Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect new information about where the dislocated tenants were placed after they evacuated.
It seemed to come out of nowhere to some of the tenants. Yet, the conditions at 819-821 Howard St. in Evanston, did not become ‘deplorable’ overnight. The damage was the result of months of inaction.
The landlord, who is not on site, said he tried to move people out five months ago when the tenants notified him there was a leaky roof causing damage.
Even city inspectors, shorthanded and still trying to get ahead of complaints after the pandemic, had trouble getting there to inspect the building and arrived a few weeks ago after a tenant filed a complaint.
Still to many of the tenants, the city’s 24-hour evacuation order seemed to come out of nowhere. The property, owned by James McClure, is now vacant and secured with plywood, and condemnation notices are posted on the doorways.
“It seemed like it was sudden to the tenants most likely because the landlord didn’t communicate anything to them,” Evanston Building and Inspection Services Manager Angel Schnur said. “If we had known sooner, we likely could have intervened previously, before the damage was so severe that it affected all of the residents versus maybe just one unit.”
The condemned Howard Street apartment building was evacuated on short notice because the landlord’s inaction on repairs combined with severe damage from the roof leak caused “structural concerns,” according to Schnur.
She said that although she is glad inspectors could “move quickly on this one” after receiving the complaint, the Building and Inspection Services division is still below pre-pandemic staffing and capacity. The department, she said, only recently restarted annual routine inspections, but they are scheduled at a slower pace due to the high volume of complaints.
“We spend so much of the time responding to complaints that we’re reactive in nature, we’re not able to be proactive at this point,” Schnur said. “So yes, we do need some additional staffing, and I will be asking for that. But you know, until then we do the best with what we’ve got.”
Where the residents will go in the long term is not clear. But for the short term, Eighth Ward City Council member Devon Reid said he worked with Health and Human Services staff to secure the displaced tenants emergency housing at a local hotel, which has been extended through Labor Day.
He said he’s also connecting them with local organizations like Connections for the Homeless to help them find and relocate to permanent housing.
Tenants were ordered to leave Aug. 19 when the condemnation went into effect.
McClure told the RoundTable he was first made aware of the roof leak five months ago. He said he “tried to get everybody out” but the tenants wouldn’t leave, and described it as a “double problem” along with the damage from the roof.
Still, the tenants said nothing to the city until “a couple of weeks ago,” according to Schnur. That complaint led to the inspection of a single unit, which then led to a full-building inspection.
“We observed similar or worse conditions in other units, which caused us to be concerned for the safety of the residents in the building,” Schnur said. “Because [the roof leak] had been ongoing for so long and left unmaintained, it also caused additional moisture and water damage in the basement that gives us some structural concerns.”
Schnur said after the building was secured, tenants were allowed to return two more times in specific time slots to remove more of their possessions – for two hours Aug. 22 and one hour Aug. 26. She said tenants will have a third chance soon.
While tenants retrieved their belongings Aug. 26, a city inspector allowed Reid to go in and survey the interior. Reid shared photos of the damage with the RoundTable, and said he was shocked by the conditions.
“Unfortunately, the word that comes to mind is deplorable,” Reid said. “I’ve never seen a place that was inhabited by people in such an uninhabitable condition.”
Reid described seeing mold and black mold growths, chipped paint and several places where the ceiling had caved into the second floor apartments.
Schnur said the severity of the building’s damage was rare: “This is not normal.” She said the danger the conditions posed to tenants warranted taking the extreme step of removing them from the building before any work is done to bring it into compliance.
“We found that it was in the best interest of the residents to secure the building and remove everybody. We didn’t think it was safe enough for them to continue to stay there,” Schnur said.
After a full building inspection, the city told McClure he had until Aug. 19 to submit a plan to bring the building into compliance or it would be condemned. But when no plan was submitted by the deadline, the condemnation proceeded.
Yet, McClure said he didn’t know about the pending condemnation. He said he found out when tenants contacted him about it. “They knew before I did,” McClure said. “They called me and told me what’s happening, they said, ‘We’ve been ordered out, the building’s been closed.’”
Reid said this situation “100%” indicates a need for larger legislation from City Council, such as a stronger landlord licensing system that he and others have proposed in the past. Currently, landlords are required to annually re-register their rental properties separately, and violations for one property don’t affect the landlord’s standing with any other property.
Reid said that implementing a more comprehensive system would allow for real enforcement of the city’s property codes and improve conditions for tenants.
“I don’t think that landlord licensing necessarily would have prevented this; I think it would have had the potential to,” Reid said. “But what it will do is ensure that folks who provide this kind of substandard housing are no longer able to provide housing in the City of Evanston.”