dilapidated” and “ripe for tear-down” when the show bought it for rehab.
“I am thrilled they built a home that stayed true to the feel of the original house, on the exterior at least,” Janda says.
Janda says he enjoyed watching his old house star in the show.
“Alison Victoria kind of obsesses over my front door, she took it and turned it into something spectacular,” he says. “And she obsessed on this little light fixture that I probably would have thrown into the garbage in a heartbeat. It was interesting to see her focus on the details.”
And the show won some props from Mary Lu Seidel, director of community engagement for Preservation Chicago, who said what Victoria and Eckhardt are doing is better than the “terrible alternative” of tearing down the houses and replacing them with “McMansions.” She also appreciates how the show features local artifact and restoration businesses, including Urban Remains in West Town and Hammer Design on the Near West Side.
“We are always thrilled when someone is growing an audience of people who see the value of restoring older buildings instead of knocking them down, especially in this show’s market of more luxury homes,” she said.
But like some critics, Seidel wishes they didn’t supersize the homes or make changes like painting the brick exteriors — and tried harder to get along with the communities they target.
“We all know flippers are about turning a profit, but it would be great to see this show model a flipper who seems to have more respect for neighbors of the houses they flip,” she said.
Contributing: Nader Issa