By Tori Marlan

As rush-hour traffic clogs the street, a determined throng of protesters descends on a Belmont Avenue print shop, carrying signs that say things like “We Will Not Tolerate Slumlords in Our Neighborhood” and “Set My Deposit Free.” They cram into the lobby of Lakeview Press, shining flashlights at the owner, Mehdi Pirodan, in a symbolic search for unreturned security deposits. A man with a bullhorn pressed to his mouth leads the group in chanting, “Hey, ho, we won’t go, till we get back all our dough.”

The protesters, about 25 representatives of several community groups, are here to support Amy Byrd and Shane Anderson, a young couple who claim that Pirodan disregarded their health and safety by not doing needed maintenance while they were living in his Albany Park building and that he never returned their security deposit after they moved. They also claim that another tenant didn’t get all of her security deposit back either.

When Pirodan realizes what’s happening he rushes to a back room to call the police, then quickly returns to defend his reputation. Standing alone behind the counter on one side of the room, he glares at the crowd. “There is no basis for this,” he insists. “You never paid me rent for the last month.”

With her 11-month-old son propped on her hip, a TV news camera illuminating her face, and the chorus of veteran activists behind her, Byrd, a 24-year-old computer-science student who’d felt intimidated by Pirodan when she previously confronted him, wonders if perhaps the tables have turned. The show of force is stronger than she’d expected: blacks, whites, Latinos, a silver-haired woman aided by a walker, a smattering of children, and a man in a business suit are among those rallying to her cause.

“Sign the check, sign the check, sign the check,” they chant.

Pirodan, against whom the city has filed two housing-court cases involving the Albany Park building, repeats, “There is no basis for this.”

Byrd’s voice rises above the chanting. “My son got lead poisoning in your building.”

“Bad business, bad business, bad business.”

Pirodan stops fighting to be heard. He speaks directly into reporters’ microphones, accusing Byrd and Anderson of living like pigs and stealing from the apartment. The police arrive within minutes and usher out the protesters, who form a circular picket on the sidewalk and shine their flashlights through the shop’s front window for the next half hour. “Where, oh where, has my security deposit gone? Oh where, oh where could it be?”

After the protest the group congregates in a nearby cafe. The mood is jubilant.

“Did you see his face?” Byrd asks the group triumphantly.

One protester proudly reports that the crowd deterred someone from entering the print shop. “He really wanted to get his business cards, but he didn’t want to support the business while we were there. He said, ‘I’ll come back tomorrow.'”

“We need to be the landlord police,” another protester suggests. “Just have this hit squad. Hit a landlord every month.”

Until recently, Byrd’s activism had pretty much consisted of once helping to raise funds for abortion clinics in Louisiana. She says she’s always been outspoken, but she never imagined herself orchestrating a noisy grassroots effort to right a wrong. But, she says, “when something terrible happens to your family you turn into an activist pretty quickly.”

Byrd and Anderson’s troubles began in April 1996, when Pirodan bought the nine-unit building at 4456 N. Sawyer where they lived with their newborn son, Quinn. In the previous seven months Byrd and Anderson had become strongly attached to their apartment. “That’s where I spent my pregnancy,” says Byrd. “I nested there. We had clouds painted on the nursery ceiling. I had such feelings about that apartment.” Planning to live there until they saved up for a house, they patched holes in the walls, painted each room, installed a showerhead, and did other work to fix up the place. Anderson, now 26, had worked in construction on and off for six years before he started selling steel for a living.

Pleased with their work, their original landlord, Stojan Berbakov, paid the couple to paint another unit in the building. “They had done a professional-looking job on theirs,” he says. “They made their apartment a lot nicer than it was, so I told the guy who bought the building to take it easy on them if he raised the rent.”

A rent hike would be the least of their worries. They say the building started falling apart shortly after Pirodan bought it. “We didn’t have hot water for a month. We had little or no heat, and our water pressure was a drizzle.” Byrd says that when she asked Pirodan for relief, he responded, “You cause problems for me, and I’ll cause problems for you.” Pirodan denies making the threat.

“There was no reason for this to become a contentious relationship,” says Anderson. “If there’s a problem and something needs to be done in an apartment, you call the landlord-and the landlord comes out and takes care of it. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

Byrd started talking with her neighbors, and she contacted tenants’ organizations, asking about her rights. Someone referred her to John Farrell, an attorney with the firm Freeborn & Peters, which sometimes provides pro bono advice to tenants. In the months that followed Byrd consulted Farrell nearly every week. He sent her sample letters, which the couple eventually used as a guide when lodging a complaint or requesting maintenance. He also taught her to keep meticulous records and to send letters to Pirodan by FedEx and certified mail. “It was a long and arduous education,” says Anderson.

In the meantime things got worse. One day the couple noticed a leak in the pantry ceiling. They say they notified Pirodan immediately, but he ignored it. A couple of months passed, and the leak spread into the kitchen, dining room, and hallway. They say that when it rained, as it often did that spring, water came through the roof and puddled on the floor, ruining rugs and staining furniture. Plaster accumulated everywhere. They say Pirodan told them he’d patched the roof, but the leaking didn’t stop. “Ultimately the ceiling started coming down,” Byrd says. In May they began making a video of the growing list of problems.

Pirodan says that they’re exaggerating, that the leak was actually quite small. He also says that it rained every time roofers were scheduled to fix it, so the work kept getting postponed. “There was no plaster coming in, no ceiling coming down. They are making the whole thing up.”

Byrd and Anderson say they brought other problems to Pirodan’s attention too-roaches, power outages, windowpanes that fell out because the sills were rotten, and amber-colored water that came out of the spigots-many of which are documented on the video. They say Pirodan promised to make repairs, but did little more than measure the windows. “I don’t hold him personally responsible for the problems,” says Anderson, “but I do hold him responsible for ignoring the situation.” He says he and Byrd offered to do some of the work themselves, but Pirodan declined.

On the weekend of the Fourth of July, when Pirodan was out of town and unreachable, the doorknob fell off the building’s front security door, locking it shut. Anderson took it upon himself to replace it. “This could have developed into an emergency situation, even worse had a fire broken out,” he explained in a letter to Pirodan, “because this left only one viable exit.” Anderson says he was never reimbursed for the doorknob or compensated for his labor.

Later that month the couple sat down with Pirodan to negotiate a new lease, which was to begin in September. They pointed out things that concerned them, then held on to the lease, figuring they’d add a few clauses requiring Pirodan to fix the problems. But a week or so later, Byrd recalls, “I’m standing in my kitchen with my three-month-old baby, with water dripping off the lightbulb and the electricity shorting out. And I’m scared to death. So I called the city.”

A city inspector visited the building a few days later and cited Pirodan with numerous code violations, including, according to the lawsuit the city subsequently filed, “Failure to repair or replace defective window frame[s]….Failure to replace broken, missing, or defective windowpanes….Failure to replaster ceiling and sidewall where plaster is loose, broken, or has fallen off….Failure to rebuild or replace dilapidated and dangerous porch.” The city’s suit was intended to force Pirodan to correct these and other violations.

At this point Byrd and Anderson had had enough, and they started making arrangements to move. On July 18, with Farrell advising them on how to legally break their lease, Byrd sent Pirodan a letter reiterating many of the problems and closing with, “Said conditions make my apartment unfit and uninhabitable, and are violations of the Chicago Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance and my lease agreement. I am requesting that you remedy this problem within fourteen days, otherwise, under law, the lease will terminate at the end of that fourteen day period. I will then vacate the premises within thirty days thereafter.”

That same day, the couple received official notice that Pirodan had changed his mind about renewing their lease. They suspect it was his way of retaliating against them for reporting him to the city. He says he didn’t know that they’d reported him.

In the days that followed, the couple learned from city lead inspector Joe Hertel that every room in the apartment-and some common areas in the hallways-contained peeling, cracking, and flaking lead-bearing paint, in violation of the city’s municipal code. Hertel documented his findings, noting that the situation presented “a potential hazard to young children.” Byrd recalls Hertel telling her, “Get your kid and get out of here immediately. This place is extremely dangerous.”

The couple took Quinn to the hospital for tests and learned that his blood contained an elevated level of lead; lead can impair motor skills and cause learning disabilities and other difficulties. Fearing for Quinn’s well-being, the couple rented a new apartment at the beginning of August, though they didn’t move out of the Albany Park building until August 11 and didn’t finish moving their things out until the end of the month. They figured they’d legally terminated the lease at the end of July and shouldn’t owe rent for August because they had 30 days to vacate.

Whether the couple had an obligation to pay rent during this time will depend on a judge’s interpretation of the law, but James Mumm, an organizer for the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, believes it would be “silly” to expect tenants to continue to pay for an apartment they consider uninhabitable while they’re in the process of moving out. He points out that when a lease is legally broken-and he believes Byrd and Anderson legally broke theirs-the Tenant Ordinance requires landlords to return any prepaid rent (plus the security deposit with interest), “which would imply that the tenants are also not supposed to be paying rent within that 30-day period they have to vacate.” He says that if Byrd and Anderson had prepaid rent for August, Pirodan would have been required to return it-so it would follow that they’re not responsible for paying for August at all. Still, Mumm says Pirodan might argue that the apartment did have some value to the tenants for as long as they were living there, so they should pay something. And Mumm says he wouldn’t be surprised if a judge agreed.

Before they moved out Anderson prepared a note saying they’d left the apartment in good shape and had returned it to its original state by removing glass shelves, miniblinds, and the showerhead-items they say they bought and installed themselves. Pirodan signed the note, but he now maintains that Byrd and Anderson stole the items from the apartment. “They don’t know the difference between right and wrong,” he says.

Byrd and Anderson did know that a landlord has 30 days after a tenant moves to notify the tenant in writing about any deductions being made from the security deposit and to furnish the tenant with copies of receipts for repairs or cleaning. Otherwise the landlord is required to return the deposit within 45 days. But 45 days came and went without a word. On September 23 Byrd wrote Pirodan a letter threatening to take legal action unless their $575 deposit was returned.

Pirodan says he owes Byrd and Anderson nothing, claiming that they had no legal basis for skipping out on the August rent. And he says that if they’d terminated the lease they should have given him their keys.

The couple stayed in touch with other tenants in the building. In October they learned that Pirodan had rented out their old apartment without dealing with the lead problem. The new tenants had a rough time there from the beginning. Jennifer Barger sprained her ankle on the back stairs while moving in and had to go to the hospital. “The health department showed up at the door a week after we moved in to do a follow-up inspection to see if some work had been done,” she says. “I found out that the back porch was condemned, the floors were rotting, and there was a dangerous content of lead.” She ended up staying less than three weeks. Luckily she hadn’t yet signed a lease, but she says she had paid $1,600 for rent and security deposit.

Barger says that Pirodan returned some of the money but that he still owes her $500. She doesn’t expect to ever see it. “He flat out told me he wasn’t going to give it back,” she says. “He says we wasted his time moving in. He says that he was inconvenienced. I think we were the ones who were inconvenienced. He shouldn’t have rented it to us in the first place. I was going to sue him for the hospital bills, but I don’t even have the $80 to file.” Pirodan says Barger paid him that money for rent, so he’s entitled to keep it.

In mid-October the city reinspected the apartment and learned that Pirodan, who did not have a state contractor’s license, had been doing the lead-abatement work himself. According to his reinspection reports, the lead inspector filed a cease-and-desist order against Pirodan, gave him a list of licensed contractors, and warned that if he continued to do the work himself the state’s attorney could bring criminal charges against him. According to the same report, reinspections the following months revealed that the work hadn’t been done. The city filed a second case against him in housing court, and in early December a judge ordered Pirodan to promptly deal with the lead problem and keep the apartment vacant until the work was complete.

But Byrd was worried that Pirodan would rent out the apartment again, and she’d lost confidence in the city’s ability to make him comply with the law. A city official says that as of December 9, the latest court date on the code-violation case the city filed, Pirodan had corrected only 6 of 15 violations. According to its complaint, the city is asking for a $7,500 judgment against Pirodan in the case, but Byrd has learned that the court often waives fines, encouraging landlords to use the money to improve their properties.

On January 6 the judge in the city’s lead case fined Pirodan $2,200, according to a city official. Later that month Pirodan got his contractor’s license and learned the proper methods of repair and cleanup. He’s promised to complete the work by March 24, his next court date.

Frustrated by how little was happening, Byrd filed a suit against him. In her complaint she asked for $5,487, which included the security deposit and compensation for such things as the furniture that had been ruined by the leaking roof, moving expenses, and expenses incurred taking Quinn to the hospital. If the couple can prove that Pirodan retaliated against them by not renewing the lease after Byrd reported him to the city, they’re entitled to double the amount of the security deposit. “I don’t care if we go into court and get only $1,500 or $3,000 back,” says Anderson. “Hopefully this guy will realize he can’t do business this way.”

Unable to afford an attorney, Byrd is representing the couple. She worries that she could blow what she thinks should be an open-and-shut case, but she won’t give up. “Why should I give this man the money he owes us? Why should I just say, it’s not worth it? He did us wrong! Somebody has to stand up to him and say, ‘You’re not going to do this any longer.'”

Byrd and Anderson also began to consider a protest. Byrd mentioned the idea to Farrell, who saw no legal reason not to do it. She then proposed the idea to the Renters Escrow and Community/Housing fund, a project devoted to security-deposit reform. Francis Tobin, the project coordinator, says the handling of security deposits is a “chronic source of conflict” between landlords and tenants. According to a 1995 study he did for the University of Illinois’ Center for Urban Economic Development, Chicago tenants unjustly lose $15 million to $20 million a year in security deposits.

REACH is in the process of developing a system to allow renters to pool their security deposits in a fund that covers landlords when there’s damage and protects tenants from improper deductions, while the money is invested in the local community. Once the system catches on, says Tobin, tenants won’t have to worry about losing money if they “have a jerk of a landlord.”

REACH spread word of the protest to the 30 organizations affiliated with the project, and Byrd and Anderson contacted the groups they’d relied on for help. Representatives from the 8th Day Center for Justice, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Albany Manor Improvement Association, Rogers Park Community Action Network, National Lawyers Guild, and Lead Elimination Action Drive were among those who promised to turn out.

Byrd worried that no one would show up and that the protest would jeopardize her court case by making her appear too radical in the eyes of the judge. But as she marched toward Lakeview Press with the mob of supporters her fears dissipated.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Amy Byrd, Shane Anderson, and their son Quinn photo by Randy Tunnel;.