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City involved in tenant-landlord dispute over moldy apartment

CHAMPAIGN -- Alveta Henderson struggled with homelessness for 10 years.

Some nights she slept in her van while her two younger children stayed at Crisis Nursery in Champaign.

Henderson’s homelessness was sometimes due to domestic violence situations or living beyond her means, but she blamed it mostly on work or lack of it.

“There was no job or a job not paying enough,” Henderson said

A single mother, she sporadically lived in a women’s shelter for up to two months at a time. At one time, she moved into a house in Champaign, but it was later condemned because it had raw sewage in the basement, among other problems.

Having a family made it difficult to find a place to live, Henderson said. Her felony conviction for possession of drugs in 1999 didn’t help, either.

“People won’t rent to you,” she said.

Henderson eventually learned about Shelter Plus Care, a program that subsidizes housing costs for low-income people with disabilities who receive support services through the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission’s partner agencies, such as the Mental Health Center.

Five years ago, the program gave her a housing voucher that helped her move into an apartment at 621 Crescent Drive, C. It now pays her rent of $681, but she’s responsible for her utility bill.

A kitchen fire in early 2006 forced her to move to another apartment downstairs. According to the Champaign Fire Department, the fire started while Henderson was away, when a visitor left cooking oil unattended on the stove. The fire did an estimated $25,000 in damages.

Henderson, 45, has turned her second apartment into a home for her family.

Glossy photos of birds or close-up shots of flowers have replaced the handwritten multiplication tables she once used to decorate the wall in her small dining room.
There’s a bus stop 10 feet from her back porch, which she has decorated with a welcome mat and a sign.
“I love my community,” Henderson said. “I’ve met a lot of people.”

‘We can’t live like this anymore’

But over the past few years, conditions in her apartment have grown progressively worse, Henderson said. Mold began to grow in the corners of several walls. A plumbing problem leaked water into her children’s closet. She’s seen rodents and roaches.

When it rains, she said, “it’s like I never closed the windows.”

She complained to her landlord, Paul Zerrouki, but she said he made no improvements and instead told her she had to pay for pest control.

In June, Henderson filed a complaint with the city.

“I just got sick and tired of it,” she said.

According to Champaign records, the city inspected Henderson’s unit last June 30 and cited Zerrouki for 34 violations, including mold and mildew, cracks under the windows and insect infestation.

The city gave Zerrouki 30 days to repair the problems. During a re-inspection on Aug. 10, though, the inspector found that none of the violations had been corrected and cited Zerrouki for two more that were in the building’s common areas.

The violations are similar to other tenant complaints filed last year in the same block of properties owned by Zerrouki, according to city records.

One of Henderson’s neighbors also filed a complaint with the city. In August, inspectors condemned that apartment after finding 28 violations two of which were for life and safety issues. Inspectors cited Zerrouki for damp and moldy carpet, inoperable smoke detectors and rodent infestation.

In Henderson’s unit, inspectors gave Zerrouki 30 more days to make repairs and scheduled a follow-up visit on Sept. 17.
On re-inspection, they found that 13 of 36 violations had been corrected, but they discovered 10 more, including mold on the bathroom ceiling, additional insect infestation and the baseboard heater gone.

By Sept. 29, Henderson’s apartment still had mold in corners.

“I’d like these things fixed or moved to a (comparable) place,” she said then. “We don’t want to leave, but we can’t live like this anymore.”

During a follow-up visit on Oct. 16, a city inspector found six new violations, including water leaks in a bedroom and around the windows. Of the total 52 violations, 16 had been corrected, including some exposed wiring, mold and mildew and repairs to some cracks around the windows.

The case along with several others involving Zerrouki was forwarded to the city’s legal department in mid-October, almost four months after Henderson filed her complaint.

Champaign Assistant City Attorney Laura Hall said city officials met with Zerrouki Thursday outside of court in a nuisance abatement conference to address the housing issues at his Crescent Drive properties and multiple police calls to his buildings.

The conference was meant to “work out an agreement to mitigate the police problems as well as property maintenance issues,” Hall said.

Eight housing cases with at least 100 total violations are open against Zerrouki, according to the legal department. City violations can include chipped paint and improper window size as well as life and safety violations such as nonworking smoke detectors, mold, insect infestation and a deteriorating roof.

In addition, Champaign police were called out to the 500 and 600 blocks of Crescent Drive nearly 260 times between Nov. 12, 2008 and Nov. 12, 2009, according to police.

A majority of those calls were ordinance maintenance calls, such as noise-related calls, traffic stops, trespassing and juvenile problems. Some calls, though, include domestic violence, fights and thefts.

At the conference on Thursday, Zerrouki was given 10 days to review a city-proposed agreement that included suggestions for screening tenants, working with the police and resolving his outstanding code violations.
Inspectors plan to meet with Zerrouki’s property manager during the next week to develop a timeline for resolving the housing issues.
If Zerrouki fails to respond to the agreement within the next 10 days, the city will take the matter to court, Hall said.
A follow-up meeting with Zerrouki is scheduled for Feb. 11.

‘There are holes in this system’

Zerrouki said the problems in Henderson’s apartment are due in part to wear and tear and in part to damage she’s caused. And he said he’s corrected about 90 percent of the violations that have been brought to his attention.

“The only problem is there’s no end to it,” he said.

Once a tenant moves in, conditions in the apartments change, Zerrouki said. And most tenants who complain to the city either owe rent or face eviction, he said.

Tenants may cause damage, such as broken windows or holes in the walls, but the landlord is the one responsible for fixing the problem, he said.

“How can I go after the tenant (for the damages) if the tenant doesn’t pay me?” Zerrouki said of tenants who may both struggle to pay rent and damage the apartment.

He said Henderson’s apartment was inspected just a few months before her complaint.
Shelter Plus Care inspected Henderson’s apartment in January 2009, according to city records. The program contracts with city inspectors but requires them to use federal housing quality standards to inspect client properties, which may differ from city standards.

“There are holes in this system and we need to patch the holes,” Zerrouki said.

He suggested that city inspections be required when a tenant moves in and moves out.

“Make the tenant accountable and responsible and the landlord will follow,” Zerrouki said.

Some tenants damage an apartment to get out of a lease, and then call the city to complain, he said, leaving the landlord with thousands of dollars in repairs.

“A lot of people are abusing the system,” Zerrouki said, noting that an effective system would hold both the landlord and tenant equally accountable.

It’s not changing’

Properties do change, said Esther Patt, director of the Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union. Violations may not exist on one day, but show up the next, she said.

Low-income tenants like Henderson and the 35,000 other renters in the county who live on less than $25,000 a year, according to 2008 Census data often don’t have immediate recourse against landlords when housing problems arise.

“If it were me, I’ve got credit cards, I can rent a hotel, I can stay with friends and family,” Patt said, “not to mention that higher-income people (most likely) have higher-income friends and relatives so that’s easier to find someone who’s got a garage or basement that they’ll let you keep your things in … while a lot of lower-income people have lower-income friends who can’t take them in.”

Henderson said she’d like to move, but doesn’t anticipate moving before her lease ends in February.

“I can’t take it any more,” she said in late October. “They are not fixing it. It’s not changing; the mold is starting to come back.”

Earlier this month, Henderson still had mold in her bedroom and cracks and leaks in some walls.

Her lease is up for renewal and, as required by Shelter Plus Care, her apartment is scheduled for an annual inspection.

If the apartment doesn’t pass inspection, Henderson will have to find a new one.

“I shouldn’t have to live like this,” she said.

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