Michael Pensack is sitting in the kitchen, planning his strategy. To hear him tell it, we are at war, the haves and the have-nots. The haves are the land barons, the have-nots their tenants.
“Landlord-tenant relations are . . . in the worst area of consumer relations,” says Pensack, who ought to know. Former director of the Tenants Organization of Evanston (TOE), he’s operated the Tenants Organization of Illinois (TOI) for the past four years. “I was on the board of directors for a couple of years for the Consumer Services Organization–that was a legal assistance program–and they had a hot line for their members. And 50 percent of all their complaints were landlord-tenant issues. The second largest category was car repairs, and that was just a fraction compared to the landlord-tenant calls.”
Pensack is one of a handful of community organizers nationwide who make their livings (such as they are) running membership-supported tenant organizations. He’s currently soliciting members for the new Chicago metropolitan tenants’ group that’s grown out of TOI, which he plans to call the “Illinois Tenants Union.”
From his looks, it’s hard to figure out into which camp Pensack falls. He doesn’t really look or sound like a have-not. He’s tall, almost imposing, with dark hair and dark eyes, and he carries more than a few extra pounds, which he picked up when he quit smoking. Pensack doesn’t modulate his voice, it just booms. And one doesn’t really talk with Pensack; one listens.
Dinner with Pensack is unlike any other dining experience you’re likely to have. There’s no talk about movies; he rarely gets out to movies. He also doesn’t read newspapers, so he’s not up on anything in “Sneed” or “Inc.” Instead he reads a lot of books, and he can tap into his encyclopedic mind on virtually any subject. He once told a friend that as a hobby he memorized the People’s Almanac.
Lately he’s been reading mostly court documents. Because he was hired by Mount Prospect as a mediator on tenants’ rights, he’s now embroiled in a lawsuit instituted by G. Grant Dixon & Sons, a major Mount Prospect landlord, against the village of Mount Prospect, Pensack, and the Tenants Organization of Illinois. The issue is a rent strike instituted under the auspices of the Mount Prospect tenants’ ordinance. The official charges against Pensack include tortious interference with contract (for advocating the rent strike in the first place), violation of procedural due process (for depriving Dixon of property–that is, rent), and unauthorized practice of law (for advising tenants of their rights).
Pensack is being represented by the Chicago law firm of Jenner & Block, which has taken the case on a pro bono basis. Asked why Pensack’s case is being handled for free by one of the largest, most prestigious law firms in the city, lawyer Mark Tone responds, “Tenants’ rights, in general, are an important aspect of community life. Our firm has a long tradition of representing people and causes that we feel are socially important.”
Dixon is being represented by Burke, Bosselman & Weaver, the same Chicago law firm that challenged Chicago’s landlord-tenant ordinance (which became law in November 1986). “Michael Pensack was hired by Mount Prospect as a mediator for its tenants’ ordinance,” says Mark Stang, Dixon’s lawyer. “He wasn’t hired as a firebrand.”
To complicate matters, Pensack has also been warring with his former employers, who fired him as director of the Tenants Organization of Evanston. And his former board of directors at TOE recently made a bizarre move by incorporating their tenants’ rights group as the Tenants Organization of Illinois–the very name Pensack had been using for his group for the past four years.
Because they filed first, Pensack lost the name he’d been using for his group. So he’s starting anew. But these are mere annoyances to him, matters that just have to be resolved before he can concentrate on organizing Chicago-area tenants and starting his own version of rent control.
“One of the things I’m personally convinced of is that you can’t have a successful tenants’ union unless it’s membership supported, like a trade union,” Pensack says. “Sweden has one of the largest, most successful membership-supported tenants’ unions in the world.”
The population of Sweden–roughly eight million–is about the same as that of the Chicago metropolitan area, if you include Gary and Hammond. Of that eight million, Sweden has 405,000 dues-paying members in its tenants’ organization. Average dues are $60 per year (in U.S. dollars). That makes for a pretty hefty yearly budget, somewhere around $24 million.
Pensack ultimately would like to duplicate Sweden’s success here in the Chicago area, where there are roughly two million tenants. “There is no citywide tenants’ organization,” he says. “But I think it’s completely possible to have the kind of membership here in Chicago that you see in Sweden. Imagine it,” he says, laughing. “Just imagine 400,000 tenants together in a single organization. It would be a tremendous political power.”
When Pensack talks about Sweden, the intensity of his voice says that he wishes he could live where tenants’ rights are taken seriously. Significantly, the International Union of Tenants, made up mostly of western European tenant groups, is headed by Swedes: its general secretary is always a Swede because the Swedish National Tenants Union pays his salary.
In Sweden following World War II, there was a severe housing shortage, as there was in the United States, but the Swedish government approached the problem in a vastly different way. “We approached it through FHA- and VA-guaranteed loans for individuals to buy houses, built by the housing industry in the suburbs,” Pensack explains. “Sweden, on the other hand, took a radically different route. The government of Sweden decided to build mainly multifamily housing in the suburbs. Almost all of the construction since 1945 in Sweden has either been public housing or cooperative housing. There’s no profit motive. And the average rent level in Sweden is about half of that in the United States.
“That decision made by Sweden has been phenomenal,” Pensack says. “Since people there don’t have their own private gardens and private yards, there’s a tremendous movement to buy a cottage in the country. Even though that practice exists in Russia and numerous other countries, and is not without parallel in the United States, it’s gone much further in Sweden. It’s estimated that 40 percent of the population of Sweden owns a summer place.” He emphasizes that “these are tenants owning houses in the country.”
Imagine 40 percent of the population of Chicago owning a summer place.
A visionary: one whose ideas or projects are impractical, a dreamer. The dictionary definition seems made for Pensack, a person with a crazy idea, one that can’t possibly work. Unless, perhaps, the person has the intensity of a Michael Pensack.
The high rents U.S. tenants are forced to pay, Pensack argues, benefit the haves at the have-nots’ expense. “The tenant pays more for service than he should have to pay,” he says.
“The most expensive way of providing housing is to have landlords. That’s absolutely the most expensive way to do it, because for reasons of profit landlords are constantly selling their buildings. When a landlord sells the building, he sells it for as high a price as he can get, and the new owner pays as small a down payment as he can in order to leverage his money. That creates the maximum amount of mortgage that is feasible, [so that] a tenant may pay anywhere from 50 to 60 percent of his rent to pay off the landlord’s mortgage.
“Contrary to a home owner, who pays his mortgage down and pays it off, the mortgage keeps getting higher in the case of the rental property. The guy after, say, seven years sells the property, the new owner comes in, rents go up, and the tenant is constantly financing ever-increasing indebtedness on the property. If anyone ever paid off the mortgage, you would see how low rents could be.
“Landlords, for political reasons, frequently don’t tell the truth in public about rents because they’re deathly afraid of things like rent control, and they don’t want to talk about profiteering as the reason rents are so high.”
And now for the dream. Pensack has been taking classes at the Chicago City Colleges to get a real estate broker’s license. (He already has a real estate salesman’s license.) He plans to set up a company “to go into competition with our enemies. If you agree with the theory that realtors are our major enemies, think of where they get their money. They’re getting it from people who are buying houses. Well, I’d like to set up a company where people can buy that same house through us, instead of buying it from the realtors. We’ll be realtors, but for the purpose of earning enough money from sales to ultimately help tenants.
“OK,” Pensack says, inching forward in his chair to make his point, his right hand striking the air in pointed thrusts, “here’s how it would work.
“The real estate industry classifies people buying houses into two categories. There’s the first-time buyer and the repeat buyer. Every year, the first-time buyer is a pretty substantial percentage of the total buying public. It ranges from between 25 and 40 percent of the market. Well, what is a first-time buyer? Another name for a tenant.
“Just by aiming [home sales] at the tenant population,” he says, “we could put together quite a company. Whatever profits we would have left over from paying the salesmen, we could use to buy rental property.
“Obviously,” he says, “it would be good to have the government doing what’s being done in Sweden–building the rental units or having nonprofit corporations build them. Since we don’t have a sympathetic government in this country, the only alternative is to have a nonprofit group do it. And even though we might have to buy the property at normal market prices, at least it would be the last time it ever got bought. Eventually it would become cheaper housing as the price of other housing continues to go up. It would be our own form of rent control.”
The headquarters for Pensack’s current effort–he answers the phone with a simple “tenants’ organization”–are in Mount Prospect, in what used to be room 157 of the Dempster Junior High School. When the school was closed, the local park district took it over and rented out the unused space.
The building roof leaks a little, but Pensack’s office is dry. And although it’s small and barren, it does the job. He won’t say how many paying memberships he now has: “It’s been a tough year to organize with the Mount Prospect lawsuit hanging over my head. Let’s just say the list is growing.”
Here’s a typical phone call: A Palatine cleaning woman is being sued by her former landlord. Before she moved, she had spent $105 to repair a patio screen and buy new carpeting for the closets, after he told her he would charge her for those repairs unless she agreed to do them herself. She also repainted the apartment upon his demand.
Now he’s suing her for $2,500 because he says she didn’t do a good paint job and he hasn’t been able to rent the place for two months. “Well, that’s too bad for him,” Pensack says. “I think it sat vacant for two months because he didn’t advertise it.”
Pensack called the landlord’s attorney to see what documentation they had and to argue the woman’s side. When the landlord refused to settle, Pensack advised her to find a lawyer. The case is still pending.
She found Pensack through the Chicago Bar Association lawyer-referral service. Although Pensack’s not a lawyer, the CBA has been referring calls to him for some time. Pensack says he’s been accused five times of unauthorized practice of law–by landlords–but the charges have never held up. “Landlords hate anyone who helps their tenants,” he says. “That’s the truth of it. Lawyers aren’t against us,” he says of his organization. (Although he’s a one-person staff right now, Pensack always uses “we.”) “Lawyers are happy we’re here. We actually generate business for them, because a lot of people who have never hired a lawyer hire one after coming to us. We advise them to do so.”
When the bar association investigated landlords’ complaints against Pensack, they found he provided service to people at no charge. He asks that people become members, but provides service in any case. “The bar was ecstatic about finding us,” he says, “and asked if they could refer people to us. . . . A lot of times, the caller just wants to talk to someone; they don’t want to hire a lawyer. Well, even Hyatt Legal Services charges $25 for a half-hour consultation with you so you can find out what your rights are. We don’t charge anything.”
A call to the Chicago Bar Association confirms that people have been referred to Pensack many times, and no tenant has ever lodged a complaint with the CBA regarding any advice Pensack has given.
“You can’t make everybody happy with your answers,” Pensack warns, however. “A lot of people don’t like to hear what you’re telling them. I’ll listen for a while and I might say, ‘You don’t have a case.’ The person will be really irate: ‘What do you mean I don’t have a case!’ I can remember one call, this man called to say there had been a forced entry into his apartment. The landlord had provided locks on the doors, but the burglar entered through the window. The landlord doesn’t have to provide shatterproof glass. This guy wanted to break his lease. I told him he had no grounds, and he slammed the phone down. Well, I’m sorry. I’m not going to make up the advice if they don’t like it.”
Are landlords really that bad? “Yeah,” Pensack says, not even hesitating. Really? Even the private ones?
“The commercial ones are clearly worse, but there’s a range in all the categories. I divide landlords into two categories–whether they do it for a living, or they don’t. The ones who do it for a living generate a disproportionate number of the complaints because they’re systematic about the way they abuse people.
“But private owners are not innocent. It’s just that there are so many of them, and the range of personalities is so tremendous that, in general, they will be better. But when they’re not, they’re just as bad or worse. In fact, I would probably say private owners are even worse when they’re bad. Most of the lockouts–where they shut off the water, shut off the heat–are small landlords. They get mad at a tenant, and they go down into the basement and shut it off.
“It’s a criminal offense to do that in Chicago. A big landlord will almost never do that, because they have an office, the police come and arrest them, they’ll have to turn it back on. They just aren’t going to bother shutting it off in the first place.”
Born in East Chicago, Indiana, in 1943, Pensack grew up in Terre Haute. He came to Chicago in 1964 as a divinity student at the University of Chicago, and quickly began to mix his studies with political activism. He dropped out of school, he says, when politics became more of a pull than education.
His involvement in the tenants’ movement began in 1976, with the establishment of the Tenants Organization of Evanston. Started by a group of Northwestern University students and Evanston professionals who, Pensack says, “simply wanted to do something about their rights,” TOE elected Pensack temporary chairman. He became de facto permanent chairman when no one else stepped forward to take the job, and remained its chairman for the next nine years.
Joan Dworkin, whom many consider to be the mother of TOE, was at that founding meeting. The way she describes it, “There were a lot of people who were active during the early years of TOE. I was active for four or five years, but I just stopped being active. You know the way it is, you just get involved in your own life. Volunteers would come and go, but Michael was constant. Michael was the glue that held it together for a long time.” During those early years, the group mostly tried to get landlords to fix up their buildings and worked to prevent condo conversions that would have put a lot of tenants out on the street.
For income, Pensack worked as an independent insurance broker–a job he calls “the most awful thing I ever did.” He traded that in on a job as the director of housing and energy programs for the Community and Economic Development Association, an antipoverty agency for suburban Cook County.
Tenant organizing, Pensack will tell you, can be hazardous to your career. Pensack believes that his involvement in TOE led to his being fired by the agency in November 1979, after he led a demonstration against condo conversions at an Evanston city council meeting.
“The chairman of the agency’s board of directors was a Democratic committeeman for the township of Evanston,” Pensack says. “The power structure in Evanston really wanted to get rid of me. Here was a local Evanston politician who was in a position to be able to do so. I don’t have any proof that that’s what happened. But I know that guy real well, and I know that hirings and firings were frequently political in that agency and usually didn’t have much to do with ability, except at the lower levels.
“Within two weeks of a huge demonstration at the city council, they terminated me. The timing was extraordinarily fortuitous.”
But Pensack never stays down for long.
“After I was fired, I thought, ‘Gee, I can draw unemployment benefits for 39 weeks,’ and I figured out that my take-home pay from the job was close enough to what I would get on unemployment. I could live on that. I decided, what the hell. I’ll see if I can turn this tenants’ rights business into a livelihood. Starting in January of 1980, I started doing it as a staff person full-time. Not with any salary. I had to raise any money I was going to be paid, and that was the problem I confronted.
“Fund-raising for a volunteer organization is done for the sole purpose of paying for activities that you decide to undertake, like passing out leaflets or renting a hall. We just passed the hat for that. The people who were a little more active would give a little more money.
“To support a staff person takes a whole lot more money than to pay for some fliers, right? So obviously membership had to be raised from the tenant population, and the question was how to do that.”
Pensack spent many freezing afternoons that winter going door-to-door, slowly building up TOE contributors and members. He also began to read anything that would help him answer tenants’ questions. “That was the only inducement I could give them to join, that someone was there full-time to help them with their problems.” He read, he talked with people, he perfected techniques, he figured out what worked and what was permissible in handling tenants’ grievances.
By 1982, TOE had about 100 members, each paying a minimum of $15. After that point Pensack hired Martin Wolke to help with direct mail solicitation, and membership grew to 800.
Pensack added another member benefit: using a handful of volunteers–mostly Northwestern students–he evaluated landlords. “We analyzed the percentage of complaints we had received in any given year versus the number of rental units that landlord had. That way we could tell which landlords had good tenant relations and which didn’t. When someone would call us asking who was the best landlord in town, we could give them an answer based on our own statistics. Usually if you help someone find an apartment, they’ll join the organization.”
By 1985 membership was up to 1,500. Pensack had instituted a TOE Political Action Committee and convinced a lot of members to give $30 to it (at that time half of that sum would have been returned as a federal income tax credit). The group was now handling about 100 complaints a week from tenants. To its members it offered a referral service (to insurance brokers and lawyers), a newsletter, free notary public service, free counseling by a paralegal, and a credit union.
Despite his hard work, Pensack has never been able to pay himself much. “In 1980, I supported myself on unemployment. In 1981 and 1982, I borrowed from my credit cards. In 1983, I went bankrupt.
“Fortunately, by the time I went bankrupt I had hired Martin, and we figured out how to do the membership so I was able to at least pay my bills from 1983 on.
“I took in what I could take in. I had to pay the organizational bills first because otherwise the organization wouldn’t be around. If I don’t pay the telephone bills, the telephone company shuts off the phone. We’re out of business. I had to do the mailings. Without mailings, I wouldn’t get leads back or responses back for Martin to follow up on.”
In 1981, he says, the total receipts for TOE were $3,000. He paid the expenses for the organization out of that and used the small amount that remained for some of his own expenses. “In 1982, I putzed around with hiring some professional canvassers, so we had some money coming in. I think we raised $8,000 in 1982. I still had to borrow to exist.
“By 1983, the income of the organization went up to about $16,000. After I paid Martin and paid the expenses of the organization, I lived on the rest.” From 1984 through 1986, Pensack says, his yearly income was never above $3,300.
Since Pensack operated the organization out of his second-floor apartment, money from the membership was used to pay his rent. Calling it an apartment, though, may be going too far. Since there was no real bedroom, Pensack slept on a sofa in a corner of the living room, which was also his office. Records were stored in what most people would have used as the bedroom.
Since he used his car, a 1975 Chevy Impala, on TOE business, he paid all of its expenses from membership money as well. The $300 or so per month he paid himself went for his own personal expenses. In 1985, Pensack began collecting food stamps.
Debbie Weixl, a longtime friend, remembers that Pensack was so poor during those years that she almost hated asking him to join her at the movies. “He had almost no money, so to spend $5 or $6 for a movie was a big thing for him. And he hated it when I would offer to buy. I know it bothered him not to have enough money to pay for both of us.”
Why put yourself through all that? Pensack answers: “I knew, and I still know, that there is a tremendous need for tenant services out there, and it’s not being filled. Just to give you the Evanston figures, about 7 percent of the tenant population would call us [in any given year] with complaints. If you apply that to the metropolitan Chicago area, that would mean 60,000 to 70,000 complaints.”
By 1985, Michael Pensack had firmly established one of the few tenants’ organizations in the United States to raise enough paying memberships to support a full-time staff. (There are now only four other such tenants’ groups in this country–in Boston, Los Angeles, New York, and Santa Monica.)
Still, Pensack doesn’t operate the only tenants’ organization in town. There are a number of effective groups in Chicago manned by volunteers, and during the push for a Chicago tenants’ ordinance, 50 social-service and tenants’ groups combined to form the Metropolitan Tenants Organization. According to Alderman David Orr (49th Ward), who sponsored Chicago’s tenants’ ordinance, the work of those organizations was “crucial to our successful effort to enact the tenants’ bill of rights.”
But outside of lobbying for passage of tenants’ ordinances, tenants aren’t usually considered a major political force in city and state politics. In 1985, the Tenants Organization of Evanston broke with that tradition: it actively supported Reverend John Norwood’s mayoral campaign. A prominent black Methodist minister, Norwood opposed Don Borah, who was endorsed by the regular Democratic organization in Evanston.
The two Democrats split the vote, and the Republican candidate, Joan Barr, won the election.
“As an organization, we were becoming much better known in the community, and our activism was actually attracting members,” Pensack recalls.
Political activism can empower tenant groups, but tenants themselves often resist the idea that a tenant organization might embrace an ideology. Robert Fisher, an associate professor of history at the University of Houston, speculates in the magazine Shelterforce that: “On one level the tenant, not to mention the landlord–the lord of the land–is a vestige of European feudalism. The terms conflict with the very notion of democracy. On another level, the landlord-tenant relationship is supported by the ideology of laissez-faire capitalism. The landlord has the absolute right to his property. The tenant has the right to accept the landlord’s will or is ‘free’ to move. The ideology of the market place is vividly illustrated throughout the history of tenancy in the United States.
“Tenant organizing has the potential to introduce a counter-ideology to challenge the dominant one,” Fisher writes. “But this has rarely occurred and with too little impact.”
The simple fact is that tenants are not a powerful political force in this country in the way realtors are. And realtors control a large percentage of the rental units in any city.
In his 1982 campaign for state representative, Woods Bowman related a story that helps to put Pensack’s work into perspective.
The Illinois Association of Realtors, the Bowman story went, had pushed the state legislature to amend the Illinois Corrupt Consumer Practices Act so that real estate brokers’ activity would no longer be covered. The realtor lobby was powerful enough that an amendment to that effect overwhelmingly passed the Illinois house of representatives (Bowman voted against it). It was then assigned to a committee in the state senate, but there the realtor lobby did not have enough clout to get it approved. They did have enough clout, however, to get the entire Corrupt Consumer Practices Act revised, making it harder for the consumer to prove fraud in general.
“I’m not amazed it passed through the house,” Pensack says. “I wasn’t amazed at the time. I’m amazed it didn’t pass through the senate the way the realtors wanted.”
He adds, incredulously: “Can you imagine the American Bar Association proposing that lawyers be exempt from a consumer fraud statute? Can you imagine the American Medical Association saying that doctors should be exempt from malpractice? But here are these realtors proposing that there shouldn’t be malpractice for realtors. And they’re a powerful enough lobby to almost get their way. Amazing.
“Woody Bowman hasn’t been able to pass a protenant piece of legislation yet in the state legislature. However, we’re not as backwards as Kansas. I have to take my hat off to Kansas. It has the distinction of having passed an unconstitutional law making it a felony for a tenant to owe his landlord more than $150, punishable by five years in prison. Didn’t anyone remind them that imprisonment for debt has been declared unconstitutional in the United States?
“The landlords’ lobby anywhere in this country is so powerful, the realtors are so powerful, they’re able to get even an unconstitutional law passed. It’s not any surprise that there are no tenants’ organizations in Kansas.” Pensack snorts at the thought. “It’s probably a criminal offense to belong to a tenants’ organization in Kansas.”
“Michael Pensack is a genius,” says Evanston alderman Ann Rainey, who negotiated the terms of his termination from the Tenants Organization of Evanston. “And all geniuses have tendencies to behave in a nutsy fashion. Not everybody understands him.”
Rainey remembers playing a game with Pensack–she would pick any address in Evanston, and Pensack would tell her the name of the person paying taxes on that property. “That’s the kind of mind he has,” she says. “Michael created TOE, and TOE would not be here today if not for him. Michael devoted 24 hours a day to developing and maintaining that organization. When you hire Michael to work in tenants’ rights, that’s the kind of devotion you get. Sometimes devotion creates an absolute monarch.”
It could be argued that the political organizing that brought attention to TOE during the 1985 Evanston mayoral campaign also led to Pensack’s removal. As TOE got bigger and more successful, its board of directors demanded a more “professional,” organized approach.
Pensack was getting so much attention as TOE’s chairman that tenants from Chicago and surrounding communities began taking out memberships in Evanston’s tenant organization. Furthermore, the Chicago media began to take note of Pensack once Chicago’s own tenants’ ordinance seemed to stand a chance of passing. A May 1985 article in Crain’s Chicago Business described how David Orr consulted with Pensack when he formulated his proposal for the Chicago tenants’ ordinance and modeled it in part on Evanston’s legislation (enacted even before TOE’s inception). The article was illustrated with a photo of Pensack, dressed casually in a sweater, his dark hair just a little shaggy, his beard and mustache neatly trimmed. He could have been a student activist or a radical professor.
After touting Pensack’s success in starting TOE, the Crain’s piece quoted him as saying that he planned to open an outpost in Chicago in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, and if tenants were responsive, then to open other outposts in Albany Park, Ravenswood, and the near-north side.
Those high hopes never materialized, mostly because Pensack began having problems in Evanston with his board, and because the offshoot group, the Tenants Organization of Illinois, had begun to monopolize his time.
Shortly after the Crain’s article appeared, the acting village manager of Mount Prospect called Pensack with a deal for TOI. Mount Prospect already had a tenants’ ordinance but needed a liaison to help with enforcement, organization, and general mediation between tenants and landlords. Michael Janonis, now assistant village manager, signed an agreement with Pensack that TOI would open its first Chicago metropolitan office to serve Mount Prospect.
There are a number of lessons to be learned from Pensack’s experiences during the past three years, but to put it in brief, sometimes your enemies are within your own camp. And sometimes they’re within yourself. It seemed Pensack was being sabotaged by the very organizations that had hired him. Yet his own stubbornness may have been a factor too.
In 1985, Michael Pensack stepped down as chairman of TOE, relinquishing that role to Judy Johnson, the operator of a messenger service in town. He became an employee, but his relations with the board were still good. “We were so active that year that we had a lot of new volunteers, and we all thought it would be best if I devoted more time to building up the Tenants Organization of Illinois,” Pensack says with a certain magnanimity. TOE would no longer have a full-time staff person–and within two years would barely have an organization.
Johnson has declined to comment on TOE’s apparent demise, but Pensack’s explanation shows how much bad blood there was between the two. “The mere fact that she had become chairman didn’t mean that she could change things [like the bookkeeping]. Procedures would change as it was possible to change them. I’d been doing this for years. I wasn’t going to have somebody take over and ruin the organization by changing it. This was a coordinated whole. It was an organism I had built.”
On their side, the TOE board of directors (which included Johnson, Art Newman, and Linda DeWoskin) accused Pensack of several specific offenses: they said he’d mismanaged funds by not keeping adequate records, that he’d filed false income tax returns by not reporting his rent and car payments as income (Pensack, who says an accountant helped him prepare his returns, denies any wrongdoing), and that basically he’d failed to run TOE properly as a nonprofit organization.
Ann Rainey, the Evanston alderman who arbitrated the fight between Pensack and TOE, says, “As an outsider looking in, I could see the problem instantly. Michael had taken total control of all the funds. He determined the expenditures. He was the only one with knowledge of where that money was. The board wanted that control, and Michael just couldn’t delegate the authority.”
Art Newman agrees. “For a year before he was fired, the board tried to get him to comply with our bookkeeping requests, but he had his own ways of doing things. Ultimately, it became an impossible situation. It was a conflict, and somebody had to go.”
Pensack responds to those charges by saying: “Our accounting methods were primitive. We operated on a shoestring.” These were things the board couldn’t seem to understand. “We reached a point where we couldn’t even communicate.”
In October of 1986, the board asked for Pensack’s resignation from TOE but failed to even mention his role in TOI, which had the same individuals on its board of directors. Since Pensack was already devoting a large part of his work in tenants’ rights to areas other than Evanston anyway, resigning from TOE meant he could really move into the Chicago metropolitan area with the Tenants Organization of Illinois.
Pensack says he thought he had been given time to consider the proposal to resign. By the end of October, he had still not responded.
So in late October, while Pensack was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for a Midwest Tenants Conference, Johnson and DeWoskin cleaned out the TOE office in his apartment. When he returned, the apartment was bare.
At that time Pensack was already hard at work in Mount Prospect to organize tenants, using the village’s grant of $10,000 to TOI. Although he was fired from TOE, he had never relinquished his title as director of TOI, and nobody forced the issue. “It was a real prestige thing, to have that relationship with the village. Remember, in 1986, there were only two cities in Illinois that had landlord-tenant laws. One was Evanston, the other was Mount Prospect.”
The Mount Prospect law, which had been passed in 1983, unlike the Evanston and Chicago ordinances had a built-in enforcement procedure, which included withholding of rent among other things. The village had been handling enforcement in-house when it decided to contract with Pensack. The actual year-long contract started in the summer of 1986. Pensack handled about 60 complaints a month, but his contract was not renewed, and Mount Prospect is once again handling its landlord-tenant relations in-house.
Janonis has declined to comment on any aspect of Pensack’s work with Mount Prospect. That could be due to the ongoing lawsuit that resulted from the rent strike against G. Dixon & Sons, which occurred during Pensack’s contract.
Pensack solicited complaints from Mount Prospect tenants, specifically asking whether there were any interior problems that needed correcting. Of the 60 Dixon tenants in one building, 32 responded to Pensack with complaints. He convinced 11 of them to test the ordinance and its enforcement procedures by having their rent put into an escrow account with the village. “The landlord went bonkers,” Pensack says. “He threatened to evict all the tenants who were paying the money into escrow.” After Dixon received a letter from the village calling on him to repair interior damage to his units, Dixon filed a lawsuit against the village, Pensack, and the Tenants Organization of Illinois.
Recently, in a ruling involving another case against the Mount Prospect tenants’ ordinance, this one a much more general attack on the ordinance as a whole, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Harold Siegan declared the ordinance unconstitutional, saying the village cannot hold in escrow any rent from tenants who are conducting a rent strike.
Pensack’s lawyers at Jenner & Block are trying to work out a settlement with Dixon and his lawyers.
For two weeks in January of this year, the telephone for the Tenants Organization of Evanston was disconnected. According to Linda DeWoskin, an Evanston lawyer who now acts as the volunteer director for the group, it simply didn’t have enough money to pay the bill.
TOE no longer operates with a paying membership, she explained. Instead, it accepts donations. “We’re a charity,” she says. “We give the same service to anybody. If you have a question, we will try to help. If you feel like contributing anything, it would be greatly appreciated.”
Last year, Pensack tried to file an annual report with the Illinois secretary of state to gain nonprofit status for the Tenants Organization of Illinois, naming his board of directors. He learned then that Judy Johnson had already filed her own report for TOI, naming her own completely different board of directors.
Pensack is full of ideas on the right and wrong ways to organize tenants. Through his contacts with the International Union of Tenants, he’s picked up a lot of tips. “The major political mistake made by the other tenant groups in Chicago is that they are foundation supported,” Pensack says. “Or they’re publicly supported. Our experience in Mount Prospect this last year is a good example. We were publicly supported, and we went out and did our jobs. For that, we were cut off, we lost our funding.
“The same is true for foundations. The dynamic of a foundation is that it is going to cut you off. If you’re an executive with a foundation, you’re not going to fund the same groups every year. How boring.
“It’s quite clear that any group that is supported by charity that has any kind of political controversy to it–like a tenants’ group–is going to go out of business. I know tenant groups all across the country that have been devastated by various kinds of withdrawal of support.”
As an example, Pensack cites Columbus, Ohio. “The tenants’ group in that city was using VISTA volunteers to run the organization. When Ronald Reagan gutted the VISTA program, Columbus lost those people and its tenants’ organization almost went out of business.
“So, the only people who can be reliably counted upon to support a tenants’ organization are tenants. It’s the same principle as a labor union. Who’s going to support a labor union? The workers. You don’t see the labor unions in this country supported by private foundations and the government.
“When you look at other countries, the strongest tenant unions are the ones that have the strongest membership foundation.”
And he warns that it’s false to assume that the United States is a country of activism. He compares us with Sweden to make his point: “When it comes to organizing tenants, Sweden is unhappy with 405,000 members. That represents only 25 or 30 percent of all the tenants in that country. Even that is pathetic when you compare it with their labor movement, where 80 percent of the white-collar workers and 90 percent of the blue-collar workers belong to labor unions.
“People argue with me over this point. They’ll say, ‘What about the women’s movement [in the United States], the civil rights movement, the environmental movement?’ Yeah, what about it? How strong are those movements today, compared to what they were in the 60s and 70s? Face it. Our working class is not well organized. Our capitalist class–by that I include landlords, and with landlords I include realtors–is very well organized in this country. The realtors are so well organized, they get legislation passed that is contrary to the public interest.”
In one of his first membership drives for the new Illinois Tenants Union, Pensack will be back on familiar ground. In what will surely be another battle with TOE, he intends to draw memberships from Evanston tenants. All’s fair, he says, in love and war. A discharged TOE employee slipped him a complete list of Evanston contributors. “I’m in a position to pick up where I left off a year ago,” he says.
What would happen if Pensack were offered a high-paying job outside the field of tenants’ rights? “It’s not likely to happen,” he says, “to be perfectly honest. But if it happened? Like anybody else, if somebody makes you an offer, you’d have to consider it. I mean, I don’t think it’s very likely that I’m going to get out of landlord-tenant work, but there’s obviously a limit to how long I can keep living at poverty level.
“I don’t really think of success in terms of dollars per year. If you said I was running an organization in the metropolitan area, where 50,000 people paid dues, I would consider that successful.”
Is there a Michael Pensack outside the field of tenants’ rights? “Hmm,” he answers. “That’s a good question. I would say–yes. At least I would hope the answer is yes. And even if it isn’t, is what I’m doing so bad? You have to do something with your life, right?”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.