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'Deplorable' conditions in county apartment complex

RANTOUL -- Taking a step inside the home of Adam C. Douglass and Rayna Jeske in the Cherry Orchard apartment complex reveals another world.

The kitchen gas stove is lit to produce some heat due to a broken furnace; a section of the living room floor appears ready to fall through; a bucket has been placed beside the toilet to collect leaking water; what appears to be mold is growing on the ceiling, and roaches scurry everywhere.

Two beds are set up in the living room for their two children because their bedroom is too cold. The furnace doesn’t work for need of a belt.

The family wants some help from their landlord but said it is not forthcoming. And it appears there is little anyone can or will do about it.

The apartment complex is about a mile and a half south of Rantoul on U.S. 45.

If the facility were within the Rantoul village limits, village inspectors could force the owners to remedy the conditions. But because the apartments lie in an unincorporated area of Champaign County, there is little that can be done.

“I totally agree the property is deplorable,” said Stan James, who represents Rantoul on the Champaign County Board.

James said at his request, several other county board members, several Rantoul officials and Champaign County Zoning Administrator John Hall toured the property in April. In July, former county board Chair Barb Wysocki, who now chairs the committee that oversees the zoning department, toured the site.

James is frustrated that nothing is done to help the tenants.

“We all pay taxes,” he said. “We all hear about these agencies, but who is enforcing the rules that we have?”

He asked that the problem be addressed at a county board committee meeting.

Bernard Ramos manages the property. Property tax bills are sent to Evelyn Ramos. Ramos said his family is not involved in ownership of the complex. It is being advertised for sale online, in one case for $1.36 million.

Several Cherry Orchard tenants went to the media when their electrical service was turned off last month by Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative due to nonpayment of bills. Some tenants were also without water.

Electrical and water service have since been restored.

Douglass and Jeske said their lease calls for them to pay $350 a month rent for their two-bedroom apartment plus $80 a month for electrical service. But they said Ramos rarely comes to collect the electric bill and often, when he does, he asks for several hundred dollars for one month’s service.

A notice filed by the electric cooperative said the average monthly use at one eight-unit apartment building is $406.05 a month, which amounts to about $50 a month per unit.

Douglass said living in those conditions is difficult physically and psychologically, and it is unsafe. Carbon monoxide gas coming from the kitchen stove alone is one concern. The family also has to use space heaters to help warm the apartment.

Douglass said the conditions are especially difficult on his children. He produced a letter from Thomasboro fifth-grade teacher Stephanie Alessi, who expressed concern that classmates would be teasing Douglass’ and Jeske’s son because roaches were seen coming from his desk.

Douglass and Jeske said the roaches are so thick in their apartment that they get on their clothing and are carried to their car, school and work.

Douglass said they have used a spray bomb in the apartment, but it only seemed to make the roach problem worse.

Bernard Ramos said he doesn’t fix problems in the Douglass-Jeske apartment because they don’t pay their rent. He said they are several months behind and that Douglass refuses to work.

Ramos produced two copies of a landlord’s five-day notice indicating that Douglass and Jeske owe him $630 for overdue rent, unpaid power bills and late fees.

Jeske said the family was making the full rent payment.

“Yeah, I was paying him everything I could pay him, and my mother would pay him,” she said.

He said a maintenance man went to the apartment to spray for roaches but said conditions are unsanitary due to three dogs and dirty dishes in the kitchen. Ramos produced a sheet purportedly signed by both Douglass and Ramos indicating that the apartment had been treated for roaches Dec. 1.

Jeske said the family is planning to move to Danville, but hadn’t done so earlier due to the cost. She said they are planning to move to Danville when she receives her tax money.

Sabrina Humphrey, another Cherry Orchard tenant, said she has many of the same problems as Douglass and Jeske mold, the ceiling is falling in and half of the apartment is without heat.

“He has never given me a power bill,” said Humphrey, who pays $450 a month for a four-bedroom apartment. She said one time Ramos tried to collect $340 for power service for one month.

“Unless you do the work yourself, there’s nothing you can do about it,” Humphrey said of the apartments’ dilapidated state.

She said she too plans to move, to Urbana.

Douglass said when he complains about the conditions Ramos asks them why they don’t just move. But they said they can’t afford to make that change. Or Ramos says he will fix it tomorrow.

“But tomorrow never comes,” Douglass said.

Humphrey said one of the two furnaces that heats her apartment is still broken, but Ramos said it was fixed that week. He said he had no other comments on her claims that he does not fix other problems in her apartment.

Ramos, asked what condition the apartments are in, described them as “fair.”

The tenants said no one seems to be able or willing to help. They said they have called the Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union, Champaign County Public Health Department and even the sheriff’s office, but nothing is done.

Mike Woolf, housing counselor for the tenant union, said the agency is willing to work with landlords and tenants to reach a solution, but has no power to enforce an agreement.

“We will deal with anybody who calls and try to give context,” Woolf said. “Surprisingly, even some landlords call.”

He said many tenants are stuck because they don’t feel they have an option to move out.

“If they have nowhere to go and moving out isn’t the answer, it’s very, very difficult,” Woolf said. “We encourage people to look around.”

Many are simply unwilling to move due to factors such as being close to their child’s school or the apartment being in a quiet setting or they don’t have transportation.

“On the other hand, if people are willing to fight (for fair treatment), they can file a complaint with us,” Woolf said. “But these things take a long time.”

Hall, Champaign County zoning and planning director, said the department does have an enforcement action at Cherry Orchard for “everything we can enforce,” but the options are limited. None of those deal with property maintenance issues.

Instead, they can deal with issues such as inoperable motor vehicles and an isolated building on the grounds that is open to intrusion.

“There’s nothing in our ordinance that is geared toward ensuring any kind of quality (housing),” Hall said.

James who would like to see that change. He said he is among the county board members who would like to include life safety issues in a new zoning ordinance.

But there are some who worry that the county board might try to make regulations too stringent and “rule with an iron fist,” James said.

Even if changes are coming, no new zoning regulations are likely to be approved for another five years, said James, who has plenty of experience in the housing business. He serves as administrator of the Champaign County Housing Development Corporation, a not-for-profit entity.

James said he empathizes with Cherry Orchard residents and hopes someday something can be done to help people in substandard housing.

“Nobody,” he said, “should have to live like that.”

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.