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Urbana tenants struggle to find new homes

By Jose Diaz/For CU-CitizenAccess/URBANA – Ashlee Bituin lives with her 4-year-old son and is eight months pregnant with her second child. Her doctor has told her she cannot work.

 On Dec. 15, 2010, she signed a one-year lease at Urbana Townhomes, located in the 1000 block of South Lierman Avenue in Urbana. Just three months later, she received a letter from the city of Urbana notifying her that the apartment building where she was living had been condemned. She had one month to vacate the apartment. 

“I will have to move [in] with friends until I have my baby and can go back to work,” Bituin said.

For Bituin and the other five tenants who lived in the condemned buildings, finding a new home on such short notice proved to be a daunting task (Story continues below).

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Urbana Townhomes caters to low-income families. Its management doesn’t do credit checks or require future tenants to prove they have a steady income, residents said.

The city of Urbana decided to do a systematic inspection of the eight buildings that make up the Urbana Townhomes complex because of the many police reports and complaints about the properties as well as a follow up to a 2008 inspection.

The inspection took place March 4, and on March 18 the city determined that two of the eight buildings were uninhabitable. The city said the buildings were not up to code and notified the tenants that they had until April 18 to find new places to live.

A building is deemed uninhabitable if officials find it in disrepair , lacks maintenance, is insanitary, is vermin or rat infested, contains filth and contamination or lacks sanitary or heating facilities, according to Urbana's building codes.

“The buildings are in such conditions that it is unsafe for the tenants . . . there are pigeons coming in and out [and] living in some apartments, extreme filth conditions and broken windows,” said Stephen Chrisman, the housing inspector for the city of Urbana.

Clemmie Pettigrew lived just two apartments away from Bituin. She and her three children –ages 6, 4 and 3— also moved to Urbana Townhomes last December. 

She said that she tried to find other places in town to live but she cannot afford to live anywhere else because her credit rating and her income are low.

 “It is a hard situation. I don’t have anybody in town so I have to move to Memphis to live with family,” Pettigrew said. She said management told her other buildings in the complex had problems, but not the ones she and Bituin lived in.

Both Bituin and Pettigrew said management should have informed them about the problems before they signed the lease.

“I just moved in and they didn’t tell me anything. I am sure they knew the city was coming and that they had troubles,” Bituin said.

Finding a new place to live is difficult even for tenants with stable jobs and good credit ratings. Samantha Webb lives with her daughter and a friend. She said she never made a late payment and that she was surprised when she found out the building had been condemned.

“I started crying because I had just paid rent. I could have used that money to move somewhere else,” she said. (Story continues below)

Webb is manager of a fast food restaurant on Philo Avenue. She moved to Urbana Townhomes from Rantoul last September so she could be closer to her job. She said she had to use the little free time she had to call and visit new apartments.

“I found a new apartment closer to my work. I have good credit so the landlord said he will give me time so I can put the money for the security deposit together,” she said.

Residents complained that the buildings’ administration didn’t cooperate with them to move or find new places. Webb, Bituin and Pettigrew were not offered different apartments within the complex. 

Webb said she asked her landlord to return her security deposit so she could use that money to pay for moving expenses.

“They told me to leave a forwarding address so they could send me the money after they do an inspection,” she said. “I don’t know what they are going to inspect.”

Lisa McCann, a housing counselor for the Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union, said that even though sometimes landlords help residents find new places, they are not obligated to return security deposits right after the building is condemned. “There isn’t a law that addresses this problem,” she said.

The problems at the Urbana Townhomes are not new. In 2008, the city inspected the buildings and found minor violations.

“In 2008 we gave them 30 days to fix the problems but not everything was corrected,” Chrisman said. “Back then, both buildings were setting empty and we asked them to let us know if they were going rent them.”

Urbana Townhomes failed to fix all the problems found in 2008 and did not notify the city that the apartments had been rented out again.

Elias Vellon saw the deterioration of the buildings firsthand. He used to live at Urbana Townhomes. He said he moved out of the complex four years ago because the neighborhood was becoming dangerous and the landlord failed to take care of the tenant’s complaints.

“We complained to the owner because we had water problems, the roof was leaking and power would sometimes work and sometimes not,” he said.

The building complex is owned by Urbana Capital LLC a company based in Beverly Hills, Calif. Kris Gerischer, the property manager, declined to comment about the situation.

McCann, the housing counselor for tenant union, said the city has an obligation to make sure tenants are living in a safe environment, but “sadly there is not a good action plan to take when [condemnations] occur,” she said.

The tenant union provides free counseling services for tenants who have problems with their landlords. It acts as mediators between the landlords, city inspectors and the tenants.

McCann said tenants have more options because of the services provided by organizations such as the C-U Tenant Union. “Things are getting better, because there is now the awareness,” McCann said.

Three years ago, the city of Urbana created a relocation fund to be use for situations like these. The city used some of the funds last year to relocate tenants in an Urbana hotel that had code violations.

Kelly Hartford, the interim grants manager for the city of Urbana, said that the money left in the fund is available for the Urbana Townhomes tenants.

She said the tenants “need to fill up a request form and the city would send the check to their new landlord.”

McCann said that having a fund “makes things easier for the tenants. It is really helpful in these situations.”

The city also extended the deadline for tenants to find new homes.

By May 17, Bituin had moved out. The remaining tenant has been able to find a new apartment and planned to move within the week, Chrisman said.

Chrisman said that once all the tenants move out, the landlord will be required to board the buildings or make major renovations to put them into code compliance. If the landlord decides to make repairs, the city will inspect the buildings and issue a certificate of occupancy if the problems are fixed. Without the certificate, the landlord won’t be able to rent the units.

If the complex administration fails to put the buildings into code or board them, Chrisman said the case will go to the city’s legal department.

Editor's note: Story was updated May 17 to include new information on the status of the tenants who lived in the condemned buildings since it was originally reported earlier this month.

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