As the door closes at Astor House, an activist is born

Melvin Jennings at his home. [Photo by Sophia Nahli Allison]

Melvin Jennings at his home. [Photo by Sophia Nahli Allison]

On Dec. 13 , with the weather at a relatively balmy 30 degrees after more than a week of freezing temperatures, Melvin Jennings was evicted from the Astor House, an affordable but run-down high-rise in Rogers Park. Jennings, who works as a security guard, found out that he was being evicted when he came home after the overnight shift.

He wasn’t the only one. Six tenants in four apartments overall were evicted from the Astor House on Thursday, only days before the Dec. 16 holiday moratorium on evictions went into effect.

For many, the evictions were the final act in a drama that had been playing out for more than a year. Astor House was sold to a new owner in October 2012, and its units are now offered as rentals by BJB Properties, a North Side realtor known for turning single-room occupancy hotels into upscale high-rises.

Shortly after the new owners bought the building, they began rehabbing it. Concerned that BJB Properties would be looking to push them out of one of the few affordable buildings in Rogers Park – and angered by the ongoing noise of the construction – a handful of tenants, including Jennings, began organizing.

Along with the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing, the tenants went to court to try and get the construction stopped. They were unsuccessful. Then they attempted to get the city to take over as property manager, arguing the new owners weren’t responsive to the needs of the tenants. That didn’t work, either.

Meanwhile, tenants like Arbie Bowman, who lived on a month-to-month lease at Astor House with her young daughter, were given eviction notices for non-payment of rent. Bowman, however, said that while the tenants were still in court with the new owner, they were not expected to pay rent.

Bowman, whom The Chicago Reporter first wrote about this past summer, was evicted in August. She’s now living temporarily in a friend’s Roger Park apartment until she can get on her feet again, she said.

Other tenants had continued to fight their cases. Jennings had been in court until November. The case was eventually resolved but not on his behalf. He was ordered to pay back rent and given an eviction notice for Dec. 1.

But the door of the Astor House finally closed on Jennings last week. He will be spending the holidays in a Motel 6, the cheapest place he could find for him and his girlfriend to store their belongings until they can make more long-term plans.

A heavyset man who is quick to laugh and sometimes jumbles his words in the hurry to get them out, Jennings said he was sad to see his time at the Astor House end – and to be leaving through an eviction order.

Jennings’ next stop is Memphis, Tenn., where he plans to care for his ailing mother. Though the money he’s had to pour into a motel stay has set him back on his plan to head to Memphis in January, he said he will also be taking something invaluable with him: what he’s learned organizing. 

 “I feel like a community activist now,” he said, laughing. “My thing is to get people involved.”

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