The City of Evanston on Jan. 28 officially withdrew as plaintiff in a longstanding property enforcement complaint case against a north Evanston homeowner. The case had been receiving increasing attention lately from local activists as a misuse of government power.
In a virtual hearing before Cook County Circuit Judge Neil H. Cohen on Jan. 27, Alexandra Ruggie, an Assistant Attorney for the city, informed the judge that the city was officially withdrawing from the lawsuit filed against Doreen Price, owner of a property at 712 Roslyn Place since 1983.
With the action, the city is moving aside as the lead plaintiff on the case in which it was threatening demolition.
Price, who retired early as a research scientist at Searle-Pfizer after 30 years, is still facing legal ramifications from the sale of a reverse mortgage she took out on her home in 2012 in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
She told the judge the case never should have gone to court in the first place and has maintained that the city lawsuit derailed her efforts to pay off a reverse mortgage.
“I understand there might be someone else in a similar situation, and the city of Evanston has to stop criminalizing need,” she said.
The city had aggressively pursued the case, which began with a neighbor’s complaint of overgrown grass on Price’s property.
The city’s suit was filed against Price in July 2020, when Interim City Manager Kelley Gandurkski was Corporation Counsel. It alleged “dangerous and unsafe conditions” at the house and threatened demolition of the property.
The suit cited a roof that showed heavy moisture underneath the shingles, railings in disrepair, a lack of yard maintenance and other code violations.
In February this year, the city sought permission from the court to proceed with receivership of the property.
A response for Price maintained she had substantially complied with addressing the violations, including the leaky roof. The filing noted that Price was a senior citizen dealing with health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, and that the city complaint came during a pandemic lockdown when obtaining home repair services was difficult.
Case felt ‘like an aggressive manner’: Council member Kelly
In recent months, Price, a frequent and often articulate speaker and writer on affordable housing and other equity issues, received support from a number of local activists.
Price’s supporters included Betty Ester, co-founder of Citizens Network of Protection; Bennett Johnson, former President of the local NAACP; City Council candidates Darlene Cannon and Mary Rosinski, who is also a longtime real estate agent; and Michael Vasilko, who addressed council members at their Jan. 24 meeting about the situation.
Ester, in particular, has joined Price at almost every hearing (Price’s dog, Revvy, also stood in), kept tab of the legal filings and enlisted others in support of Price.
“You have to ask yourself why they [the city] are so relentlessly going after a senior citizen, a low-income person who lives in a house that happens to be in a prestigious neighborhood. It’s like, ‘We’ve got to get her out,’” Ester said.
At a Nov. 30 hearing on the case, First Ward Council member Clare Kelly, one of a group of new council members elected in April, addressed Cohen on Price’s behalf, breaking council silence on the case.
“I’m here to advocate for Ms. Price and the City Council knows this – we met,” she told the judge. “And I agreed to help out, to find a different path that’s more accommodating, less restrictive. So I am working on that with various agencies to make that arrangement so that we don’t have to proceed and so that the city doesn’t continue to proceed in what has felt like an aggressive manner.”
City statement: Dismissal ‘a last resort’ to allow a solution
City officials asked about the case Jan. 28 issued a statement.
“The City of Evanston has made numerous, wholehearted attempts to connect the property owner with grants and resources to bring her property up to code and to ensure that her property is safe for her and surrounding neighbors,” the statement read.
“Unfortunately, despite the City’s best efforts, the property owner has refused this assistance, and the property has continued to decline, posing a significant health and safety hazard. The City’s dismissal of its lawsuit was a last resort that will allow the property owner to work towards a solution with her lender.”
At the end of the Jan. 27 hearing, Cohen, who received praise for his firm but evenhanded handling of the difficult case, gave different parties a chance to speak, including Price.
The city action “was done during a pandemic when people were supposed to get relief,” said Price. “And instead, they criminalized my need for help, and basically honored my neighbors’ [statements], which I have no way to understand, ethically or morally. So I think the city of Evanston should do a lot of internal thinking and speak to me, Ms. Ester, and Mr. Bennett Johnson to prevent this from happening again.”
“ILLEGAL INVASIVE WEEDS!” OH MY!
Any normal human being would understand mental conditions; however, it is difficult to overlook the poor decisions that have been continued for over 3 years concerning the property at 712 Roslyn Terrace. Any neighbor who has been physically and verbally abusive, and unwilling to accept services from the city of Evanston, in order to cooperate with the Evanston codes, should only be overlooked by those unwilling to see the truth. Neighbors have paid for snow plowing and lawn mowing for numerous years, only because the owner chose to retire at 53, and announce that government supplements could take care necessary needs for rest of life. This is wrong, especially since other neighbors are working past the age of 75. I am certain that wrong doers will always find a group to stand up for their shortcoming and inadequacies, but what if everyone in the city of Evanston wanted to live life in this fashion? When the city volunteered to mow the property at 712 Roslyn to prevent illegal invasive weeds from spreading and allowing animals to reproduce excessively, men were driven off the property. How is this possible to understand when it is upholding codes? Remnants from the aged and disintegrating tarp on the roof at 712 Roslyn Terrace, which is in violation of another code, (over 2 years old) is another violation, can only point a finger to the city Evanston. Who would think that people would want to move to Evanston when asked to pay higher taxes, dig neighbors invasive plants from their yards, remove remnants daily from the shredding tarp, and witness the fact that your property value is being criticized. In the eyes of most ethical citizens or communities, this situation does not paint a pretty picture of any area. Coming from a psychological are legal view, how can this situation be excepted and overlooked. Recognition of manipulation is a weak link in any community. One can only sympathize with those refusing help to uphold Evanston codes for so long.
It is really shameful that the City of Evanston ever went this far. I continue to believe that there is a large minority of City staff who act against the interests of the most vulnerable members of our community. Part of the reason for that is that 80% of City staff do not live in this community. There are some tremendous City staff that don’t live here – Bob Doeneker was one of them. But there are also a large minority who do not live here and do not share the values of this community. We have to fix that.
The problems began many years before the pandemic. The property has not been mowed in over 3 years causing invasive plants to spread to neighboring properties and creating a habitat for destructive animals to thrive, the owner never paid the prior landscaper ( owing him over $700.), does not pay the snow removal people ( our little street is private), and has allowed the home to fall into disrepair ( a tarp has been sitting on the roof for over a year). The owner often behaves very aggressively toward neighbors when asked about anything relating to the number of city violations that continue to accrue on the property (pushing one neighbor). These problems go back years, this is not a one sided story.
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