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West Side apt. building's visitor ban puts moms in a bind

January 13th, 2021 9:30 AM

LOCKED OUT: The Independence Housing building in North Lawndale seen on Jan. 6. Armed security guards tasked with enforcing the building's coronavirus rules pulled a gun on one visitor, a tenant said.

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Pascal Sabino | Block Club Chicago

Moms at a West Side affordable housing complex say they have been forced to quit their jobs after a new building policy made it impossible to get in-home child care while they are at work.

In December, Interfaith Housing Development Corporation banned tenants from having guests at Independence House, a 25-unit apartment complex at 810 S. Independence Blvd. The ban includes child care workers and family members, tenants said.

The restrictions are meant to protect residents from exposure to coronavirus and to reduce crime and drug activity, said Harriette Mimms, Interfaith's director of asset management. Mimms said the policy is flexible and temporary — but tenants contend the ban has already had drastic consequences.

"It made me miss out on a job opportunity because I don't have anyone to watch my kids," tenant Jeri Freeman said.

Freeman was preparing to start a job as a home care aide. She usually relies on family members or the father of her 6-year-old and 6-month-old children to babysit, but the restrictions made that impossible. 

"My kids can't come to work with me," she said. "Who are you to stop us from having company? We grown!"

Resident Bana Glenn lives with a disability and relies on visitors to help her with tasks like "bringing my groceries in, going up and down to the laundry room, things like that."

Typically, Glenn relies on helpers to visit three or four times a week. The rules have made it difficult for her to take care of routine errands, she said.

Residents and tenants advocates are fighting the restrictions, which they describe as an illegal lockdown.

The ban on visitors violates tenants' rights laws by changing the terms of the lease, which had no restrictions on guests, without the consent of residents, said organizers with the Metropolitan Tenants Organization.

"The only way that the tenants' rights under their lease … can be changed is if there is a city or government issues ordinance," said organizer Laura Garcia.

But Mimms said the nonprofit's leaders believe they have the authority to ban visitors due to Mayor Lori Lightfoot's social distancing and stay at home advisories.

"We don't feel the rule is illegal. There is a public health emergency that we feel supersedes the lease," Mimms said. "If you have a lot of people coming and going … you're going to end up spreading the virus."

The mayor's advisory isn't enough to override the lease signed by the tenant, said attorney Philip DeVon, who also works with Metropolitan Tenants Organization.

"That doesn't change the fact that what they're doing is not only inappropriate, but also, in my opinion, illegal," he said. The stay at home advisory is "called advisory for a reason. Because it's essentially advice."

In an attempt to get the city to intervene, residents even called 311, they said.

In a statement, the city's Department of Housing said it is "committed to safe affordable housing for all especially during these difficult times."

"We are looking into the conditions at the Independence House in North Lawndale and will work with Interfaith and residents to realize that goal," spokeswoman Eugenia Orr said.

Security 'Terrorizing Tenants,' Organizer Says

Interfaith hired a private security firm in early December to enforce the visitor ban and reduce crime. The armed guards routinely intimidate and harass residents, Garcia said.

"They are terrorizing tenants and creating a prison-like environment where they don't feel comfortable. They feel on edge," Garcia said.

Freeman has lived in the building for 15 years and has always had a key to the front door. But when Interfaith brought in armed security, they changed the locks so the only way residents can get into their apartments is to show their ID and get buzzed in by the guard, she said.

Freeman said the guard often gives tenants a hard time.

"They look at us like we're crazy. We gotta beat on the window for them to open the door," Freeman said. "Don't nobody want to live like this."

Conflicts between security and residents make some tenants, like Katrina Scott, feel unsafe in their own home.

Scott recently witnessed an incident where a tenant attempted to let a guest in the building. During an altercation with the guest, Scott said she saw a guard pull his gun on the visitor.

A video of the incident reviewed by Block Club shows two security officers tussling with a tenant and her guest.

During the fight, an officer drops what appears to be a gun as a bystander shouts, "His gun on the floor! Get my kids back! … You better put that gun in your holster!"

"It could have ricocheted and hit somebody," said Scott, who lost her parents to gun violence.

Mimms denied allegations that security has drawn a gun at residents. Interfaith is reviewing bodycam footage of the incident, she said.

'It Put Me In A Whole Financial Situation'

Like several other single moms at the Interfaith building, Scott had to quit her job as a security officer due to the visitor ban. She doesn't want to risk sending her kids to day care due to the pandemic, and her usual babysitters — her kids' father or her family — are no longer allowed in the building.

"It put me in a whole financial situation, especially with rent," she said. "It's hard for me to get to the grocery store. It's hard for me to do anything. I have four kids."

At the start of the visitor ban, Scott attempted to enter the building with her four kids, but her 6-year-old daughter, who was not on the lease, was denied entry to the building, Scott said. Instead, she had to go stay with her father, Scott said.

"That felt horrible. How can I tell my baby who's crying to come to me, that she can't come with me? This is where she stays. Her bed, her clothes, everything is here," Scott said.

Some tenants have been able to have guests, Scott said, but leeway on the visitor ban is at the discretion of security and the building managers who "pick and choose whose family could come."

Mimms said the nonprofit hasn't heard of any tenants who have had to quit their jobs and tenants experiencing issues with child care never reached out to Interfaith make accommodations.

"We ask you to come and tell us," Mimms said. "Nine times out of 10, we say yes."

Interfaith's management said the ban on visitors was a temporary measure that will be reevaluated with input from residents in the coming weeks.

But even if Interfaith Housing Development Corporation gives some residents flexibility around the visitor ban, the nonprofit has deeper issues with violating tenant rights laws, aggressive security practices, and poor treatment of tenants, organizers said.

"Unfortunately, we see a lot of nonprofits operating under the guise of helping the community and serving under-resourced communities. But in reality, they are nonprofit slumlords, and there's an abuse of power happening," Garcia said.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago. 

CONTACT: pascal@blockclubchi.org

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