Some of the tenants at 312 N. Central Ave., the four-story, 68-unit apartment building that caught fire on April 2, are so sickened by the place — literally — and so fed up with the building’s owners that they’re taking matters into their own hands. Around 25 of them, by their own count, got together last Saturday to form a union.
The desperate residents hope the action will pressure the building’s management and city officials to take their demands seriously, which include permanent shelter for the 15 to 25 tenants displaced by the fire.
The blaze that occurred earlier this month took the life of a 63-year-old man who, according to his neighbors, was wheel-chair bound. It also injured two firefighters — one of whom fell down the shaft of an inoperable elevator. According to the Office of Fire Investigation, the fire was likely caused by “careless use of smoking materials,” which led to a mattress catching fire.
The building’s elevator had failed a city inspection in February, according to Chicago Department of Buildings records. That failed inspection was just the latest of at least 26 city inspections the building had failed since 2008. Seven of those failed inspections were in relation to the elevator, which records, and interviews with tenants, indicate has been inoperable for at least two years.
On Jan. 20, 2010, according to city building records, a permit was issued for upgrades to the elevator, which included the installation of a “new 1st floor door lock,” and a “new light and fan” in the cab. The work also entailed replacing “missing covers,” and performing tests and adjusting the elevator “for proper operation.”
But those minor upgrades pale in comparison to the litany of fire-related violations the building accrued in the months and years before the fatal April 2 inferno.
Building records show that on Feb. 8, 2016, the city issued code citations for out-of-service smoke detectors in the building’s front and rear stairwells and for a missing label on the building’s laundry room door that is supposed to indicate that the room is capable of “at least one hour [of] fire resistance.”
The city had also issued citations in 2015, 2013, 2012 and 2011 for a range of violations, including missing fire extinguishers in several corridors, outdated fire extinguishers on “all floors” and fire extinguishers that were “missing inside the boxes.”
‘I’m one of the lucky ones’
Gayina Washington, a daycare teacher who lived on the building’s second floor with her 18-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son before the fire made her temporarily homeless, said she thinks the media attention surrounding those injured firefighters will pressure the building’s owners into making long overdue changes or risk having the building shut down.
“The remaining tenants that are in this building are not safe and not healthy — and that was before the fire,” Washington said during an April 23 interview outside of the building. “I’m one of the lucky ones.”
Washington, 40, said since the fire, she’s been sleeping on the floor at friends’ houses while her children have been staying with relatives. She said employees with the building’s management company, Realty Consulting Services, let her retrieve some of her belongings since the fire happened, but her remaining items are behind lock and key while her unit undergoes repairs.
“I know for a fact that my iPad has been stolen,” she said, adding that another tenant who had tried to enter the building after the fire to retrieve his belongings was arrested.
“I’ve called 311, I’ve made a complaint with the mayor’s office, I’ve talked to the alderman,” Washington said. “Everyone is running me around. I’m tired of being told to go here and there, which is why I’m having this press conference today.”
Washington said she, along with several tenants, met with Ald. Chris Taliaferro (37th), who listened to them, but told her that there was little he could do.
“He basically stated that this is just something between myself and the building owners that we’d have to hash it out,” Washington said. “He said he could send out someone to inspect the building, but that he was afraid to do that, because it might mean the building would be shut down and the tenants would be homeless.”
When contacted Monday, however, Taliaferro disputed Washington’s claims, noting that he told the tenants he had spoken with city officials immediately after the fire and had tried to find shelter for the displaced families.
“I didn’t tell them that there was nothing I could do about it,” Taliaferro said. “The city informed us that they couldn’t provide apartments for the displaced families, but that they could provide immediate [temporary] shelter. The tenants didn’t want it. Even after I spoke with them, I continued to look in the private sector for housing.”
Taliaferro also noted that he was informed that the building’s ownership was in housing court due to violations that accrued before the fire.
Washington and the roughly two dozen tenants she said have joined her in organizing the union, made a range of demands. They’ve also started a petition drive, which had accumulated around 23 signatures as of last Saturday, the tenants said.
King Coleman, 58, lives on the building’s first floor and is one of the officers of the newly formed tenants’ union. Coleman said he’d like to see security guards on the premises more frequently, the elevator repaired and well-functioning, and the building better maintained.
“Every now and then a security guard will come here, every three days or so, and stay for a few hours,” Coleman said.
“They don’t have anybody come in to clean up the place on the weekend. And, most importantly, the elevator. That’s wrong. You got people in wheelchairs, sickly people on disability who can’t hardly walk, on canes, or whatever. The laundry is on the first floor. Imagine if you on the fourth floor and you got to do laundry and you crippled.”
Mary Hartsfield, a friend of Washington’s who has helped her with organizing efforts and who would sometimes stay overnight at her apartment, said the 63-year-old victim of the fire “would have somebody carry his wheelchair down the stairs.”
Coleman and Washington said they’ve tried calling management directly, but their calls often go unanswered. There’s one management representative on the building’s premises most weekdays, they said, but the dereliction goes beyond that person.
“They good at fixing things,” Coleman said. “But it’s not the management, it’s the upper office. It’s higher than that.”
Realty Consulting Services is incorporated in Illinois and owned by Lawrence Irwin, who is also the company’s president, court records show. Irwin’s daughter, Shane Adams, is the company’s director of operations.
According to the company’s website, in addition to properties throughout Chicago and the state, Realty Consulting Services manages apartment complexes in Northwest Indiana and Central Illinois as well.
During a phone interview Monday, Irwin said the fire department is the source of the tenant’s problems.
“The fire was located in one of the units and it was totally contained,” he said. “The other units were fine. The department broke down about 18 doors. It’s only a matter of time before the fire department allows them back in.”
Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford, however, said on Monday that the department has already released the building back to Irwin’s company.
Irwin also addressed the building violations and the property’s general upkeep, noting that, despite the numerous code violations, the smoke detectors and fire extinguishers were generally functioning and in place.
“The smoke detectors were all there,” he said. “From time to time, the tenants will take extinguishers, so those violations could’ve been warranted at the time. But if someone shows up to do a review before we can replace them, [that leads to a violation]. But it’s never been that we just didn’t have them there.”
Irwin said that his company relies on an on-site property manager, who tenants said is a woman named LaToya Ross, to ensure that the building is maintained and to field residents’ complaints. Ross couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.
The units at Austin Station range from small to large studio apartments, with rent starting at $445, the website notes. It isn’t yet known how many, if any, of the building’s residents receive federal housing vouchers. None of the tenants interviewed last Saturday said they received the subsidies and Irwin, who said he was pressed for time, didn’t comment on the matter.
Washington said she pays at least $610 and that her rent was raised last December, even though various code violations were still unfixed. She said if she’d known about the violations beforehand, she wouldn’t have signed her lease.
‘Everybody started getting sick’
“I’ve been here four years and it’s been murders, everything has happened in this building,” said Tony Blakney, 55, who lives on the first floor. “We’ve had three of them,” he said, although his claims couldn’t be immediately verified by police records.
Blakney and his neighbors said their studio apartments have no conventional stoves. Most of them said they cook using microwaves, portable ovens and hot plates, “which they don’t want us doing.”
“These are just single rooms, but you have some people who live here with their families,” he said. “That’s kind of bad.”
Andre Washington, a dry wall worker who has lived on the building’s first floor for two years, said he’s been having problems with the building’s conditions “ever since day one.”
“People hang out in the hallway and they don’t keep the building cleaned up,” said Washington, who along with Coleman, noted that he’d been sick for several days.
“We think they let us move back in the building too soon after the fire, because everybody started getting sick,” Washington said. “Everybody on the first floor started getting sick. We didn’t know what was wrong with us. We’re just getting over it. We think it’s got something to do with the after-effects of the fire.”
Gayina Washington showed reporters an area of wall space within one of the building’s hallways that apparently had been painted over, but that had since blistered and was still wet. She said residents have also complained that parts of the building still reek of smoke.
West Side activist Elcie Redmond, who helped facilitate Saturday’s press conference, said the tenants plan to seek representation from the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing.
Washington said the tenants are also demanding that the building’s management place those who were put out by the fire in shelter as repairs continue.
“If they’re not allowing us to go into our apartment because of repairs, then they should be housing us,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to figure out daily where we’re going to sleep or how we’re going to survive. Several people I know are living in shelters.”
Washington said tenants are also demanding to be placed in permanent, low-income housing due to the building’s condition and for financial assistance to move somewhere else if they choose or if the city shuts the building down.
“I’m pretty sure this building is worse off now than before the fire and because that firefighter fell down the shaft, all kinds of attention is going to come to this situation,” she said.
“That’s going to leave tenants at risk. If this building gets shut down, where are they going to go? We’ve been victimized enough, so I’m asking for the city to assist these residents with some housing. They knew this building wasn’t in compliance.”