For more than a century, the southeast corner of Evanston, east of Chicago Avenue and south of Dempster Street, has featured a long line of apartment buildings housing residents such as graduate students, professors and young families.
Many of those buildings had the same ownership for decades. The Wirtz family, including Chicago Blackhawks Chairman Rocky Wirtz, owned five apartment buildings in that area for 90 years. Many renters have lived in those units for 10 years or more, and they reported a good relationship with maintenance staff, and only incremental, limited increases in rent over time.
But at least six of those buildings have recently changed hands, including five sold over the summer by Wirtz Residential. Now, the new owners are handing out lease non-renewals, notices to vacate and what some regard as exorbitant monthly rent hikes.
And another building, at the corner of Sheridan Road and Keeney Street, was recently bought by a newly formed limited liability company. One tenant, Geoff Wayton, who recently moved to Evanston from Indiana with his wife and two children, said he received a message from the new property manager informing him that his rent was increasing from $1,950 to $2,500 a month.
“We’re still reeling from this, but we’re working toward a solution,” Wayton said. “There’s just a few families in that building that I don’t know what they’re going to do, that I’m worried sick about. Good, hardworking people that don’t have any options right now.”
The new property manager for Wayton’s building, Ann Majstoric, told the RoundTable this week that the rent charged previously was below market rate, and the 28% increase was necessary to bring the units back to the market standard. Wayton disagreed, though, saying he kept a spreadsheet of rent costs in various buildings around Evanston when his family was planning their move, and the previous charges were more in line with other similar buildings around town.
Wayton’s experience is not all that unique these days, even in his own small corner of Evanston. Just down the street, near Hinman Avenue and South Boulevard, longtime Evanstonian Nancy Temkin and her neighbors in a 41-unit building sold by Wirtz to real estate investment firm North Park Ventures were greeted with a notice to vacate just days before Christmas.
“Dear Nancy,” read the notice, emailed to Temkin from Mel Cazimi, director of residential leasing for Quadrel Realty Group, which manages buildings for North Park Ventures. “This email is our written notice to inform you that we will not be renewing your lease once it expires. We are required to give you 120 days notice per the city ordinance and we are fulfilling this requirement. You will need to hand over possession of your unit on April 30th, 2023.”
In fact, Evanston’s Landlord and Tenant Ordinance only requires 30 days written notice in the event of a lease not being renewed, or a resident being forced to vacate due to planned renovations or maintenance upgrades. The City of Chicago has a different ordinance requiring 120 days notice, instead.
In this case, Quadrel and North Park Ventures are not renewing Temkin’s lease, in addition to planning renovations in every unit of all five buildings recently acquired from Wirtz. In emails to Temkin and other residents, Cazimi said the upgrades would include redoing all bathrooms and replacing the appliances and floors in units with outdated infrastructure.
Temkin, 75, works part-time as a researcher for an attorney. She struggles with severe medical debt and cannot afford paying the extra few hundred dollars a month that Quadrel plans to charge following its building renovations. And in the meantime, she cannot find any available apartments left in Evanston at her price range.
“The only people I know are in Evanston. I’ve lived in Evanston since my son was four, and he’s now 42, so I’m a longtime resident,” Temkin said. “So I don’t know where else I would go. Skokie, there’s not many apartments, and because of the medical things, I want to stay close to Evanston Hospital, where most of my doctors are.”
Temkin started a GoFundMe account to support her imminent moving expenses and medical bills. It has raised more than $1,700, although donations have slowed in recent days.
Cazimi did not respond to multiple requests from the RoundTable for comment on how large upcoming rent increases would be and the extent of the planned renovations for the five buildings in southeast Evanston now under Quadrel’s supervision.
Although Temkin and Wayton’s new building owners are within their rights as landlords to institute rent increases or to upgrade their properties, local governments have a few options they can pursue to help protect renters, fair housing experts said.
For instance, the Chicago Housing Justice League launched Just Cause Chicago to promote new housing policies that would require landlords to have a legitimate reason to pursue the eviction of a tenant.
Currently, landlords can present any reason, or no reason at all, for eviction, as long as they provide the required written notice to renters.
“What we would advocate for is certainly building more affordable housing, making that more attractive for the stakeholders involved, and then policies that would help keep people in place and treat housing as more of a human right, and less of a fungible commercial transaction,” said Jonathan Raffensperger, an attorney with the Law Center for Better Housing.
Both Raffensperger and Dominic Voz, assistant director of fair housing for local nonprofit Open Communities, said they have seen a trend of more corporate apartment building ownership treating housing as a for-profit commodity, rather than simply a shelter where people live.
Some municipalities across the country also have just housing ordinances or fair housing laws on their books that require landlords to provide some kind of relocation assistance for people forced to move amid lease nonrenewals or renovations. Chicago, for example, has a Keep Chicago Renting Ordinance that pays $10,600 to tenants in foreclosed properties for moving expenses.
“We need to find ways to stabilize rentership. This is a huge swath of the country that is not going to be able to step into homeownership anytime soon, and this is myself included,” Voz said. “It shouldn’t be so tenuous. You shouldn’t feel so much precarity as a renter. You just expect that every few years, you’re going to have to move, the landlord’s renovating or the building gets bought. It’s disempowering. It really damages the sense of home for people.”
For its part, Evanston and the city council have an opportunity to pass more renter-friendly laws that protect tenants and their rights. The city can require relocation assistance, longer notice periods and even limitations on regular rent increases.
City staff is actively reviewing local housing ordinances and “exploring ways to expand tenant protections,” Evanston Communications Manager Patrick Deignan told the RoundTable in an email.
Majstoric, Wayton’s new property manager, said she’s happy to meet with any tenants who have concerns about cost or maintenance moving forward, and that she is scheduled to meet with Wayton in the coming days. But Wayton still wants to see more advocacy on the part of the city for folks like him.
Right now, he’s worried he might have made a mistake by choosing to settle and raise a family in Evanston. He coaches cross country at DePaul University in Chicago, and his wife is a special education teacher in District 65.
“If Evanston loses the ability for police officers, firemen, teachers to be able to live in their own community, that’s going to hurt us going forward,” he said. “That’s an important part of the fabric of the community, is having those people in your city and not commuting from other places. I hope for the best for this community. We want to make it our home long-term. We just, right now, feel like we may have screwed up.”