By Ted Kleine

My old neighbor, James Weinmann, is not a man who likes to move around. Until last autumn, the retired elevator repairman had lived for 34 years in a small one-bedroom apartment in Uptown. But last September Weinmann and his wife, Ruthie, received a letter from their new landlord. Their building was about to be gutted and rehabbed, and all the tenants had exactly one month to move out.

It was a deadline the Weinmanns couldn’t meet. James, 68, is a diabetic; he spent a week in the hospital in early October, making it impossible for him to look for a new place to live. Even when he was able to search, it was hard to find anything suitable. The couple could afford no more than $500 a month in rent, and they wanted to live in Uptown or Edgewater, close to Ruthie’s job in a Broadway laundromat.

By the middle of October, the Weinmanns had another incentive to find a new home quickly–the building’s boiler was shut down. For the next few weeks, the elderly pair, who were also housing two grandchildren and a former daughter-in-law, heated their apartment by opening the oven door and turning on the gas.

In November the Weinmanns moved into a smaller one-bedroom apartment in Edgewater, east of Broadway, but both still felt they were given the bum’s rush from the place where they’d spent half their lives. “They should have had some consideration for the senior citizens, given them a little more time to move,” James says. “It would have been better if they’d waited until May, when it was warm out. It’s not right to come down so hard on people like that.”

“They should give people at least two months,” Ruthie says.

Chroek Tao would agree. Tao, a 65-year-old Cambodian immigrant, was evicted from an Andersonville apartment last summer because his new landlord wanted to rehab the building. After his one-month deadline had expired, he says, someone nailed boards across the front entryway, and Tao and his three children used the back stairwell to get in and out of their apartment.

“I could not find a place to live in one month,” says Tao, who receives $494 a month in Supplemental Security Income benefits and has a son earning $10 an hour in a glass factory. “It took one and a half months to find a new home. For three weeks we used the door that led into the alley.”

Tao told his story at the annual convention of the Organization of the North East, an association of social service agencies in Uptown and Edgewater, held earlier this month in the Truman College cafeteria. While he spoke, a woman held up an enlarged copy of the ad for his rehabbed apartment, showing it was now renting for $775 a month (Tao had paid $400).

After Tao finished his tale, Mimi Harris, the housing services coordinator for Ezra Multi-Service Center, took the microphone. Turning to 46th Ward alderman Helen Shiller, she asked, “Helen, will you commit to change the city code to require a four-month notification for tenants who have to move due to rehab?”

“Absolutely,” Shiller responded.

The city gives tenants 120 days to leave apartment buildings that are being converted into condominiums; the elderly and handicapped get 180 days. But renters caught up in a rehab have no more rights than anyone else on a month-to-month lease. With the Chicago real estate market on fire, rehabbers are evicting more people with only 30 days’ notice. Often these tenants are old people or immigrants who can no longer afford to stay in their neighborhoods. Harris is just one of many tenants’ rights advocates who think it’s time for the city to step in to provide more time for renters to move.

“There’s such a leap in rehab,” Harris says. “People don’t have any time to figure out there’s no place in their neighborhood, and then to figure out which neighborhood they’re going to move to.”

It’s a game of musical apartments. Low-income renters have to find a new home because their buildings are being rehabbed, but because so many other buildings are going through the same conversions, there’s less housing in their price range. A month simply isn’t long enough for a poor family to scrape together the first and last months’ rent and the security deposit they need to move into a new place. “It’s hard to find apartments within 30 days,” says Saroeun Soeun of the Cambodian Association of Illinois. “Most people are on public aid. They can’t afford more than $500.”

While Shiller favors giving renters more breathing room, she thinks changing the law will be very difficult. “There’s a very strong real estate lobby in this city,” she says. Ironically, Shiller’s ward office is about to move from its Montrose Avenue location so her landlord can tear down the building to make way for an eight-story high-rise.

Chicago housing commissioner Julia Stasch, who also attended the Organization of the North East’s convention, agrees that “30 days is very tight,” but she’s not ready to promote a change in the law. The city’s five-year housing plan, which was released on June 9, calls for a program to educate tenants about their rights. In some cases, Stasch says, tenants can use the law to extend their time to move out. “Sometimes people may not have to move in 30 days, or their landlord may be misleading them.”

The law states that a landlord must give a 30-day notice, in writing, and that the notice must expire “at the end of a normal rent period.” In a rehab situation, no one can be asked to leave before a lease expires. Many landlords wait until all the building’s leases run out, refuse to issue new leases, then hit tenants with the 30-day notice. Even then, a landlord can’t evict a tenant without a signed order from a judge and a crew from the Cook County Sheriff’s Police to help throw the furniture out.

Predictably, some landlords say extending the tenants’ time to move would be unfair. As a building emptied out, the owner would lose rent on the vacant units. Someone building a condo could recoup the lost money by jacking up his sale price. An apartment owner can’t do the same.

“If I miss a month’s rent, how do I get that back?” asks Hugh Hodur of Hodie Building Management, the company rehabbing the Weinmanns’ old building. “Do I take that month’s rent and add it to the 12 months? The market won’t bear that. To say that somebody should get more notice: Who pays for it? At what cost? Is the city going to pay for it?”

Hodur says the Weinmanns’ building was so dilapidated that it was wrong to allow people to continue living there. After buying the building last summer, he discovered that the boiler was on its last legs, unlikely to last another winter. Hodur says he shut it down before all the tenants had moved out because he was afraid it would explode. Plus, he claims, the building was infested with gangs. “The second we realized the life safety issues, we decided to clear the building out,” he says. “I have a hard time sleeping at night knowing people are living in total squalor.”

I lived in the Weinmanns’ building during the last year of its former life, and squalor was a fair description. I was lucky enough to get out before the heat was cut off, but I came back to visit the Weinmanns one day around Halloween. Their apartment was frigid and drafty, and several loaves of bread hung from an archway to keep the rats from eating them, they said. That apartment, once a gloomy den piled high with paper boxes and plastic sacks, now has blond wood floors, exposed brick walls, and a gleaming new stove, sink, tub, and toilet. Nine months ago it rented for $440 a month. The current price is $925. “We’re having no problem renting these units, because there’s nothing else out there,” Hodur says.

That’s because rehabs and condo conversions in other neighborhoods, especially Lincoln Park, Lakeview, and the downtown area, are causing a “ripple effect” that’s driving up rents in every direction, says Douglas Pensack, associate director of the Illinois Tenants Union. “There’s no question that there’s an incredible amount of rehab,” he says. “All you’ve got to do is look at the construction permits the last three years. Rents are going up two or three times as fast as last year. In more desirable neighborhoods, the rate has increased even higher than that.”

In their hurry to cash in, landlords don’t always obey the letter, much less the spirit, of the city’s Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance. And people who’ve just arrived from Cambodia or Vietnam haven’t boned up on the housing code, don’t speak English, and may be too afraid to complain. Some of the more determined landlords will cut off the heat, board up doors, and change the locks. All of this is illegal, but most tenants figure it’s easier to move than to fight, because they’re going to have to leave eventually.

According to Pensack, though, tenants who really need more than 30 days can usually get it just by forcing their landlords to take them to court. The Illinois Tenants Union is glad to help, he says. “In an eviction, we can always buy someone two or three months. We can jerk the landlord around.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Choek Tao, Saroeun Soeun photo by Nathan Mandell.