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Chaos erupts as displaced tenants remain without heat since New Year’s Eve

TENANTS OF THIS apartment building owned by Catalyst Realty were displaced and moved to a hotel after they have been without heat since New Year’s Eve. (Photo by Keith Chambers)

The lives of displaced tenants in South Shore remain in chaos after an elusive landlord with a spotty record has forced them to live without heat since New Year’s Eve.

The situation continues to get worse as news spreads among apartment dwellers that the city is preparing to board up the apartment building. Tenants found their units dangerously cold when returning to the apartment complex after being told to check out of their hotel rooms where they had been staying since January 26.

Now, tenants are concerned about removing their furnishings and possessions as they struggle to find a place to live in the middle of winter. Some tenants took days off from their workplaces to find alternative places to live.

The situation raises questions about the city’s 311 call system, where tenants logged calls and logged complaints on the 311 apps.

At the center of the crisis is Catalyst Realty, the same landlord who last year forced dozens of tenants, among them a Crusader journalist, to go 38 days without hot water and allowed the heat problem to drag on unaddressed for weeks until temperatures plummeted to the single digits.

But the latest problem involves two buildings Catalyst Realty owns next door in the 6700 block of South Paxton in South Shore. At least a dozen tenants are affected but the number may be higher, considering that families and children are involved.

With cold temperatures, no heat and an uncertain future the situation is worsening. As the crisis spirals out of control, confusion, anger and distrust in Catalyst Realty deepens as it stands accused of neglect and violating building codes and Chicago’s heating ordinance.

Amid the chaos, questions remain as to what efforts the city made for 27 days to address the problem before freezing temperatures swept Chicago last week. So far, Chicago’s Department of Buildings has not answered questions as to why the heat problem went on for so long before the cold temperatures forced them to act.

The problem began on December 31, when tenants woke up to cold apartment units and no hot water. At that time tenants Lindara Denton and Sivi Miles downloaded the 311 app and began logging complaints. The tenants also logged work orders on Catalyst Realty’s online portal. As with the 311 app, they were given ticket numbers, which they texted to a Crusader journalist, who began monitoring the situation.

Denton and Miles, along with another tenant, Steve Johnson, also called the 311 hotline to report the problem. Other tenants followed suit and soon the hotline was flooded with complaints.

That same morning on New Year’s Eve, Nicole Williams, an employee for Catalyst Realty who works in the leasing office, sent an email that said “the city has interrupted the water service due to repairs. We are currently working with the city to get the water back on as quickly as possible.”

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A MOUNTAIN OF trash piled up behind one of Catalyst Realty’s properties until a tenant notified a city official who had garbage pick up service restored. (Photo by Keith Chambers)

But the city never sent out such a notice to the building’s tenants. Nor does it shut down water service on a holiday.

Hours later, the water was back on, but Williams never sent out an email explaining the repairs. Still, residents remained without heat and hot water, according to text messages obtained by the Crusader.

On January 7, Denton and several other tenants who were home received two small space heaters from Catalyst Realty staff members, who delivered them to their apartments. Johnson was not home and did not receive any space heaters but borrowed one from a Crusader journalist.

For the next several weeks, as Chicago experienced unseasonably mild winter temperatures, 311 tickets and text messages show that Catalyst Realty and the city provided no updates on the heat problem.

On January 18, Catalyst Realty texted tenants to inform them that the water would be turned off for repairs, but the water remained on while the tenants were not made aware of the repairs that were made. The text also said the tenants would have hot water by noon that day. That never happened that day, but some tenants told the Crusader their hot water returned days later.

Still, there was no heat in any of the apartments. When residents said they called the leasing office, either no one would answer the phone or Williams would fail to provide a status update on the heat problem.

Sources told the Crusader the building’s aging boiler broke and had to be replaced. When the Crusader called the leasing office to verify the problem, Williams promised to have someone call back. That never happened. Instead, the Crusader received two weird emails that had work order numbers showing the problem was completed.

“They didn’t tell us anything,” said Johnson. “I kept calling the office and the city but heard nothing.”

Denton said, “This was handled with no regard for the tenants. I’m tired. I’m frustrated.”

As weather forecasters warned of frigid temperatures, on January 25, Natasha Hudson emailed the tenants saying, “We are aware of the current weather conditions and have technicians working hard to get [it] back up and running. Unfortunately, it is taking a little longer than expected, but it should be up and running by February 3.”

With temperatures plummeting to the teens, two days later, the tenants were evacuated and placed at the Hilton Garden Inn near McCormick Place. Sources told the Crusader the hotel reserved 15 rooms to accommodate the displaced residents.

That weekend, a white maintenance van and blue truck belonging to a maintenance worker remained parked outside the building for 10 hours on Saturday and Sunday.

On January 30, Hudson emailed the displaced tenants in the hotel. It read,

“As of tomorrow, January 31, 2023, the heat in your building will be back up and running. When you go back to your apartment, however, you will receive a phone call and/or email today from the Catalyst Realty team in regards to the option to relocate.”

After reading the email, Miles returned to his apartment. So did a tenant with three children. Their apartments were still unheated.

“That’s when I got a call from the city telling me to go back to the hotel,” Miles said.

Miles said he had been speaking with John Scott, an inspector with the Department of Buildings.

But one day after the tenants returned to the hotel, Catalyst Realty’s management on January 31 sent out an email, saying, “Good afternoon, once again, we apologize for the inconvenience within the last 30 days. Unfortunately, starting tomorrow we have to relocate you. A Catalyst team member will contact you in the morning with details pertaining to the new relocation information.”

But the next day, Miles said he was told that the city will board up the building. That’s when the Crusader texted Michael Puccinelli, of the city of Chicago Department of Buildings, to confirm the city’s plans. Puccinelli responded, “I don’t know. Will let you know what I find out.”

Puccinelli later emailed a statement:

“The Department of Buildings takes public safety and quality of life issues very seriously. Since January 4, 2023, the Department of Buildings has responded to seven complaints regarding the heat at this property. The violations found on those inspections are being handled as part of an ongoing court case that the Department of Law filed in 2016 against the property owners.”

Last December, during a Zoom meeting, a Crusader journalist learned that a lawsuit the city filed against Catalyst Realty was dismissed for reasons that are unclear. That lawsuit involved another building Catalyst Realty owned. That building is the home of a Crusader journalist who, in a story in 2022, detailed how Catalyst Realty kept tenants in the dark as they went 38 days without hot water. Another story detailed how the same tenants lived without heat in 2021.

Sources at the time told the Crusader that Catalyst Realty was elusive to city officials in responding to phone calls and requests to clean up building code violations.

Sources also told the Crusader that Catalyst Realty continued to evade city officials in the latest problem involving the building in the 6700 block of South Paxton.

A Crusader review of records from the Department of Buildings shows that the buildings have numerous code violations that date as far back as 2007.

But on January 10 of this year, the building failed an inspection where it urged a tenant to “stop using cooking or water heating as a heating device.” The report also said the boiler was not working in one building and that smoke detectors were improperly installed. A similar inspection was made on January 6.

And there were other problems. In 2022, Catalyst Realty violated Chicago’s Fair Housing Ordinance when it gave some of its residents a 60-day notice of a rent increase when it should have given 120 days to those who had lived in their units three years or longer. In November, a mountain of trash behind one of the properties sat uncollected for six weeks before a tenant called a city official to address the problem.

A Crusader investigation found that the co-owner of the building is Tyler Deroo, who is listed as managing principal of Catalyst Realty on his LinkedIn account.

The Crusader also found that Catalyst Realty owns eight apartment buildings on Paxton, Merrill and Oglesby avenues and together as a package deal they were purchased in 2021 for nearly $13 million.

Meanwhile, tenants remain in the Hilton Garden Inn for the rest of the week. Some are searching for places to live on their own after growing dissatisfied and distrustful of Catalyst Realty as they offer tenants the opportunity to relocate to their other properties.

“This is crazy,” Johnson said. “There is no excuse for putting us through this.”

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