Some Landlords Called into the Court–again and again

Tax scavenger Tony Bryant tops a list of the owners and management companies with chronic building court violations, according to The Chicago Reporter’s analysis of Cook County Circuit Court records.

In the past five years, Bryant has been listed as a defendant in 106 housing court cases–”more than twice as many as the number two name on the list. In Chicago, city attorneys take landlords and property owners to court when they repeatedly fail to correct serious problems.

The housing court records the Reporter obtained were for all cases between January 1997 and March 2002.

Bryant, who lives and works in Chicago, buys interests in tax delinquent properties, some of them crumbling or about to be torn down.

He said he isn’t a landlord. “I buy any tax lien on a property that I think can make me money,” said Bryant, who works from a spacious River North loft.

He said Cook County’s tax scavenger program requires that, once he buys liens on the property, it is on hold for at least six months and can be taken back if the owners pay the back taxes. So, Bryant said, while he has a financial interest, he is not legally liable for the properties.

“Over the 12 years I’ve been doing this, I have sold thousands of properties to anyone and everyone you can imagine,” he said. “And yes, there have been some slum landlords, but there have also been some good ones, too.”

Besides Bryant, the top 10 includes some of the city’s biggest landlords, such as Elzie Higginbottom, a Chicagoan and longtime ally of Mayor Richard M. Daley; John Grant, whose spotty track record has drawn city attention; and the Chicago-based management company Wolin-Levin Inc., which manages more than 200 condominiums and apartment buildings in the metro area.

John Roberson, who became the city building commissioner May 1, pledged to use new computer technology to aggressively pursue repeat code violators.

Many of the troubled properties owned or managed by chronic housing court defendants are in poor African American and Latino neighborhoods on the South and West sides of the city, the analysis shows.

“When the city doesn’t hold these landlords responsible, the entire housing stock suffers,” said John LeFlore, a community organizer for the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, a renters advocacy group.

From 1995 to 1999, the city lost 40,500 rental units, according to the U.S. Census. Meanwhile, the number of poor families in the Chicago region living in units with severe physical problems doubled.

Richard Monocchio, deputy commissioner for the city’s Housing Department, said that two-thirds of the department’s $326 million budget goes to creating affordable rental housing and subsidizing improvements to dilapidated property.

Holding landlords accountable has become critical as the city deals with an affordable housing crunch.

The city can only do so much to promote affordable housing, Monocchio said, because most private property owners don’t find it lucrative.

But LeFlore said the city can do more. He pointed to Higginbottom, the president and chief executive officer of East Lake Management and Development Corp. The company gets city and federal money to manage affordable apartment buildings. Since 1997, either Higginbottom or East Lake was named as a defendant in 36 housing court cases.

“It is absolutely unacceptable because he has so many resources at his disposal,” LeFlore said. Higginbottom did not return repeated phone calls.

The city works with Higginbottom because he, unlike most real estate managers, offers apartments that families with modest incomes can afford, Monocchio said.

But there are others on the housing court list the city doesn’t want to work with, such as Grant, a defendant in 36 cases. When the Reporter visited a Chicago house where Grant was sent a court summons last year, no one came to the door.

“We bump heads with him a lot,” said Mark Limanni, the city’s chief housing court attorney. “We wish he would just sell his property. –¦ We have trouble serving him [court summons] because he spends a lot of time in the Bahamas.”

With 27 cases in housing court, Wolin-Levin offers lower-rent apartments on the South Side, but also runs luxury condominium buildings. Calls to the company’s office in Hyde Park were not returned.

Contributing: Nneka Amu. Chanel Polk helped research this article

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