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Housing Fri May 07 2010
Update: The Vialdores family had their day in court--and won.
Carol Vialdores and her children have lived in Rogers Park for 16 years. Currently residing near the Chicago-Evanston border off of Howard Street, the family has never lived anywhere besides the Far North Side.
"The kids have never changed schools," she says. "It's where they've spent their whole lives."
Vialdores and three of her children. Photo by Megan Cottrell.
Vialdores, 41, and her five children, ages five to 19, live at the Northpoint Apartments. For now. The Vialdores family is facing an eviction. Northpoint management claim Vialdores violated several aspects of her lease, including threatening a manager, and are attempting to remove her and her children from their home. She and the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign (CAEC) say her eviction is a response to her active role in organizing with a tenants union at Northpoint for better living conditions, and are mobilizing with community members and other tenants to demand the family be left in their home.
Vialdores and Northpoint began their trial this week. The verdict will determine whether or not the family will get to keep a roof over their heads.
"MANAGEMENT DOESN'T WANT ANYTHING TO CHANGE"
The Vialdores family resides in an apartment complex publicly subsidized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) through project-based Section Eight funding. The complex is owned by AIMCO, a Denver-based property management company and the largest owner and operator of apartments in the country. HUD pays AIMCO market rates for the apartments, and tenants pay AIMCO one-third of their income.
Vialdores and her family depend on the subsidy, as she is currently unemployed. But she and other Northpoint residents say their apartments are in near "unlivable" conditions.
A Northpoint tenant holds a sign in front of HUD headquarters with pictures of black mold and a broken sink taken inside her apartment. Photo by Isaac Silver.
Northpoint grabbed headlines last year when management attempted to evict Erica Bledsoe, a tenant who became the legal guardian of her nieces and nephew after their grandmother Rosetta died unexpectedly. Erica moved into the apartment when her mother became ill with lung disease; her condition quickly worsened, and after she died, Erica and the children were told they had 10 days to vacate the apartment.
The case affected Carol greatly.
"Rosetta was a very strong person. And I can see her in Erica," she said.
The CAEC fought the order, and Bledsoe's eviction was eventually stopped when HUD intervened. Vialdores, who is friends with Bledsoe, said Erica's victory was an inspiration for her and other tenants to get involved with the North Point Tenants Association, a CAEC affiliate.
"When we showed we could fight back and win, people felt like there was some hope," Vialdores said.
After the victory, Bledsoe told Vialdores she needed to stand up for herself in the apartments.
"She encouraged me to get involved, told me not to be afraid. She always told me to keep strong, to not give up, and that a lot of people would support me -- and they have."
Holly Krig, a volunteer coordinator for CAEC and a former organizer for Northside Action for Justice, says Carol soon became the leading face in Northpoint organizing.
"She was the most visible tenant" in the NPTA, she said.
Soon, Vialdores was passing out fliers and organizing meetings with other residents to fight for improved living conditions. Tenants had a number of issues they wanted addressed, but were hesitant about fighting for them.
"Everyone's been afraid. We're trying to get people to lose that fear."
HUD provisions allow for organizing among residents, but that didn't mean management was happy.
"They didn't want us to organize because there are a lot of things they don't want to come out," claimed Carol. "Once we're organized, we can start to change some of those things. But [management] doesn't want anything to change."
It was this activity, claims CAEC, that fueled the effort to remove the Vialdores family from their home.
In April, 2009, Carol says she went to the property managers' office to submit a work order for a recurring problem with a sliding door. Northpoint management informed her that she would have to pay for it herself. An argument quickly began, and management threatened to call the police if she did not leave. Carol claims she had put in few orders in the past, and says she has paid for work herself when she thought it proper.
The incident was not the first time relations had become tense between her and management -- in 2007, she went over the building manager's head and called AIMCO about changing her locks in the wake of an incident of domestic violence with her husband. The manager demanded $70; AIMCO changed them for free. The manager, she says, was angry.
"Since then, she's always had a grudge against me," Vialdores claimed.
Last year, a small fire damaged a bedroom, and Carol came to an agreement with the manager to pay for the repairs. But when another apartment staff member inspected her house, Carol says the staffer began to pick a fight with her about the fire. Northpoint management claims that during this argument, Carol threatened a staff person. Alleging this is a lease violation, it is one of four charges the company has filed in their attempt to evict the Vialdores family.
Carol feels the process was a "setup."
"[The manager] was trying to get me angry, doing anything to get me in trouble. And it worked."
The Northpoint manager in question declined to comment.
As the basis for their eviction, the company cites the alleged threat and claims another was made on a different occasion; in addition, they say her husband was living in her apartment (a third violation), and the fire makes a fourth. She denies all the claims and, when given a 10-day eviction notice in May, 2009, went straight to a lawyer.
Vialdores's biggest concern is having an eviction on her record. If she and her children are evicted, they will never be able to rent a publicly subsidized apartment again -- a serious problem for someone barely hovering above joblessness. And if they are forced to relocate, Carol is unsure what will happen to her 17-year-old daughter Beoncia, who is nearing graduation from high school and hopes to attend college.
Beyond the practical concerns, Carol has been pained by the process.
"It's taking a lot out of me," she explained. "I feel real hurt. I've been going through anxiety attacks, I find myself crying at night.
"They're not just evicting me -- they're evicting my whole family."
"WE DEMAND THAT HUD INTERVENE"
On Monday, a small crowd of supporters gathered in front of HUD's Chicago headquarters near Clark and Jackson as Vialdores and Krig delivered 500 petition signatures to the agency requesting their intervention in the eviction.
A supporter holds a sign with a picture of Carol Vialdores and three of her five children. Photo by Isaac Silver.
CAEC member Frank Edwards called the case "pretty straightforward."
"Northpoint is retaliating for Carol's organizing, using the alleged threat as an excuse to evict her," he claimed.
Keeanga Taylor, another CAEC organizer, condemned AIMCO for their actions.
"The company is not really interested in people's living conditions," she stated.
Frank Edwards, left, and Keeanga Taylor, right, of CAEC speak in front of HUD headquarters. Photo by Isaac Silver.
She implored HUD to stop AIMCO from forcing the Vialdoreses out, as the agency had done in the case of Erica Bledsoe.
"Evictions are catastrophic events in people's lives," Taylor told the crowd. "HUD was established to provide housing for low-income people. Instead of evicting people at a time when there is an eviction crisis happening around this city and around the country, they should be trying to figure out solutions to expand housing opportunities for people, to keep families together and to keep people in their homes."
Vialdores's fellow Northpoint tenants joined the crowd, some holding signs with pictures they claimed showed unfulfilled work orders and unsafe living conditions in their apartments.
"They treat us like we're nothing," said Anthony Burns, a fellow Northpoint resident for 16 years.
Eva Holland an unemployed caseworker in Rogers Park who does volunteer social service referrals for Northpoint residents, said tenants will continue to organize if HUD doesn't step in.
"If HUD doesn't want to take responsibility, the tenants are going to take responsibility," she said.
Vialdores was allowed into the building to deliver the petitions. She said HUD was cordial, accepting the petitions and listening to her story, but offered no promises.
A HUD spokesperson would not comment on the case.
"WE'D PROBABLY MOVE INTO A SHELTER"
Vialdores has her day in court, and her lawyer, John Elston, feels their likelihood of winning is good.
"We have a reasonable chance. It's just their word against Carol's," he explained.
But her future remains uncertain. When asked in front of HUD headquarters what she will do if her family is evicted, she paused, gazing past the crowd as if the answer could be found a few blocks north on Clark Street.
"We'd probably move into a [homeless] shelter," she said, shaking her head with a hint of sadness in her voice.
She quickly moved on from the thought, as she and Krig left to present the signatures. Vialdores received her eviction notice over a year ago, but the prospect of leaving the neighborhood where her children had grown up still seemed distant and unreal.
As the two women entered HUD headquarters, Northpoint resident Anthony Burns thought about his 16 years in a subsidized apartment. He is well-established at the complex, but after seeing Vialdores face eviction, he worries his decade-and-a-half tenure might not be enough to keep him in his home.
"If they evict Carol," he asked, "what's to stop them from evicting anyone else?"
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Learn more here.