By Frederick H. Lowe

Gordon Butcher remembers that six years ago the 1000 block of West Bryn Mawr was a dangerous place to walk. “People openly sold drugs on the street. I also had to break up a number of fights,” says Butcher, pastor of Edgewater Presbyterian Church, which is on the block. Even though Butcher wears a clerical collar, prostitutes solicited him for sex on three occasions. “It wasn’t safe to walk the streets,” he says.

Butcher blames much of the criminal activity on residents of the Belle Shore and the Bryn Mawr apartment buildings. They were frequently cited in housing court for code violations and raided by police looking for drugs and prostitution. Now, thanks in part to a controversial screening process, that’s all changed.

“We wanted a tough screening process for prospective tenants because the Belle Shore and Bryn Mawr were two problem buildings in the community,” says Sherri Kranz, the buildings’ director of leasing. Holsten Real Estate Development Corporation, which purchased both buildings in January 1997, cleared out the Belle Shore that June and spent a year rehabbing the 140-unit building. Last June Holsten finished rehabbing the 231-unit Bryn Mawr. When Holsten began accepting applications from prospective tenants, applicants were made to jump through not only the usual hoops–credit check, references, paycheck stubs–but also a new one approved after a series of meetings with the Bryn Mawr Task Force, Edgewater Community Council, Edgewater Presbyterian Church, and the Edgewater Beach Neighbors Association.

The management company now requires each applicant to pass a drug test.

“We began requiring applicants to take a drug test in April 1998,” says Kranz, a 21-year Edgewater resident. “The buildings have had a long history in the neighborhood as gathering spots for prostitution, drugs, and gangs. We feel by keeping out people who take drugs we can help improve the neighborhood. If a person fails the drug test, he won’t get an apartment in either building.”

A drug test also is required for lease renewal.

Swedish Covenant Hospital oversees the drug test, which screens for marijuana, cocaine, opiates, amphetamines, PCP, and THC. A resident of the Belle Shore who asked for anonymity recalls applying for an apartment in 1998. “I filled out an application and paid $35 to have Holsten check my credit,” he says. “I was then told I had to make another appointment to take a drug test. I found it unorthodox, intrusive, and off-putting, but I never questioned the policy. I wanted to live there so I went along with it, even though a friend advised me not to.”

The resident was required to urinate into a bottle in a rest room near the leasing office. An employee of Swedish Covenant’s department of corporate health services later picked up the urine sample and delivered it to one of two labs the hospital has contracts with. Results come back in 24 to 48 hours.

According to Kranz, the drug-test policy is spelled out in the same consent form that allows Holsten to conduct a credit check, and so far a couple of hundred applicants have been tested. “Once a person signs a consent form, Holsten Management can argue the applicant has waived his right to privacy,” says Richard McArdle, a labor lawyer with the Chicago law firm of D’Ancona & Pflaum.

It’s common for companies to require job applicants to take a drug test, but McArdle says this is the first time he’s heard of an apartment building’s management requiring one of prospective tenants. “There’s nothing in the law that prohibits a private owner from administering a drug test.”

Management could get into trouble if it singled out some groups for testing while exempting others, but according to Gerald Marcoccia, who’s president of the Edgewater Beach Neighbors Association and pushed for the drug tests, that’s not happening. “Everyone has to take the drug test. Prospective tenants are told that going in.”

Indeed, Holsten officials told an 81-year-old Bryn Mawr applicant that she would have to take the drug test. She later decided not to move into the building.

Few people have complained about having to submit to the drug test, but it’s clearly a touchy subject. Pastor Butcher of Edgewater Presbyterian asked several times if the Reader was gathering information to write an objective story or forming an opinion for an editorial. Barbara Stanley, president of the Edgewater Community Council, accused me of trying to put words in her mouth when I said Edgewater was a middle-class neighborhood. (Edgewater Glen and Lakewood Balmoral are two of the city’s most expensive neighborhoods.) “I won’t know how middleclass it is until the results from the next census come out,” Stanley said.

Swedish Covenant’s P.J. Finis, from corporate health services, is a lot more sanguine on the subject. “They’re being very proactive on this issue. It’s a good thing,” he says. “This isn’t about race. It’s about ridding our community of drugs. The street is much safer for immigrants and senior citizens than it was ten years ago. Edgewater is also one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Chicago.”

Holsten has received accolades for turning the two buildings around. The Chicago Association of Realtors gave its good-neighbor award to the Belle Shore in 1999 and to the Bryn Mawr earlier this year. And last October the National Trust for Historic Preservation gave Holsten a preservation award for its rehabilitation of the art deco Belle Shore. Both buildings are in the federally designated Bryn Mawr Historic District, and Holsten received money from the Chicago Department of Housing and the Illinois Housing Development Authority and federal tax credits to rehab them.

Gerald Marcoccia of Edgewater Beach Neighbors says he’s asked owners of other problem buildings in the neighborhood to talk to Kranz about the drug screening.

The anonymous Belle Shore tenant likes his building, but he doesn’t think testing has solved all the neighborhood’s problems. “I still see drugs sold openly on the street in broad daylight as police cars drive by.” And he has another concern. “I don’t think it’s particularly fair to say that a person who smokes marijuana will be a bad tenant.”

Marcoccia, who says he’s a former casual drug user, sees his point. But, he says, “Those are the rules and they can’t be applied arbitrarily. We can’t tell whether a person is a casual drug user or a drug dealer.”

Michael Pensack, executive director of the Illinois Tenants Union, says he’s only received one call about drug testing prospective tenants, and it didn’t involve either of the Holsten buildings. “It’s not prevalent,” he says, “but landlords can do whatever they want. They have a unilateral right to choose tenants, except in areas protected by statute–you can’t reject someone based on race, creed, handicap, or sexual orientation.”

Personally, Pensack doesn’t like the idea. “It’s sort of like being guilty until you’re proven innocent.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.