Chicago woman sues former Avondale landlord after he allegedly fails to return security deposit

In a lawsuit in Cook County, Sandra Diaz alleges her landlord wrongfully pushed her out of her Avondale apartment during the coronavirus pandemic and refused to return her security deposit.

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Sandra Diaz has filed a lawsuit in Cook County against her former landlord after he allegedly failed to return her security deposit after she moved out of an Avondale apartment.

Sandra Diaz has filed a lawsuit in Cook County against her former landlord after he allegedly failed to return her security deposit after she moved out of an Avondale apartment.

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A Chicago woman who says she was wrongfully pushed out of her Avondale apartment has filed a lawsuit as she tries to recover her security deposit.

Sandra Diaz alleges that her former landlord withheld the $850 security deposit she paid when she moved into an apartment in a brick two-flat building in the 3100 block of North Elston Avenue, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in Cook County Circuit Court. She also alleges her landlord, Armando Garza, tried to wrongfully evict her from the apartment she had called home since May 2009.

Juan Garza, whose father owns the property and who is named in the lawsuit, said a breakdown in communication was why the deposit wasn’t returned. Garza said his former tenant didn’t tell them when she was moving out to do a final walk-through, and he later found damage stemming from the bathroom.

“I was trying to reach out to her to settle that,” Garza said by phone. “I had no problem giving her security deposit back. She never reached back to me. She never set up a location where we could meet. I just left it at that.”

In a letter dated March 8, 2020, Diaz was told she had until May 17, 2020, to move out because of renovations that would soon begin, according to the lawsuit. The next day, Gov. J.B. Pritzker declared counties across the state a disaster area as COVID-19 spread throughout Illinois, and he later issued a moratorium on evictions on March 21, 2020, according to the governor’s website.

Diaz alleges in the lawsuit that she did not receive the landlord’s letter until March 15, 2020, and that Juan Garza issued a five-day notice on March 28, 2020, in retaliation for Diaz seeking legal help.

Diaz moved out of the apartment in May 2020 because she felt harassed and didn’t feel safe in the building, according to the lawsuit. She didn’t receive her security deposit and she was never told why it was withheld, according to the lawsuit.

Garza said that no one harassed Diaz. He said the family asked their two tenants to leave to begin repairs before putting the building up for sale. Garza’s father is retired and lives on a fixed income, and the family wanted to sell the building because the maintenance was becoming too expensive, he said.

“We gave her 10 years of low rent,” Garza said about Diaz. “We asked her to leave and that was it. We are not vindictive people. We gave her an opportunity to stay in a good location, in a two-flat at low rent.”

During a news conference announcing the lawsuit, Diaz said she decided to move forward with legal action against her former landlord because she didn’t want to remain silent.

“I’m tired of waiting for them to do the right thing,” Diaz said Tuesday during a recording aired at the news conference. “It’s not OK for renters to be treated like this and for our basic rights to be taken away. I want justice.”

Diaz did not have a written lease, and she was paying $900 rent each month, according to the lawsuit.

The city’s protections around security deposits call for the funds to be returned even if there isn’t a written lease, said Rebecca Guterman, an attorney from Beyond Legal Aid who is representing Diaz. Guterman said landlords are required to provide a receipt for the security deposit along with bank information about where the funds will be kept.

Landlords are required to return the security deposit within 45 days of the renter moving out of the unit, though the landlord could reduce unpaid rent and expenses for damages itemized in a statement issued 30 days after the tenant moves out, according to the city’s Department of Housing website.

Guterman said Diaz speaking out and filing the lawsuit was important to make laws “more than just a piece of paper, makes them a tool to hold landlords accountable.”

Diaz is backed by the housing group Autonomous Tenants Union, who said they’ve heard from renters who have dealt with similar situations during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are standing with our community and with Sandra,” said Evelyn Vargas, an organizer with the Autonomous Tenants Union. “Pushing against these landlords who perpetrate housing instability. Today Sandra is taking her fight to court and sharing her story so we as renters can protect ourselves with a clear understanding of our rights.”

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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