The first thing you notice about the rental home at 705 S. Center Street is that the front door doesn’t lock.
The posts holding up the front porch shake when you touch them. Inside the front hall, there’s mold from floor to ceiling on one wall, and large pieces of the wall and ceiling are missing due to apparent water damage.
Moesha Tyner lives in this Bloomington rental with her six children. On the way up the narrow staircase leading from the front door to her second floor unit, the stairwell is dark because the hall light switch doesn’t work.
Inside the apartment, shows a GLT reporter her bathroom. When the reporter step on the floor, it sinks.
“This is my bathroom where the most problems come in at. You can see where it is caving in. I think it is very unsafe, and one day if the kids continue to take baths and showers, I think it is going to cave in,” Tyner said.
Then there are the bugs. Flies and mosquitoes come in because several of the windows don’t have screens. The glass is missing from windows in the basement, on the second floor in her children’s play room, and in the attic.
Tyner pulls out a cell phone and displays photographs of one of her young daughters with insect bites.
“This is her arm been bite from a bug. This is her forehead been bite from an insect as well. These are the roaches from when I’ve been spraying," she said.
Tyner displays a photo that shows the extent of the roach infestation. The photo shows dozens of dead roaches she swept up on the floor after her daily spraying.
“You have to zip up all your food, protect it because there’s roaches,” she said.
Tyner said the roaches were there when she moved in, but she felt she had little choice but to take the three-bedroom apartment when she arrived in Bloomington from Chicago about two years ago. It was big enough for her large family. And, at $700 a month, it was something she could afford, barely, on her $9 dollar an hour job at Burger King. Plus, she was happy to leave her previous neighborhood, in Chicago.
“I came from Chicago due to fact that we had a fire there, a man was on our porch dead, people were breaking into the places. I came to Bloomington to change our life and that’s what I thought.”
Tyner said she tried numerous times to contact her landlord, Cynthia Shepard, asking her to make repairs and have the unit professionally fumigated.
“I complained to my landlord several times. I was told not to contact her by phone due to my sending her pictures about this. I was told she would be taking me to court to leave the premises," Tyner said.
Shepard does business as Shackman Rentals and owns 50 buildings in Bloomington. Her units have been cited so many times for housing code violations, city officials say they stopped counting. She is a regular in the Administrative Court for housing violations, sometimes appearing on multiple cases in a single day.
GLT visited Shepard in her office on Main Street where tenants stream in to pay their rent, usually in cash. Shepard says she considers herself a champion of the poor.
“My specialty is single mothers. A lot of these women are very young and have multiple children, And the men are in prison, the men are not coming up with any money for them, so they do come up with problems and have to rely on family and friends and coworkers to help them that are usually in the same boat,” Shepard said.
The public, Shepard maintains, doesn’t understand the difficulties landlords face, or the costs involved in keeping up properties. She says she spends about $10,000 a month to pay maintenance workers.
After she retired as a paralegal with the Illinois Supreme Court, she said she was forced to take a job as a supermarket cashier, to help support herself and pay her business expenses.
“There are some tenants—usually the ones I evict—who think I am a slumlord, I guess, but I don’t quite understand that because I have never had any money for myself, which is why I had to work a full-time and part-time job. All my retirement money goes into my rental properties, which is $10,000 a month.”
Shepard blames her tenants for the extreme disrepair in her units. She says she has sent maintenance workers to address some of Tyner’s complaints.
“What my maintenance guy noticed when he was up there to do work, first of all there were so many children running back and forth he was afraid to leave tools there. He thought if he turned around quickly, he would hurt somebody because they weren’t always well behaved. So we pulled off,” she said.
Shepard estimates she files two to three eviction cases each month. Her tenants frequently fall behind in their rent payments, she said, because of what she views as the poor choices they make.
“Lack of work ethic. People don’t feel they have to work 40 hours a week. I work 90 and that is before I retired. It seems like I still work 90 now. I put my work ethic first. I didn’t have any children. It seems now people have as many children as they possibly can without being able to afford them, and I see that as being a problem, especially with single women," Shepard said.
But it’s not that simple.
For many people like Moesha Tyner, who lives in Shepard’s rundown Center Street unit, survival is a daily struggle. When she lost her job at Burger King, she got another job, as a cashier at Walmart. That job also paid $9 an hour, with no benefits. She receives $800 a month in food stamps. Her husband, with whom she is separated, pays the gas and electric bill, but he, too, works a minimum wage job at a local bar-restaurant.
Tyner began withholding rent, hoping that it would force her landlord to make repairs and bring in professional fumigators. Instead, she received an eviction notice from Shepard.
“If a tenant has stopped working with me, I have to proceed. It’s the only thing I can think of doing. I want the rent to be paid and the place kept clean and my guys to get in there with ladders and saws to do whatever needs to be done,” Shepard said.
Tyner’s downstairs neighbor at the Center Street property has also begun withholding rent from Shepard.
Delilah Grant keeps a bucket in her living room to catch water that is leaking through her ceiling from Tyner’s bathroom upstairs. Grant also complains about the bugs.
“We always pay our rent on time and then when all of a sudden we start seeing stuff that needs to be fixed, she will just push us to the side, but she will still call for her rent,” Grant said.
Grant saved some of those messages from Shepard on her cell phone. On one of those messages, Shepard says, “Delilah, this is Cindy Shepard. I know you have been served with the five-day notice. You haven’t paid the amount you owe. So I am proceeding with the eviction. I thought you could be decent and give me a call or bring in some money to stop the eviction.”
Grant has three children and works as a certified nursing assistant, earning $10 an hour. She is now looking for somewhere else to live.
“I don’t have $35 or $25 dollars every time I go and try to put in an application for an apartment. And then they want security and first month rent. How am I going to come up with all that with three kids?” Grant said.
“All you can do is pray and do day by day. I still have a roof, but I don’t know how long I’m going to have a roof,” she added.
Lawyers who represent tenants say withholding rent is one of the worst strategies tenants can use to force a landlord’s hand. Under the Illinois Landlord Tenant code, tenants have to pay rent on time unless they can prove their unit is uninhabitable. If they continue living in the unit while withholding rent, it contradicts the argument that their home is unfit to live in.
Emily Petri is an attorney with Prairie Legal Services, which helps low-income clients.
“Under Illinois law, having issues with your landlord not making repairs and not fixing problems is not a complete defense to an eviction case. There is probably an argument to be made given all the issues—and the judge would have to look at all the specific issues—that the rent should be a lot less. But it is really hard to argue that rent should be wiped out, or that it should be zero, because the tenant was still able to stay there and have some use of their apartment.”
Petri says a better strategy is for the tenant to pay some rent, or else place the whole month’s rent in escrow with Prairie Legal Services or other legal counsel.
Going to Court
That underscores another difficulty for low-income tenants: most cannot afford representation. Prairie Legal Services says it doesn’t have the funds—or staff—to take on landlord-tenant cases that don’t have don’t have strong legal defense. The few tenants who decide to proceed in court are left to represent themselves.
“I had to find a way be my own advocate because there was no one representing me … but I knew that I had the heart to represent myself in a positive way,” said Anthony Middleton, a part-time construction worker, who sued his Bloomington property manager.
Middleton pressed his case against AB Rentals after a fire swept through AB’s multi-unit house at 812 W. Washington Street last February. Middleton’s unit, unlike the others, received only smoke damage.
After the fire, AB changed the locks in all of the units. Middleton says he called the property manager a number of times seeking to get into his unit so he could collect his belongings. He was particularly concerned about his computers and other electronic equipment. Before the landlord responded, his unit was burglarized.
“The fire was heart-breaking, but the burglary after the fire, it took some time for me to function and get back to the normal things of life,” he said.
In court, AB was represented by counsel and also brought a witness to buttress its case. At times, Middleton appeared so confounded by the proceedings, he would place his head in his hands.
"I kind of lost it a little and thought I was going to lose, but something in my heart kept saying speak the truth, speak the truth, and everything would sort itself out and God was always with me,” he said.
Middleton sought $4,000 from AB as replacement value for the items that were stolen. In court, AB’s representative, Lynna Bonnell, maintained the company owed Middleton nothing, and could not be held liable for the burglary.
“AB Rentals wasn’t offering me anything to settle or negotiate for my loss. They were trying to send me away and keep their status as winners," Middleton said.
Judge David Butler ruled in Middleton’s favor. He said AB was not responsible for replacement value of the stolen items but still had to pay Middleton $1,700 to compensate for his loss.
“I was telling the truth, and thank God we have a justice system where the judge made the decision for me,” Middleton said.
Middleton’s success is often the exception. Moesha Tyner, the resident in the Center Street apartment represented herself in the eviction case brought by her landlord, Cynthia Shepard. At a hearing in August, Tyner agreed to move out with her children within 30 days in exchange for not having to pay three months back rent and other expenses her landlord claimed she owed.
The judge never heard Tyner’s complaints about her living conditions. Tyner agreed to settle before the case went to trial.
“If it beats for me having to pay $3,000 and not having an eviction on my background, I will take that,” Tyner said.
Now Tyner is seeking a new place to live. She has contacted some of the local homeless shelters, but they are either full or can’t take her and her six children.
“It’s hard. But I been looking. I don’t want to get another landlord where I have to go through this again,” she said.
Shepard, meanwhile, sees her low-rent properties as a bulwark against gentrification. She said the older buildings she owns are attractive to investors seeking to renovate them in order to charge far higher rents. She said that is the case with one of her current buildings.
“I have two disabled people that live there in efficiencies. They have been there for many years. What (new owners) will do is fix those apartments like crazy and rent them for $900, and the (new) people living there won’t look anything like the two guys sitting out in the yard that you see every day when you drive by,” Shepard said.
As for the Center Street property where Tyner lives, Shepard did send over some workers recently, to patch up some of the walls and ceiling and paint the outside of the house. She said she is getting Tyner’s old unit ready for new renters.
This is the fourth and final part of GLT's series Landlord v. Tenant. Read more of the series.
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