As temperatures dipped to 20 below zero on the night of January 29, Martha Hardy and Nakia Young were horrified that the radiators in their South Shore apartments stood cold. The neighbors live in a 21-unit brick building on the southwest corner of 70th Street and Oglesby Avenue. To their surprise, when they contacted other residents, some said they had heat. It didn’t make sense. The whole building only had one source for heat, an enormous Kewanee boiler in the basement. Young, 39, was particularly worried as she bundled her two small children and plugged in space heaters; she, the kids, and her mom all slept in the same bed that night. Hardy, 65, fired up a portable heater and the stove with the door open to warm up, though that heat didn’t make it far through the length of the shotgun-style apartment.
Hardy tried reaching the building’s management company the next day, but when she didn’t hear back she decided to report the outage to the city. When a Department of Buildings inspector arrived at five that afternoon, he measured a temperature of 55 degrees in Young’s first-floor apartment, 60 degrees in Hardy’s second-floor apartment, and 54 degrees in another neighbor’s apartment. “All radiators cold to the touch, no heat provided,” the inspector noted in all caps in his report. “Entire building . . . without heat—Boiler system out of service at time of inspection.” McKey & Poague, the management company, did begin repairs, but not in time to prevent the pipes from freezing on the second night of the city’s historic polar vortex. When the boiler was finally back in order the radiators and plumbing began to leak.
“Water is coming from my radiators on my hardwood floors,” Hardy wrote in a text message on the morning of January 31 to one of the neighbors who had claimed she had heat. “There’s water in my living room ceiling from the up stairs radiators.” She said she’d be calling the city about it again. The neighbor responded three hours later: “FYI the city does not fix the problem they just come out and write tickets in which we all have to pay for including you!”
The heating outage and burst pipes were just the latest in a litany of problems plaguing the building, from a leaky roof to pest infestations to plumbing cloggages to hazardous porches. In the months that followed, Hardy, Young, and others in the building would continue to see water seep through ceilings and damage floors; sometimes they’d arrive home to bright orange utility shut-off notices taped to entrances. Then, men began showing up at their homes with ominous legal papers alleging debts owed to the building. But the magnitude of these problems paled in comparison to the rancor festering between neighbors. Meanwhile, the neighborhood outside has been grappling with the looming threat of gentrification. This building isn’t an income property run by an absentee landlord, or a stuffy condominium where all the owners go it alone. It’s a co-operative—one of only about 100 of its size left in Chicago—where deferred maintenance of relationships is proving far more pernicious than the property’s physical and financial troubles. And what happens there in the next few years will either bolster or chip away at South Shore’s legacy as the last lakefront neighborhood where middle class African Americans can afford to own their own home.
In his 2004 book Chicago Apartments historian Neil Harris writes that South Shore “fully blossomed in the 1920s, when real estate companies undertook the massive development of newly purchased land tracts.” Oglesby Manor, the four-story building where Young and Hardy reside, was erected in 1925. It was part of the tony South Shore Country Club district, north of the commercial thoroughfare on 71st Street. Ads for the building, which ran in the Tribune, included an image of the structure over the words “our sixth successful 100% co-operative apartment building.” The developers, brothers John and Richard Johnston, were among a wave of real estate men promoting co-operative apartments as the hot new form of property ownership.
Co-operatives (or co-ops) are apartment buildings or complexes that are owned by a corporation created for the sole purpose of maintaining the property. When people buy units, rather than buying a piece of the building, they buy shares in the corporation that owns the building. Owning shares in the corporation entitles them to a perpetual lease on a unit. Each co-op has governing documents called bylaws and a board of directors—who are usually unpaid—elected by its resident shareholders. The board manages the building’s finances and facilitates collective decision-making. Shareholders pay monthly assessments that are used for property taxes and utilities and to maintain common areas and building systems. When big, unusual work is required, the board calls meetings about these matters and conducts votes on “special assessments” to be collected from shareholders to pay for the project.
Oglesby Manor wasn’t at the highest end of co-ops in 1920s South Shore. It wasn’t designed by a famous architect like some of the nearby apartment palaces featuring underground garages, private gardens, Italianate loggia entrances, and rooftop recreation rooms. Whereas its largest apartments were priced at about $6,100 ($89,300 in today’s money), high-rise buildings a couple of blocks closer to the lake, for example at 6700 S. Crandon, offered similar size five- and six-room apartments that started at $6,000. Larger units went for $17,800. For context, the average home in America in 1925 cost $4,800.
Its modesty notwithstanding, Oglesby Manor was built with care: a state-of-the-art fire-tube boiler, generous bay windows, fireplaces, built-in shelving, door handles made of porcelain and glass. Though there were only eight garages, they were heated. The tiny black-and-white tile in the lobbies was arranged in attractive geometric patterns. There were no maids’ quarters or penthouses, but there was light and air in the spacious two- and three-bedroom apartments with sunrooms, multiple closets, and private back porches.
Developers strived to convince would-be buyers that co-ops offered the sweet spot between costly, hassle-riddled single-family homes and the drudgery of rental apartments. When co-ops were first developed in the late 19th century, apartment ownership, like most homeownership in America, was reserved mostly for people who had the means to buy property in cash or were seen as trustworthy borrowers by banks—in other words, wealthy white people. A booklet on co-operative apartments printed by the Chicago developer Albert W. Swayne around 1924 noted that at the beginning of that decade “as many as 73 percent of the families in congested cities like Chicago are living in rented homes.” The pamphlet argued that “tenant ownership and control” of apartment buildings would eliminate waste and bring down the cost of living. Oglesby Manor’s ads echoed this logic: “The expense of maintaining an apartment (taxes, janitor service, insurance, coal, repairs, etc.) is much less than its rental value or the expense of maintaining even the smallest individual home.”
By spring 1929, according to a survey conducted by the Chicago Real Estate Board, more than 20,000 Chicagoans lived in co-ops. The board even published the names of some of the most prominent co-op dwellers, ranging from noted capitalists to vaunted medical professionals to journalists, adding that it had “never heard” of a co-op defaulting on a loan. Later that year, however, after the stock market crash, many co-ops found themselves overleveraged and were converted to rental apartments. This was especially true of the more extravagant buildings. But the Oglesby Manor co-op was able to survive the Great Depression. In 1935 its articles of incorporation were amended to lower the price of stock in the building from $100 to $25 per share, presumably to adjust to the economic realities of the neighborhood. After WWII, as the federal government increasingly subsidized ownership of single-family homes, co-ops remained the province of the wealthy. Getting a mortgage for a co-op has always been tricky, as many banks are uncomfortable making loans secured by corporate shares rather than an actual piece of property. And so in most places outside New York City, which has long had robust financing options for co-ops, they persisted as a rather insular world, dependent on the ebb and flow of well-to-do residents. Rich people liked things that way, anyway. Because co-ops didn’t depend on federally insured mortgages, they were exempt from even the most basic fair housing regulations, allowing co-op boards to be as biased in their criteria for admitting new residents as they wanted.
The people who lived at Oglesby Manor after the war were mostly upper-middle-class white professionals. Not so wealthy as to be able to avoid work but prosperous enough to be featured in the Tribune‘s society pages. They went from Protestant to Irish Catholic to Jewish, reflecting the demographic shifts of South Shore. For decades the co-op board was presided over by men connected to the railroad business. Their wives frequently appeared in the newspapers for their volunteer work and civic engagement. Women didn’t begin to ascend to board leadership until the 1970s, which was also when African Americans were finally allowed to buy into the co-op.
Leroy Greathouse was one of the first Black shareholders at Oglesby Manor. He recalled that he heard about an available three-bedroom apartment in the building from a friend who was a janitor at the co-op board president’s workplace. In 1975, when he moved in with his wife, “it was only about four or five Blacks in the building,” and the neighbors “got along very well,” Greathouse said. Plus the building was still in good repair, even though his apartment needed a lot of work. He paid about $6,000 for the co-op shares, and the assessments were less than $100 per month—affordable on his salary as a CTA bus driver. “There were no problems, everything was fairly cheap then.”
Greathouse, a tall, energetic man in his late 70s who runs errands in a lumbering silver Buick and wears a seersucker suit to church on summer Sundays, fondly recalled South Shore in those years as a leafy, safe place to raise a family. Between 1960 and 1980, the neighborhood went from more than 90 percent white to more than 95 percent Black. In 1980, more than half of its residents were middle-class according to the census. This would change dramatically over the next three decades as the middle-class segment slipped to about a third of the population, eroded by the loss of jobs disproportionately held by African Americans. Another third of the neighborhood would wind up below the federal poverty level and remains there to this day. The neighborhood lost homeowners and gained renters. As these changes took place, affecting the city far beyond South Shore, the old Chicago co-ops became polarized on the race and class spectrum—mostly persisting as the homes of wealthy white people along the northern end of Lake Shore Drive and moderate-income Black people on its southern end.
In the 1980s, co-ops experienced a modest renaissance, promoted by community organizations and civic groups like the Metropolitan Housing & Planning Council, which published a booklet about how to start and finance them. They encouraged working-class renters to pool resources to buy and rehab a building as a “limited equity” co-op, in which share prices are capped to curb speculation and units can remain affordable for the long term. Rather than describing co-ops with the utopian hyperbole common to the promotional literature of the 1920s, the MPC booklet emphasized this communitarian way of living in cautionary terms: “Co-op ownership demands just what the name implies—mutual cooperation among all members to operate the housing they live in.” The “increased responsibilities” inherent in this endeavor were one of the items in a bullet-point list of “disadvantages of co-op ownership.” The booklet concluded that “a co-op requires cooperation, commitment, persistence and patience from all participants. It can be done successfully but it takes hard work . . . Good luck!”
Greathouse got involved with Oglesby Manor’s board in the 1990s. “Most of the whites were gone because some of them had died and some of them moved away,” he said. “[The building] was growing older and the upkeep wasn’t too good.” The remaining shareholders were aging and less able to pay for increasingly expensive maintenance. The co-op had entered dire straits. “As a matter of fact [we] had lost the building, someone bought the building for delinquent taxes,” Greathouse said. “I wanted to rectify that, I wanted to make sure that didn’t occur again and make sure the business was taken care of. We took it to court and we won and paid the taxes and got the building back.” Still, maintenance continued to grow more expensive, and “it’s not easy to take out a loan [for repairs] as a co-op.” In the absence of other financing options assessments had to be raised, but not all shareholders could keep up, which led to more deferred maintenance, which further magnified existing problems. All of this wore on people, exacerbating tensions between neighbors.
The early 2000s offered a reprieve. Property values were on the rise and younger, middle-class people were moving to South Shore. Hardy, a clerk with the county hospital system, bought her one-bedroom unit in 2001, after selling a house in South Chicago that was too big for her needs with her kids out on their own. Units at Oglesby Manor went for $40,000 to $50,000 in those prerecession years. And banks increasingly offered people mortgages for co-ops, too. Laura McGowan, who had grown up in South Shore and was a graduate student in her 20s when she bought into Oglesby Manor in 2003, said she had no problem getting a loan from Citibank to buy a two-bedroom. McGowan recalled “a lot of revitalization happening in the neighborhood. There was a bit of a boom because that was when the real estate bubble was beginning to form. It seemed like a really good time to buy.”
The following year, an Argentine couple, Jorge Niedas and Dinah D’Antoni, purchased a unit. They would become part of a wave of non-Black shareholders that entered into the co-op over the next decade. Niedas, a professional dancer, was teaching dance through a nonprofit at various south-side schools at the time and wanted to be closer to work. He liked the South Shore area, and his family had enough savings to buy a unit without a mortgage. “The building was very neglected, but we liked it, we see the potential,” Niedas explained over coffee at an Argentine cafe in Hyde Park. He speaks quietly and with a strong accent, often leaning into hand gestures and facial expressions to communicate his point. “The apartment wasn’t pretty but it was a good price.” He said the unit had nice light and old-fashioned decorative touches that he tried to save and restore as he began renovating his new home.
Hardy, McGowan, and Niedas all said there were more physical issues with the building than they expected when they bought in. Though Oglesby Manor looked tidy from the outside, its guts were beginning to rot. Needed repairs on the roof, windows, porches, and plumbing had been deferred because covering taxes and utilities was a more pressing concern. Besides, it was often difficult to reach consensus at board meetings and make major changes that could cut expenses or address deferred maintenance. For some people, however, it was important that everyone was grappling with collective problems in a collective way.
Hardy said she considered Greathouse, who served as the board president until 2005, to be good at that work. “He included everybody,” she said. “He would not make a decision without everybody being there.” She acknowledged that sometimes it was impossible to agree about what to do. But, she stressed, the important thing was that “every shareholder had to be on board” before big decisions were made. McGowan, who was on the board for a couple of years under Greathouse, thought this way of operating hurt the building more than it helped. “Very well-intentioned people don’t necessarily make the best business people or know how to make the best decision that would benefit the whole,” she said. “We would get hamstrung by all these different ideas and folks wanting to keep the peace and maintain their relationships at the expense of moving forward and doing the best for the building.” Niedas described board meetings less gently as “group therapy where everybody is talking about their frustrations, and fighting between them, and nothing is resolved.” He said at times they made him recall his grandfather’s saying that dictators can be good for people.
As the years went on, the problems in the building mushroomed and the co-op grew more fragile in body and spirit. The enclosed back porches turned rickety and unsafe, the garages behind the building slumped and the heating inside them stopped functioning, the basement ceiling collapsed, the windows and roof were no longer waterproof, and mortar crumbled from between the building’s aging Chicago bricks. Niedas patched the roof over his apartment and fixed portions of the dilapidated back porch at his own expense. Hardy kept repairing and painting her ceilings due to persistent leaks from the upstairs neighbors. One of the biggest problems was the aging boiler, which broke frequently and was the source of the building’s high gas bills. “All our money went to the heat and we have no money to fix other things,” Niedas said. (Indeed, according to documents obtained by the Reader, this has continued to be the case through the years. In the 2017-2018 fiscal year, for example, 27 percent of Oglesby Manor’s income was devoted to heat, more than any other single expense.) Several shareholders, including Hardy, McGowan, and Niedas, were also unhappy with the quality and cost of service from the building’s management company, McKey & Poague, which had been in business since the 1890s.
Carmen Prisco managed Oglesby Manor for more than a decade as an employee of McKey & Poague. He’s soft-spoken, thoughtful, and generally well-liked by the shareholders; even those who expressed seething hatred for his former employer (McKey & Poague was bought out by a larger real estate company last year and Prisco was ultimately let go) seemed to retain an affection for him as a person. Prisco acknowledged that the management company was old-fashioned—no credit card payments, communication only by phone—but said that what might have appeared like inefficiencies were sometimes necessary, especially for a cash-strapped client like Oglesby Manor. He said he worked with certain contractors on building repairs, for example, because they were willing to give him time to pay in installments when the co-op didn’t have enough money for a lump sum. Shareholders may not have always liked the quality of the work, but they couldn’t have afforded someone who did a better job, he explained. The building was always struggling with maintaining adequate account balances, Prisco added, because some people would fall behind on assessments. Besides that, when units are foreclosed or get tied up in other legal proceedings they can remain vacant for months, and that puts more pressure on the rest of the shareholders to cover the cost of lost assessments.
Prisco managed about 30 buildings, including co-ops, condos, and apartment buildings with renters throughout South Shore and Hyde Park. The interpersonal climate at Oglesby Manor “was probably a little worse than others,” he said diplomatically, and it was exacerbated by tight finances. “I don’t think it was a friendly environment.” Still, he said “there’s enough blame to go around,” because board members haven’t always been transparent with shareholders, and some shareholders have made unfair demands of the board and the management company. Prisco doesn’t believe that any shareholders have malicious intent, but said tensions and distrust in the building have gotten so bad that they’re unlikely to be eased without some sort of professionally led conflict mediation. “But it would probably cost too much money, and they don’t have the funds to spend on something like that.”
McGowan, who’s now a busy mom and educator in California, sold her unit in 2007 and was happy to put the co-op and its dramas, in which she would often “play the middle man,” behind her. But with the advent of the recession, other shareholders who may have wanted out were stuck, unable to sell their units without taking a loss. Money became tight for many in the building, though neighbors occasionally stepped up to help each other. Oglesby Manor had long had a history of one or another of the shareholders paying bills for the whole building and then being reimbursed through assessment credits. For many years it was a woman named Ernestine Royal who lived across the hall from Hardy and had the interior design of her apartment modeled on the Waldorf Astoria in New York. In more recent years, Niedas said he and his wife sometimes fronted money to pay for property taxes, repairs, and utilities. Their willingness to help wasn’t appreciated by all. “[Did we get] any ‘thank you?’ No. Zero.” Niedas said. “Not only no ‘thank you,’ somebody said, ‘Why did you pay that money? Now we owe you.’ We didn’t ask for interest, we just paid . . . and many times I would fix something and be accused of doing something wrong.”
It was with great hesitation that Niedas agreed to speak to the Reader about Oglesby Manor. Of the 17 current and former shareholders contacted for this story, just seven agreed to interviews. The others ignored multiple calls and e-mails; one pretended she was never a shareholder. Most of those who agreed to talk have specific grievances with the board and their neighbors and expressed hopes that speaking publicly about their issues could help attract outside help. It seems those who chose not to be interviewed are trying to stay above the fray, hesitant to air what they consider to be dirty laundry.
When visiting the co-op one doesn’t exactly run into friendly neighbors. The hallways are quiet and the back decks empty and deserted. The lawn is clean but there are no signs that anyone is putting in extra effort to beautify the building grounds. All current and former shareholders who did speak with the Reader agreed on one thing: there are cliques in the building. That’s hardly surprising, since a co-op is just another human social endeavor like high school and church, prisons and PTAs, sandboxes and C-suites. There are leaders and followers, well-liked but incompetent people, and those with valuable skills who never seem to make any friends. Throw in the fact that people’s homes and nest eggs are on the line and what begins as a disagreement can spiral into a lawsuit. Conflicts at Oglesby Manor are exacerbated by differences in age, race, culture, language, and communication styles, and divisions grow deeper as those who see eye to eye find reprieve from the tension in lengthy phone conversations and short whisper sessions as they pass each other outside. Shareholders disagree on how to make decisions and how to spend their money, what counts for rudeness and responsibility, but the divide that matters most for the beleaguered building’s fate as a co-op is that some use their unit as their primary home while for others an apartment at Oglesby Manor is a source of income.
McGowan recalled that shareholders who lived in the building and the absentee landlords often had clashing priorities. A faction of shareholders wanted to change the bylaws to put an end to renting, but “that’s when people would come out of the woodwork to cast their vote against that,” she said. At Oglesby Manor votes aren’t tallied on a one-shareholder-one-vote basis. The corporation has 1,077 shares distributed by apartment size; parking spaces constitute shares, too. The larger one’s holdings, the more of a say one has—sort of like the House of Representatives. And, as everywhere, democracy in the building tends to be partisan and tribal. The same year that Niedas and his wife bought a unit in the building, a man named Louis Ayala purchased two units to rent out. Over the next decade, Niedas and D’Antoni bought a second unit to rent out, and D’Antoni bought a third unit jointly with her brother (this was controversial because the unit hadn’t been advertised for sale to the whole building, as required by the bylaws; some shareholders considered this purchase a violation of the co-op’s rule that no one could own more than two units). Two of the couple’s friends, Monica Masana and Ignacio Seeber, also bought into the building and joined the board. A Texas real estate investor, Rob Schisler, added a unit in the co-op to a portfolio of income properties. Additionally, some older shareholders had two units, one to live in and the other to rent out. Others, like McGowan, became landlords after living in the building for a while and then moving out. Today, to the best knowledge of the resident shareholders, at most nine of the building’s 21 units are occupied by their fellow owners.
Hardy, who herself served on the board for five years between 2005 and 2014, believes that things began to go irrevocably downhill at Oglesby Manor after the majority of the units were no longer owner-occupied and “investors” came to predominate in the building. She said the culture of the board changed, and that she and a couple of other shareholders were shut out of the governing process. Niedas sees things completely differently: As his wife and friends became more involved with the board, more things got done. He said he came to see his neighbors in one of three categories: those who were “progressive,” those who didn’t obstruct progress, and those who were oppositional no matter what.
Hardy said no one could fairly accuse her of not being a quiet neighbor, but she’s not one to be shy about expressing her views—whether through displaying a racy pencil drawing of two lovers locked in a passionate embrace in her living room or raising her voice at a meeting. She knows she’s seen as one of the obstructionists, but she has no qualms about that. “I’m a type of person . . . I will make time for me.” She said she lets neighbors know when she disagrees with the board’s decisions, and that too many decisions have been made and special assessments levied without adequate communication to all shareholders. “I’m not signing or agreeing to anything I haven’t been a part of in a meeting, or several meetings,” she said. “They say I disrupt the meetings and stuff. I disrupt the meetings only because you have not considered or tried to consider any of the complaints that I have or the concerns that I have.” She’s not alone in her crusade to hold the board accountable.
Nakia Young bought into Oglesby Manor in February 2014. The previous fall a fire had destroyed the house where she lived with her mother, son, and daughter in Park Forest. The listing for her two-bedroom unit matched the amount of money she had to spend—$14,900. “I was buying because it was an emergency. [My kids and I] were sleeping on the floor. We were house to house with other people. I needed to have a stable place for [my kids] to be.”
She couldn’t move in right away, though, because the place needed work—the pipes running through the walls leaked and so did the radiators; there was mold in the apartment; the back door didn’t open. She’d also discovered asbestos above a collapsing ceiling in the basement, just below her floor, and wanted abatement to be completed before she brought her kids, now seven and six, into the building.
Young, who spends her days driving around the city in heavy coveralls to perform safety audits at construction sites, reported the asbestos to the co-op board but said they didn’t seem to take her concerns seriously. Hardy, who was on the board then, remembers receiving Young’s e-mails and sympathizing with the young mother’s concerns. “When she made the complaint to [the board], my advice was: ‘Please listen to her. Go downstairs, have somebody investigate, get it taken care of.’ They didn’t want to do it.”
In a 2014 e-mail to Young and the board, Prisco acknowledged the asbestos and proposed that the building’s handyman patch up the exposed area as a temporary solution. “Asbestos remediation should be done by a professional, however, at this time, considering the financial condition [of] the association, it would be better if asbestos remediation could be postponed, if possible,” he wrote. Young, however, didn’t think this was a safe fix and was growing impatient to move into a home she had been paying for for months but couldn’t occupy. Eventually she filed a complaint about the asbestos with the Department of Buildings, hoping that would force the board to address it. It did. Niedas was infuriated because, he said, the boiler also needed repairs. “Just when we needed money most to fix the building we had to stop everything and by mandatory [order] fix the asbestos. The cold is coming, winter is coming, and they’re still fixing the asbestos. Thank you very much. The asbestos was just there, it was there. If you don’t touch it or move it [it’s not a problem].”
Though Hardy was with Young on the asbestos, it seemed that more people were in Niedas’s camp. Young said that after her complaint to the city a notice went around the co-op from then-board president Mary Ann Braggs. “‘Nakia Young complained to the city about the asbestos and now we can’t get the boiler fixed and have to allocate money to fix the asbestos,'” it said, as Young recalled. She had a lawyer send a cease-and-desist letter to the board regarding the notice. “Since then I’ve become known as a problem owner.”
Notwithstanding this reputation in 2015, Young managed to win enough votes to get on the co-op’s board as treasurer. She gained access to the building’s financial documents and said she saw troubling things in the ledgers. Various shareholders were behind on assessments, but not everyone was getting sent to collections or threatened with eviction. “They pick and choose,” Young said about the board. “It’s like a popularity competition.” She was particularly disturbed to see absentee landlords among those whose delinquency was tolerated but said longtime shareholders chafed when she asked questions about finances. “They shut me completely out. . . . I was told that they didn’t want to give me the files because they weren’t sure what my true intentions were.”
When asked about her intentions, Young—who still hasn’t been able to fully settle into her leaky apartment and lives among stacks of renovation materials and large plastic tubs of belongings she’s afraid to subject to water damage—said they’re simple. “I want to live here with my two children. Comfortably. And not have to paint every year. And not have to redo my bathroom. Not have to freeze because the boiler is broken.” Over the years Young, like everyone else who spoke with the Reader, has spent thousands of her own money on repairs—money she believes she shouldn’t have to pay since the damage to her home is coming from neighbors or building systems that are supposed to be maintained collectively. The board has refused her reimbursement requests in the past because, they argue, she didn’t receive preapproval for the work she’s had done on her apartment. Young has continued paying her $517 in monthly assessments to the co-op, but has withheld payments on certain special assessments, like the charges to residents for the six-figure back porch renovation project and, more recently, roof renovations. She, Hardy, and others have withheld special assessment payments in protest over what they perceive as deviations in the decision-making procedures required by the co-op’s bylaws and over the shoddy work of hired contractors. (The board has tried to evict Hardy over unpaid special assessments in the past but she’s always fought back and all the cases have ultimately been dismissed.)
In March 2017, Young, Hardy, and another shareholder decided to strike back at what they saw as a hopelessly dysfunctional and unaccountable board: They filed a shareholder lawsuit against the co-op in the Circuit Court of Cook County. In the complaint, they claimed that the board had engaged in “reckless and egregious acts of breaches of fiduciary duty” through holding votes that violated the bylaws, sending people to collections without meeting about it first, withholding financial documents from shareholders, and improperly transferring stock in the co-op among certain shareholders and their friends and family. The complaint also alleged that the board was making decisions at secret meetings and was prejudiced in how it enforced bylaws so as to force certain people out of their homes. The plaintiffs claimed that as a result they were not able to use and enjoy their units, their corporate shares were devalued, and they were denied “business opportunities causing damage in excess of $100,000.”
The women said that the lawsuit was an attempt to force the board to become more transparent and abide by the bylaws. But that’s not how Niedas saw it. The board had to pay lawyers to defend themselves, which seemed like madness. “We had to spend everybody’s money for this in the moment when we need the money the most.” He was convinced that the plaintiffs were only interested in a payout at everyone else’s expense.
Brandon Fontenot Johnson, who represented the plaintiffs, said that there was “both a racial and generational component to the tensions in that building” when he took on the case. “It was horrible.” He sympathized with the shareholders, especially the older African Americans in the building who he felt “fell victim to a lot of long-term mismanagement.” Meanwhile, he observed, “the more well-resourced residents were living there on paper, not in reality.” The lawsuit didn’t get very far. A few months into the court proceedings and attempts at mediation (which his clients didn’t even want to do), Johnson had to leave for a new job in Alabama. The judge dismissed the case. Johnson said he couldn’t find another lawyer who was interested in taking over. “Other attorneys didn’t want to touch it,” he recalled, because this type of case requires legal maneuvering that doesn’t have much precedent in the local courts. There also isn’t much of a payout to expect in a battle where all sides are cash-strapped and, as Johnson put it, “you’re suing yourself.” Johnson’s clients felt betrayed when he left—they’d spent thousands of dollars on the case and ended up in the same place they’d started. Besides that, the relationships in the building really hit rock bottom.
Niedas and his wife finally moved away from Oglesby Manor to a two-flat farther south in South Shore two years ago. He said that after years of conflict with neighbors and thousands of dollars spent, it didn’t seem worth it to keep living at the co-op. “Getting out of that situation was a big relief,” he said, though he added that it was hard to leave knowing D’Antoni’s brother, as well as the couple’s friends Masana and Seeber (neither of whom agreed to be interviewed) are still tied up in the building. Masana is currently the secretary of the board. Seeber put his unit on the market earlier this year for $84,900, then dropped it down to $80,900, then took it off the market. Niedas and D’Antoni still own the unit above Hardy, which they rent out (and from which Hardy is still experiencing leaks). Nevertheless, from Niedas’s perspective, the building is improving and the worst of the physical problems have been addressed.
Though building buzzers malfunction, the lobbies are relatively clean and warmly lit by skylights over the staircases. In the back, new wooden porches and decks have been completed despite some shareholders’ complaints to the city about the safety and design of the construction. The roof still needs major repairs and the exterior walls need tuckpointing, but at least part of the basement has been cleared of asbestos. Most importantly for Niedas, enough shareholders are of a “progressive” mind-set about the future. “I believe with Myisha [Leonard as board president] the next step of progress can be done.” He hopes it will become much easier to sell their apartment once Oglesby Manor becomes a condominium.
In the 1960s, the advent of condominium laws presented a new avenue for apartment ownership, unhindered by the social and legal messiness of co-ops. In a condo, people own units the same way they might own a house. Monthly assessments are still collected, but only for maintenance of common areas. Each condo owner is otherwise financially independent, pays her own property taxes and utilities, has her own insurance, and can freely lease out her home for rental income. Traditional mortgages are readily available for condos, making buying and selling easier. “From a trickle in the mid-1960s the condominium enthusiasm grew to a flood in the following decades,” Harris writes in Chicago Apartments. “By 1980 Illinois ranked just behind Florida and California in condominium units. Rental buildings, large and small, were converted to condominium ownership as renters sought to profit from tax advantages and other benefits that had in the 1920s been the prerogative of cooperatives.”
The conversion of a co-op to a condo is possible, though it’s complicated and expensive. Attorney Michael Kim, who’s worked with co-ops converting to condos, explains that the process requires the agreement of shareholders to dissolve their co-operative corporation first, then lots of legal paperwork to create the condominium association, make titles for each individual unit, and survey the building and its various systems to prepare for sales. Given the climate at Oglesby Manor, the condo conversion process is unlikely to go smoothly.
Last May, the board held a vote on the conversion, and 77.3 percent of the shares voted in support. However, prior to the vote, shareholders representing a quarter of the shares e-mailed the board asking to hold a meeting to discuss the proposal and wait to vote until after this discussion. This meeting was never held, however, in apparent violation of the co-op’s bylaws. Asked why the meeting wasn’t held ahead of the conversion vote, Leonard responded over e-mail that “the special meeting to discuss the condo conversion details is still pending the surveyor and attorney schedule. Once a meeting day and time is confirmed all shareholders will be invited.” Aside from the procedural legitimacy of the conversion process, another obstacle could be the costs. According to an informational packet distributed to shareholders, the conversion would cost $17,450, but Kim and other attorneys familiar with these kinds of transactions say conversion costs can pile up beyond that, particularly if the building is in poor physical condition.
This is exactly what concerns Hardy. “If we all agree to a condo conversion with all the problems fixed, I wouldn’t have a problem with it,” she said. “But to do that knowing that we got major issues going on, serious problems with the heat, with the water, with leakage, with all that stuff, I think we should take care of that first.” Greathouse, who, with Hardy and Young, was among the shareholders who requested the special meeting to discuss the condo conversion before voting, is also apprehensive about this move. “I know it will cost us, especially in taxes [to go condo], and even if it should go condo any problems around the building, like the roof, you still have to pay for.” He admitted that he voted for the conversion despite these worries, though. The conversation about going condo had been going on for years, and most of his neighbors were in support of the idea. “It seems to me that it was a losing battle,” he said with a sigh. “So why fight it?”
Hardy, Young, and a few other shareholders haven’t given up the fight, though they worry that the board already has the money needed for conversion and that their concerns will be ignored. They said that because the board isn’t being transparent, it raises questions about how shareholders’ money is being managed. Unlike many other co-ops, Oglesby Manor doesn’t conduct regular audits. “We don’t know anything about the financials,” Young said. “We don’t know what’s going on until we get a disconnection notice.” Because the building has been getting shut-off warnings from utility companies lately, some suspect the board has been squirreling away assessments to pay for condo conversion costs rather than paying the bills—something both Prisco and Niedas vehemently denied. Walter Dale, the board’s attorney, wrote to the Reader that the shut-off notices “were due to the management company missing a payment and on another occasion an error by the gas company.” He added that “there is no story” actually worth writing about Oglesby Manor because, like in other co-ops and condos there are “a couple of tenants that complain about everything and make mountains out of molehills; people I call ‘CAVE People’ (Citizens Against Virtually Everything).”
Niedas said he believes most of the shareholders will be on board with paying for the condo conversion, knowing it will be financially beneficial for them in the long run. But not everyone may be able to afford it, given that some shareholders in the building have histories of delinquency even on regular assessment payments. If some shareholders feel that special assessments needed for the condo conversion are levied improperly or that they were misled about how much it will cost, again there could be cause for legal action, as has happened in another nearby co-op that went condo about ten years ago. And even before that, more pressing financial problems loom ahead for Oglesby Manor.
Last month the Cook County Assessor’s Office notified the co-op that it could owe nearly $50,000 in property taxes for several years of erroneously claimed homeowner’s exemptions. Oglesby Manor’s board now has to prove they weren’t claiming homeowner’s exemptions for units in which owners weren’t actually living. An additional hitch is that, according to state law, in a co-op each owner-occupant is supposed to be credited or reimbursed for the value of the property tax exemption they qualify for. Though Dale wrote that “proper accounting, allocation and crediting was done in a timely manner,” when it came to the co-op’s property tax payments, Young says she’s never received a credit for a homeowner’s exemption and she e-mailed Leonard asking about it in 2018. “The tax exemptions are applied on the building’s ledger and not each individual shareholder,” Leonard wrote back. “The reason being is because we are a cooperative.” Both Leonard and Dale wrote in e-mails to the Reader that they couldn’t discuss shareholders’ accounts and the co-op’s tax crediting practices with non-shareholders.
There’s little recourse for co-op shareholders who believe they’re witnessing wrongdoing by their boards, especially if they’re in the minority. Co-ops are bound by bylaws they create for themselves, but if those bylaws are violated it’s not as if there’s anyone to call to enforce the rules. Illinois’s business corporation act barely even acknowledges the existence of housing co-operatives. There are no regulatory agencies watching for co-ops run amuck. When the government does come in contact with co-ops, it’s usually bad news—the city shows up to write citations or take them to court over building code violations; the county can come to claim back taxes. The assessor’s office is currently working with Oglesby Manor’s board to investigate the potentially erroneous exemptions. If the co-op does indeed owe the money and isn’t able to pay it, a lien could be placed on the property, which could hinder not just the condo conversion but other financial transactions. There are, however, ways for the Oglesby Manor shareholders to revive their historic building both physically and financially and continue existing as a co-op, if they so choose. Though financing to develop and support co-ops is scarce in Chicago, some nongovernmental organizations are trying their best to provide resources.
One advantage that co-ops have over condos is that they have a much easier time securing loans for large repairs, according to Jack Crane, director of lending at the Community Investment Corporation, which specializes in financing rehab of multifamily buildings. Because a co-op association asking for a loan owns an entire building, “we can put a mortgage on a co-op as our collateral,” Crane explained. In a condo, on the other hand, “it’s tougher to lend money for major rehab” because the association doesn’t actually own the units; many disparate individuals do.
To borrow money for capital improvements like the kind needed at Oglesby Manor, co-ops have to have their finances and governing structure in order. Help is available to tackle that, too. The Chicago Community Loan Fund and Chicago Rehab Network are collaborating on the creation of a “Center for Shared Ownership,” which will help people organize new co-ops and help existing co-ops tackle internal challenges, such as how to mediate shareholder disputes, modernize bylaws, and operate transparently. Similar work is already done at the Housing Initiative Transactional Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School and the Community Enterprise & Solidarity Economy Clinic at the UIC John Marshall Law School.
For a co-op to function as intended, experts agree that most of the units must be owner occupied. If everyone has to literally live with the decisions they make together—who neighbors are, what sort of work is done in the building, how interpersonal conflicts are addressed—it is theoretically more likely that shareholders will find a way to cooperate. The people who experienced Oglesby Manor when it was mostly owner occupied agree, but now more shares are controlled by those who don’t live in the building or rely on it as a primary home than by those who do. And even if they could identify common concerns and decide on mutually beneficial solutions, healing broken relationships takes time.
Co-op advocate and consultant Linda Greene, who’s a shareholder in a South Shore co-op as well, says that in her building it took two years of patient interpersonal work to fix some deeply rooted governance problems. “It was consistent talking to people in a calm fashion, making them understand the danger in not [making the necessary changes],” Greene said—and her 60-unit co-op barely had any absentee landlords. Eventually Greene’s building started working with a lawyer “not to work against each other but with everybody to make the changes that were needed.” She said that lawsuits are never very effective in these scenarios. “The first recourse should really be organizing—it’s about organizing your neighbors.”
Despite the deep distrust and divergent interests of the shareholders at Oglesby Manor, all those who spoke with the Reader expressed a deep affection for the weathered brick building and spoke of its potential to be a great place to live for decades to come. The building’s continuation as a co-op would also have value for South Shore, which faces existential threats to its identity as a Black neighborhood offering affordable lakefront living. With the impending construction of the Obama Presidential Center, gentrification pressures have begun roiling the neighborhood. Investors are increasingly buying up apartment buildings, and rents have climbed, leading to the neighborhood having the highest eviction rate in the city. Several local co-ops have gone rental or condo since the recession. Condos can be more vulnerable to investor takeover, since owners don’t have a collective say about who gets to buy into the building. A recent change to city law made it so that 85 percent of owners in a condo building have to agree to a bulk sale for conversion to rentals, but the smaller the building the easier such takeovers tend to be. Co-ops, when run by shareholders united in their desire to keep living in their homes, can resist the riptide of supply and demand. But it can be tempting to take the money the market can offer for a lakefront apartment when living there has become intolerable.
“I tell homeowners you all need to hold on because if you allow those properties to become a rental situation it’s not sustainable,” said Greene. She’s skeptical that a condo market in a place like South Shore could survive a recession—after all, lots of condos failed the last time around, ten years ago. “[Investors] will take your property and convert it to rental. And they are not gonna pay you enough for it unless they pay you enough to take care of you for the rest of your life.”
Co-ops in Chicago are an endangered species. It’s difficult to find grants and loans to organize, buy into, and repair them, and it’s a challenge to accept the level of neighborly interdependence they require to operate smoothly. If the people living in a co-op are cash-strapped, so is the co-op. If neighbors aren’t able to work together for the common good, their building will bear the scars of their discord. The dynamics of living under one roof with people you barely know and may not like can be made ever more complicated by diversity in racial and cultural background, wealth, language, and age. Chicago isn’t a city with a good track record for integration of any kind, but it is a city of visionary organizing, and even co-ops as challenged as Oglesby Manor don’t have to go it alone. Help is available for those who want it. Receiving it starts with trust, which all too often is even harder to come by than money. v