On the day Candace Gailes moved into her apartment at 610 South Linden in Normal, she says she sat down on her front step and wept.
“All you could do is cry. I said I can’t bring my kids into this place. There was blood splatters on the wall. The stove was like years of grease caked on. I had to take a gum scraper, the kind painters use, and scrape the stove. You literally need a hazmat suit to go in.”
Gailes says she called her landlord, who had assured her the apartment would be cleaned by the time she and her four children moved in.
“I called him and said I thought the cleaners were coming in to clean and get everything ready for me. He said, 'I thought I was doing you a favor by letting you move in. You said you needed a place to say and this is the thanks I get?' I’m like I wouldn’t let a stray dog stay in this apartment. It took me three days of cleaning before I felt comfortable bringing my furniture in, and my kids in.”
Gailes’ landlord, Bernard Dotson, declined repeated requests for an interview. He owns several low-income housing units. He is one of about 200 landlords county-wide who participate in the federal Section 8 housing program. Second 8 pays landlords a portion of the rent they charge their tenants.
“And when we did move in we got ate up by spiders. Well, he said they were spiders. I’m not sure what it really was. He ended up calling the pesticide people out. It was disgusting.”
Gailes’ story is familiar among tenants who must compete for a shrinking, aging stock of affordable units. Bloomington and Normal landlords are cited more than 3,000 times a year for housing code violations. Because of their age, many low-income rental units are in chronic disrepair. Compounding the problem is that Bloomington and Normal each have only two housing inspectors to oversee more than 20,000 rental units. There is little pressure on landlords to change.
A 2015 League of Women Voters study found a more than 300 percent increase in the number of people seeking subsidized housing in the last 15 years.
Normal Housing Code Violations
Greg Troemel, Normal’s chief housing inspector, says the city is expected to inspect rental properties at least once a year. But with only two inspectors to monitor the town’s 9,000 units, it’s a struggle.
“There is a fairly in-depth list of things we are looking for, but at same time, in a conventional two-bedroom apartment unit, it’s probably a five-minute inspection. We are not operating every window or swinging every door. It’s pretty much a visible inspection. We look for obvious things.”
Inspection reports obtained by GLT through the Freedom of Information Act show Gailes’ landlord Dotson was cited for numerous violations in the last three years including leaking plumbing fixtures, inoperable smoke alarms and missing windows in his units. Yet, Gailes’ monthly rent is $750 and she pays her own utilities.
“Why do I deserve to be treated like this? Because I'm low income? Because I have Section 8? I like a clean house. I like pictures on the walls. This is already not to my standards. But I needed a place to stay.”
Gailes had difficulty with her previous landlord as well. She had been working at a part-time marketing position at the time. She says her previous landlord refused to return the $995 security deposit from her prior rental. It was money she was counting on to help her find a new home in Tennessee, where she planned to move after being offered a full-time job there.
Illinois requires landlords to keep their units “habitable.” But the law gives them leeway in putting out tenants, especially if they fall behind on rent payments. They can also withhold all or part of a security deposit for reasons they see fit.
Emily Petri, an attorney for Prairie State Legal Services, said she contacted Gailes’ landlord, Andrew Hollins, seeking to resolve the dispute over the deposit.
“They were just really angry that she moved out and they were asking for rent for a month because they said she didn’t properly give notice, and asking for the rest in damages for stuff she really didn’t do. It was normal wear and tear. Things like a broken screen, something along those lines.”
The landlord also reported Gailes to the housing authority, claiming she owed him money. A complaint like that from a landlord could cause the tenant to lose eligibility for Section 8 help. Petri says the landlord agreed to rescind his complaint, if Gailes agreed to give up any claim to the security deposit.
“Our client wanted to accept that because she was ready to move on.”
Hollins, the landlord, refused to speak on tape to GLT. He said in a brief telephone interview he considered the matter resolved.
The effect on Gailes’ life was significant. She didn’t move to Tennessee. She lost the job offer she had at a plasma company there. She and her children bounced around from place to place.
“Without that security deposit I was unable to move to a new place, so I ended up living with my sister, who also has four kids of her own. So it’s me and my sister and her four kids in this three-bedroom apartment she has," she said.
When Gailes found her current two-bedroom apartment at 610 South Linden, she says she felt she had to take it. Her life reflects the hardscrabble existence of many women. She became pregnant in her senior year in high school, then married her child’s father. They had three more children. She says her former husband physically abused her and eventually went to jail on a drug charge.
Gailes obtained her GED and completed an associate’s degree in psychology, which she followed by earning a second associate’s degree in business.
“And from then on it was all about progress, making myself better, giving my kids a healthy life from what they were used to seeing in that domestic situation," she said.
Gailes now works part-time as a cashier at a supermarket. The apartment she rents is part of a multi-unit building. Approaching her doorway, the first thing you notice is a missing storm door window. Inside, Gailes points out ill-fitting Plexiglas windows. To keep out the hot air this summer, she says she’s had to constantly run her air conditioning.
“My bill was $547 that I had to pay. I have been running my electricity like crazy to keep it cool in the house. By the windows not being properly insulated and the doors not being properly insulated, I can’t keep up. And with me working part-time as a cashier, I’m robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
Gailes says she had to choose between paying the electric bill and keeping current on her rent – something she is required to do remain eligible for a Section 8 housing voucher. When she didn’t pay her bill, the power company turned off her electricity.
These aren’t the only problems at her apartment. The tub leaks. The lights don’t work along a stairway that leads to a lower-level bedroom. The water heater next to the bedroom flooded, leaving a visible water mark on the wall. A Town of Normal inspector cited the water heater problem during an annual inspection earlier this year.
“Our inspection in mid-April revealed fairly routine violations," Troemel said.
The Normal chief of inspections says the landlord addressed the flooding by fixing a valve in the water heater. But other issues Gailes cited didn’t appear on that April inspection report, including a safety concern. The screen in the sole window of a basement bedroom where her son sleeps was screwed shut.
“So if ever there was a fire he wouldn’t be able to get out unless he had a drill sitting right there by the window to take the thing out," she said.
Normal Housing Inspections
Gailes says she complained to her landlord. She says she also called an inspector at the Bloomington Housing Authority, which oversees Section 8 units in both Bloomington and Normal.
Kim Holman-Short, executive director of the Housing Authority, said her agency inspected Gailes’ unit last November, and identified the bathtub leak. She says landlord caulked the area around the tub. But this past July, the tub was still leaking.
Holman-Short says inspectors were not aware of the more recent problems Gailes faced.
“We will work with her and the Town of Normal to make sure these items are addressed and remind her of communication, to bring these items to our attention. Things can get resolved when we are there, but over time can deteriorate, and if she cannot get cooperation with the landlord, we can help.”
Holman-Short said the housing authority tries to respond to tenant concerns within one week of receiving a complaint, and within 24 hours if there is a safety issue. More than 600 families in the county receive Section 8 vouchers.
“If we see where a landlord is unable or unwilling to bring a unit up to standard, we will terminate that contract with the landlord and give the resident an opportunity to find another unit that meets the housing standards.”
Informed of Gailes’ concerns by GLT, Troemel personally visited the property a few days later, along with the landlord.
“At that time I walked through the unit with her and asked her to identify shortcomings," he said.
Troemel found problems that the inspection last spring had apparently missed, including the windows.
“The screens were screwed into the window jam. The window itself was operable. The screws have been removed, and from our perspective the window situation was addressed.”
Troemel says he also directed the landlord to replace a circuit that had shorted, rendering lighting fixtures inoperable in two bedrooms and a hallway.
“So he did engage a licensed electrical contractor to come out and that was addressed as well," Troemel said.
And Troemel says the landlord will be required to replace ill-fitting Plexiglas windows with new glass ones, and hire a professional plumber to fix the bathroom leak.
“Time is provided for a property owner or manager to address these concerns and then re-inspections occur. But there is no question there’s been some lag in getting these issues resolved," Troemel said.
But Gailes wonders why pleas to her landlord went unheeded in the first place.
“I feel like we get taken advantage of a lot of the times being low income. You don’t have a voice and it hurts, it hurts bad. Yes I’m low income. I’m a struggling mother, but I go out every day and work. I don’t sit at home and rely on the government. I am not getting checks. I go out and make a living. I went back to school. I have a degree and it just doesn’t seem like it’s doing anything for me.”
Petri of Prairie Legal Services says tenants sometimes move out rather than confront their landlord through the government bureaucracy or in court. And many times, tenants like Candace Gailes choose to endure hardship conditions.
“Quite frankly they have no other options. They have no other money or resources. They have given the landlord whatever money they did have to start paying for rent and they just have no other options. That is basically what it comes down to," Petri said.
The current shortage of new rental housing and quality affordable housing gives landlords a distinct advantage. It’s a situation Holman-Short of the Bloomington Housing Authority says isn’t likely to change any time soon.
“Our community is growing and the number of affordable housing is not keeping up with that growth. Yes, we can certainly assist more families, more households, but the funding is just not there to support that. Still, she says, protecting tenants’ rights remains a high priority.
“I would certainly say to any participant in our program you should not minimize your value. You should expect the same treatment regardless of your income and whether or not you are a participant of a voucher program.”
But many tenants like Candace Gailes say it is nearly impossible for those who don’t walk in their shoes to identify with the fear and struggle they experience daily.
Normal residents with housing concerns can submit a Tenant Complaint Form.
Coming Wednesday: How a tenant’s complaint to a landlord and to city inspectors is no guarantee of a fast fix. The story of a tenant in Bloomington who endures a sewage backup in his bathroom—for 13 days. And a look at tenants’ rights. That’s coming up Wednesday in Landlord v. Tenant.
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