A Cook County sheriff's deputy strolls outside a south-side building with a battering ram, which deputies use to enter units if tenants being evicted aren't home and the landlord doesn't have a key. Credit: Maya Dukmasova

Of the dozen evictions one four-deputy squad from the Cook County sheriff’s office set out to enforce on the south side last Friday, none ended in a screaming match, armed showdown, or hail of cockroaches from a broken-down doorjamb. No disgruntled tenant tried to punch a landlord, no dead bodies were found, nor any bathtubs full of weed—all things they say they’ve seen in the past. None of the deputies had to get deloused or throw out clothes contaminated with bedbugs; they didn’t even need to rub Vicks under their noses before entering any of the units. It was a calm day by the deputies’ standards—just a handful of muted tragedies.

Tenants who were home were escorted out in quiet resignation. At a Chicago Housing Authority building, a teenage girl and boy home alone were taken to a sergeant’s car to wait for their mom while the maintenance man changed the lock behind them. At the team’s last stop, deputy Christopher Kolosa stared down at a disco ball on the floor of a child’s bedroom. “It’s an eviction,” he said. “It’s an eviction,” echoed deputy Marvin Marin with a shrug. They stuck a large neon-green “No Trespassing” sign on the front door, and marked the job as complete.

Some 30 members of the sheriff’s eviction team fan out across Cook County every day to enforce anywhere from 40 to 80 eviction orders. The deputies’ busiest and most unpredictable days take place in an area of the south side that includes South Shore—Cook County’s eviction capital.

According to data obtained from the sheriff’s office, no Cook County zip code has seen more evictions than South Shore, 60649, since the office began tracking these numbers in 2011. Last year the sheriff’s office conducted 382 evictions in the area bounded by Stony Island Avenue, the lakefront, Jackson Park, and 79th Street—eight times more than the average. Between 2014 and 2016 the neighborhood saw about 20 percent more evictions than the second-busiest zip code, 60619, which includes parts of Chatham, Avalon Park, and Greater Grand Crossing.

Credit: Paul John Higgins

This data only presents a partial picture of the the magnitude of the eviction problem, however, since it doesn’t account for what researchers call “forced moves”—those spurred by sudden spikes in rent prices and chronic maintenance problems—or for people who leave on their own after losing eviction cases in court.

South Shore’s high concentration of sprawling, multiunit apartment buildings owned by large property companies and its high poverty rates appear to explain the neighborhood’s dubious distinction. The area’s housing stock consists mostly of multifamily apartment buildings, and nearly 80 percent of the occupied housing units are rentals—20 percent more than the proportion of renter-occupied housing units in the city as a whole. And according to the 2014 American Community Survey, half of South Shore households live on less than $25,000 per year.

Development booms at the end of the 19th century and in the 1920s combined with early 20th century white flight to shape South Shore’s built environment. As more African-Americans settled in other parts of the south side, middle-class whites flocked to the lakefront. This led to the construction of stately apartment buildings in the neighborhood, especially on South Shore Drive, which runs along the water, and in Jackson Park Highlands, the area between the southern edge of Jackson Park and 71st Street.

Until the 1960s, South Shore was a middle-class neighborhood and more than 90 percent white, but by the 1980s the racial balance had completely reversed: South Shore became 96 percent black, though it remained middle-class. In recent years, however, the median family income in the neighborhood has steadily declined.

These economic realities have presented challenges for South Shore residents as rent prices in the area have climbed. According to a recent report by the DePaul Institute for Housing Studies, South Shore has one of the largest gaps between the supply and demand of affordable housing in the city. And, according to data analyzed by Chicago magazine, though the median rent price in the neighborhood is below $1,250 per month, some 64 percent of South Shore’s 22,700 households are rent burdened, or paying more than 30 percent of their monthly income for rent. Even though more than 5,000 South Shore households have Section 8 vouchers, which provide a federally funded housing subsidy, the need for rental assistance doesn’t come close to being met.

“The issue is unemployment, and lack of investment by the city and by companies,” says alderman Leslie Hairston, whose Fifth Ward includes parts of northern South Shore. Though she says she doesn’t hear much about evictions from her constituents, she wasn’t surprised to learn about the higher-than-average eviction rate in South Shore. “You look at the number of people working two, three jobs just to try to make ends meet—it’s challenging,” she says.

But John Bartlett, executive director of Metropolitan Tenants Organization, says he hears plenty about evictions in the neighborhood. His group runs a hotline for tenants needing help with evictions, and gets more calls from South Shore than from almost anywhere else in the city. The highest volume of eviction-related calls comes from Hairston’s ward. “There definitely appears to be a crisis happening there,” Bartlett says.

Research by Harvard sociologist (and recent Pulitzer Prize winner) Matthew Desmond has shown that evictions aren’t just a symptom of poverty, but a cause. Among other things, evictions lead to job loss, greater difficulty finding a new home, declining mental health, particularly for mothers, and school performance problems for kids. 

South Shore’s sometimes half-block long multistory courtyard apartment buildings are typically owned by large companies—for-profit entities pulling in as much as tens of millions of dollars in annual revenues—who deal with thousands of tenants across the city. These companies have dedicated crews to handle property maintenance, online rent payment systems, and attorneys on retainer or on staff to efficiently navigate eviction court. And if South Shore is Chicago’s eviction capital, Pangea Properties is its undisputed mayor.

Pangea owns and manages some 8,000 rental units in Chicago and the suburbs, making it one of the largest landlords in the region. The company has regularly appeared on Crain’s annual list of Chicago’s 50 fastest-growing companies, and has grown by more than 1,000 percent in the last five years. Pangea is also the Chicago Housing Authority’s largest contractor housing families with Section 8 vouchers, collecting more than $1 million per month in rent from those tenants alone, a Sun-Times investigation found last year.

Last year, Pangea filed more than 1,000 eviction cases, usually also seeking back rent, and won about 60 percent of them, according to the data we obtained from the clerk of the circuit court. Other cases were either dismissed or are still pending. Pangea’s eviction case-filing rate—one for every eight units the company owns—appears to be high even when measured against those of other large real estate companies. By comparison, Kass Management Services, a property-management company with 5,000 units and South Shore’s second-largest evictor, filed one eviction last year for every 25 units in its portfolio.

Pangea owns about 1,500 units in South Shore—more than it owns in any other neighborhood. In 2016, 27 of the 382 evictions performed by the sheriff’s office in South Shore, or 7 percent, were at Pangea properties. In comparison, properties managed by Kass saw 16 evictions, or 4 percent.

It’s not clear why Pangea evicts so many more people than its competitors. The Reader repeatedly contacted Pangea and the company’s primary eviction-court attorney, Jennifer Dean, but they didn’t respond to multiple attempts to reach them via phone, e-mail, and in writing.

But some sources believe that the company’s high eviction rate stems from its overall growth and acquisition habits—buying up distressed and foreclosed buildings, clearing them of existing tenants, then renovating them and re-leasing to low-income households who fit their screening criteria.

In an interview with the Sun-Times last year, Pangea’s CEO Steve Joung explained that the company likes to buy up distressed buildings by the block, saying the company’s mission is “to provide investment in underserved neighborhoods.” The company has won several “Good Neighbor” awards from the Chicago Association of Realtors for its rehab and redevelopment of large apartment buildings, and several sources say that the company seems to be focused on rehabbing troubled buildings and renting units at somewhat affordable prices—the company’s current listings in South Shore offer two-bedroom apartments for between $775 and $1,025 per month.

But the company’s high rate of acquisitions troubles some observers.

“If you want to know Pangea’s ambitions, they named themselves after the ancient supercontinent,” says Mark Swartz, director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing. “They are buying up the south side.”

Swartz’s group, which provides free legal aid to about 1 percent of tenants going through eviction court, has represented a handful of Pangea’s residents. Swartz says he’s observed that “Pangea clears out a lot of buildings to do work on them, or if the current tenants don’t meet Pangea’s standards.”

Willie “J.R.” Fleming, director of the South Shore-based Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, has noticed a similar trend. He thinks Pangea, whose investors, according to the Sun-Times investigation, include Illinois governor Bruce Rauner, is buying buildings in South Shore in anticipation of property values getting a boost from glitzy new projects like the Tiger Woods golf course planned for Jackson Park.

“Pangea definitely has their eye on South Shore,” Fleming says.

It’s hard to say what the long-term consequences of Pangea’s property acquisitions—and subsequent evictions—will be for South Shore. But Desmond’s research suggests that evictions provoke not only long-term instability for individual tenants and families, but for entire neighborhoods. A constant turnover of residents may exacerbate crime—something South Shore, with its rising violent crime rate, can scarcely afford. But long-term tenants have a stabilizing effect on a community, even if they’re struggling to pay rent.

“I would hope that investors that take over buildings try to be sensitive to the fact that residents may have been living in them for a long time,” says Swartz. “Many of these buildings are communities. People have to live somewhere.”