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One family's long housing journey

CHAMPAIGN -- Jon Jones and Isela Guerra moved to Champaign from Texas in November 2007 for a construction job Jones was certain he had. But the job fell through, and Jones couldn’t find any other work.

The couple spent that Christmas on the streets and lived homeless over the next few months sleeping by day in local libraries and spending the nights trying to stay warm.

“We have no family here,” Jones said.

In February 2008, Jones and Guerra found a place to live, along with a roommate to split expenses. When the roommate didn’t pay his share of the rent, they were evicted.

Jones and Guerra eventually bunked down at Gateway Studios in Champaign, which closed last May after AmerenIP shut off power and gas to the building. The condemnation forced more than 100 residents to relocate.

Guerra found a fast-food job that allowed the couple to save up enough money to put a $450 deposit on a studio apartment on State Street in Champaign last August. By then, Guerra was nearly nine months pregnant.

When it came time to move in, though, Jones said, the landlord told them the apartment was unavailable and that he would upgrade them.

The upgrade turned out to be a two-bedroom basement apartment around the corner on Green Street with water leaks and little ventilation.

“The walls were literally black” with mold, Jones said.

Jones complained to his landlord, Bernard Ramos, after Guerra began having nosebleeds.

Ramos then moved the couple in to a small, one-bedroom apartment at 209 W. Green St.

Bernard Ramos declined to comment for this report.

Neither Jones nor Guerra knew that inspectors had condemned the apartment in April after finding 29 violations, including a roof leak and cracks and holes in the bathroom and bedroom ceilings. Ameren had also shut off gas to the apartment due to a gas leak.

By the time Jones and Guerra moved in, Ramos had made temporary roof repairs and the condemnation had been lifted. The repairs were allowed because Ramos had planned to sell the building as part of a development deal, city officials said. Ramos and his father, Eduardo, had earlier been fined $15,345 for renting out two condemned apartments in the building. Bernard and Eduardo Ramos filed an appeal, which was denied Dec. 16.

At first the new apartment seemed sufficient, but Jones and Guerra found other problems, such as mold in the bathroom, mice in the stove and cracks in the walls and ceilings.

Guerra gave birth to their son in mid-August and went on maternity leave, halting the couple’s only source of income.

In September, Bernard Ramos shut off the electricity to Jones’ and a neighbor’s apartments, which forced the two to file a complaint with the city, Jones said.

In response to the two complaints, Champaign inspectors visited the apartments and collectively found 24 violations. They subsequently condemned both apartments.

By the time inspectors came, Bernard Ramos had restored electricity; after the condemnation, however, Ameren cut power because of an outstanding bill, Jones said.

With a refrigerator full of food at risk of spoiling, Jones said he turned on power for the building in his own name. The company agreed to split up the required $600 deposit over three billing cycles.

Jones’ neighbor eventually moved out, but Jones and his girlfriend continued living in the apartment.

“We gave all of our money for this apartment. My hope is to make it to Oct.1, then we’ll have enough money to move,” he said in late September.

When inspectors visited the apartment on Oct. 5, the front door had been barricaded from the inside, inspectors said.

“We have no place to go,” Jones said then.

He was reluctant to move his family to a homeless shelter because they could not stay together, he said.

Neither the city nor Bernard Ramos filed an eviction notice against Jones.

Guerra went back to work and the couple worked to save up enough money to move on.

“We’re just $600 short,” Jones said in early October.

At that point, neither of the Ramoses had made any repairs on their apartment, Jones said.

The couple eventually found help through a local social service agency, which helped them put down a deposit and first month’s rent on a new place.

By November, they had moved.

Champaign Assistant City Attorney Laura Hall said she plans to seek a demolition or repair lien against the property on Green Street now that it is no longer being sold.

The development deal, which would have netted the Ramoses $1.5 million for five properties they own along Green and Church streets, fell through in November.

A hearing on the city’s complaint is scheduled for Feb. 8.

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.