Two years ago, the gas company dispatched an inspector to examine the pipes in a bungalow on the northwest side. The company realized something was fishy when the owner wouldn’t let the inspector in. So it got a court order, forcing the owner to open his house. What they discovered in the basement was a surprise: eight cubicles, each with a cot. The inspector had uncovered what amounted to an illegal flophouse. “The inspector said the cubicles were like horse stalls,” says Nick Slusher, a member of the Belmont-Irving Organization, a local community group. “There was no room for privacy, and, of course, it was a health hazard–a death trap, if there’s a fire. They were squeezing people together.”

That landlord is now in court, facing an order to dismantle the cubicles and evict his tenants. But the problem of illegal home conversions is not limited to one house, particularly on the northwest side. According to the city’s zoning department, there are 430 illegally converted single-family homes in the area roughly bounded by Irving Park on the north, Diversey on the south, Narragansett on the west, and Cicero on the east.

Some of the conversions are hidden, others are crudely attached additions to the side or rear. In a few cases, garages have been subdivided. Neighborhood lore has it that one house has as many as 50 occupants (sleeping in shifts). “When they squeeze too many people into a house you are creating problems of excess garbage and rats,” says Slusher. “You have to worry about too many cars parked on a street. It’s very disrupting to a community.”

The conversions have become a central matter of concern in this middle-class, bungalow-belt community. At a meeting with residents earlier this winter the city agreed to crack down on the violators. “You cannot go onto any block around here without finding at least one illegal conversion,” says Rick Young, an organizer for Belmont-Austin Concerned Neighbors and the Belmont-Irving group. “There are even a few cases where the number of homes with illegal conversions outnumber the other homes on a block.”

The northwest side attracts these conversions for several reasons. The area is home to many senior citizens, so there is a steady turnover in real estate. The soft housing market is ripe for investors looking to make money off rentals. Newspaper ads are not often subtle in their appeal to such investors. One recent ad in the Tribune, for example, boasted of a four-bedroom house in Jefferson Park with “four finished rooms in the basement with a kitchen.”

“You’ll also see ads that say, ‘Room in the basement will pay your monthly,'” says Madaleine Kempinski, a member of the Belmont-Austin group. “There’s a financial incentive to conversions.”

Many tenants in the illegal homes are newly arrived immigrants from Central America and Eastern European countries like Romania and Poland. They speak little English and are easily intimidated. It is estimated that some pay up to $300 or even $400 a month to share a subdivided basement or attic. “You can go to many other areas in the city and find better housing for less money, that’s true, but a lot of these people don’t know that,” says Claudette Mickina, another member of the Belmont-Austin group. “You have to look at things from the perspective of someone who is alienated in a strange country. Maybe it’s attractive because you don’t have to worry about references or first- and last-month security deposits.”

Some of the tenants are less than desirable neighbors. “I know of a man who was using the inside of his garage for body work,” says Slusher. “I couldn’t go out without smelling primer. The fumes were horrendous. Another guy was running a rabbit slaughterhouse in his basement.”

The conversions are potential bonanzas for landlords. “Sometimes the landlords live in the building and sometimes they don’t,” says Mickina. “We figure there are some guys who are making $5,000 [a month] under the table.”

The residents began concentrating on the issue after it was repeatedly raised at a community forum last fall. The 120 or so people who attended quickly discovered that it was not always easy to determine what is and isn’t illegal.

“I feel for the residents because I know these units can be disruptive to a community, but this is not a simple matter,” says Graham Grady, the city’s zoning administrator. “For instance, you have to ask yourself what constitutes an illegal dwelling? It’s a kitchen that was not in the original plans. Then you have to say, well, what constitutes a kitchen?” According to city zoning code a kitchen is created by the presence of a working stove. “What about a hot plate?” says Grady. “I’m sure there are a lot of people who have hot plates in rooms that they don’t consider to be kitchens. How about a hot plate, a small refrigerator, and a table–is that a kitchen? These are the kind of judgments we have to make.”

Some landlords contend that they are merely converting space for their relatives. It’s an explanation that Grady says the city must take seriously because there is no limit to the number of family members who can live in the same house. “I don’t want to sound like an idiot, because I know that there’s a lot of abuse, but it’s not often easy to determine whether people are related,” he says. “We have worked with the Immigration and Naturalization Service on this and I can tell you that while the typical home does not include an extended family, that’s not the tradition for people who have recently arrived from other parts of the world.”

Some residents, however, feel city inspectors have been bamboozled by landlords. “We have one guy [on the block] who must have more descendants than Abraham,” says Kempinski. “The fellow living upstairs was supposedly his son. Come on, the guy looks older than my neighbor.”

In an attempt to find out how widespread the problem was, Young went door-to-door covering about 300 blocks throughout the northwest side. “It’s a sensitive issue because we don’t want to split the community,” says Kempinski. “There are some legitimately converted houses where they added a room upstairs for a grandmother or an aunt. We had to make it clear we weren’t going after these people. The way we do it is that we will have a meeting, inviting everyone on the block. And then there is a vote to determine whether to file a complaint against this or that house with the city.”

Residents also say that in the past city inspectors have been negligent in their inspections. Such was the case with the inspector who examined a problem house on North Menard, according to Mickina. “On January 20 my doorbell rang and it was an inspector who said, ‘I was at that house you were complaining about and there are no violations,'” says Mickina. “I was surprised; I didn’t know why he was announcing this to me. But I started asking him questions. I asked, ‘Are there still cubicles in the basement?’ He said, ‘Yes, but they’re all family members who live there.’ I asked, ‘Do they have two meters in the back?’ He said, ‘Yes, but that’s legal.’ I said, ‘Are they still running the body shop in the garage?’ He said he didn’t know. By then he was clearly uncomfortable; he gave me his card and left. I still don’t know why he stopped at my house. Maybe he wanted to get me and the neighbors to stop pressing our case.”

Grady asks that residents be patient with his staff. “We only have five inspectors, and we have cases all over the city,” he says. “If we could wave a magic wand and make these things go away, believe me we would do it.”

Over the last several months residents have met with Grady and Marilyn Johnson, a lawyer for the city, to map out a strategy for taking violators to court. “We are trying to get a lot of these cases consolidated on the same day with the same city lawyer so that residents don’t have to go back and forth to court so much,” says Grady. “We encouraged citizens to go to court.”

Johnson and Grady have also agreed to attend regular meetings with the residents, so they can track the cases. The city is also dispatching inspectors to buildings that the Belmont-Austin and Belmont-Irving groups bring to their attention. In some cases, landlords have already been visited by inspectors. “One of our neighbors who has had people living in his basement since 1988 came up to my husband and said, ‘I don’t know why the city is sending these inspectors over,'” says Kempinski. “He told my husband that he wasn’t doing anything illegal, that all the people in his basement are his relatives. If that’s the case, let him tell it to the judge. I’m just happy that something is finally getting done.”

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