Home / News / Woodlawn Tenants Unionize, Say Landlord Has Allowed Rodents, Roaches And Mold

Woodlawn Tenants Unionize, Say Landlord Has Allowed Rodents, Roaches And Mold

Aug 06, 2023Aug 06, 2023

Residents will withhold some rent if problems aren't fixed within 14 days, they said. Landlord 312 Property Management hopes to resolve complaints by the end of the week.

WOODLAWN — More than a dozen neighbors in a Woodlawn apartment complex have unionized and threatened to withhold rent as they push their landlord to improve their shoddy living conditions.

Tenants at 6610-6618 S. Kenwood Ave., which is managed and owned by 312 Property Management and an affiliate company, have organized to form the 312 Tenants Union.

The landlord has for months ignored residents’ demands to resolve a pest infestation, security concerns, electrical issues and other problems, union members said.

The tenants’ specific complaints include:

Sixteen residents have sent notices to repair the building’s condition as of Tuesday, they said. The city’s Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance allows tenants to withhold rent in an amount “that reasonably reflects the reduced value of the unit” if landlords don’t bring their property up to code within 14 days of receiving a notice.

“Things started getting pretty bad about two years ago and have escalated in the past six to eight months,” said Aruna Kumaran, who has lived in the Kenwood Avenue building for four years.

Raphael and Ari Lowenstein, the brothers behind 312 Property Management, addressed the pest issues “right away” after receiving the 14-day notices, they told Block Club — though Kumaran said that amounted to “a guy [coming] around with a bucket full of traps and [setting] two traps in front of everyone’s door.”

The Lowensteins have also ordered repairs to the building’s heating and air conditioning, they said. Maintenance workers were seen carrying units around the complex when Block Club visited Wednesday.

Most residents have scheduled appointments to address other complaints this week, while several have blocked crews from entering and “won’t let us come fix” their issues, they said.

“I think that [all tenant issues] will be handled within the week,” Raphael Lowenstein told Block Club. “As long as they allow us access … we’ll gladly handle it.”

The property also failed a July 21 city inspection and was cited for 14 code violations, mainly about its exterior. City inspectors did not examine individual apartments or the inside of the building that day and will arrange for another inspection, according to building department records.

The city’s buildings, housing, police and family and support services departments will visit the property Thursday, Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) said.

The alderperson’s office will also host the tenant union’s next meeting this week, as “we want them to feel safe to tell their stories,” she said.

“It’s a damn shame that the city of Chicago would allow people to be treated that way,” Taylor said. “There’s good people in these city departments that are gonna help these families out, but we’ll never be able to take away them being traumatized.”

Block Club called Megan Franklin, the union’s lead organizer, for an interview Tuesday. During the interview, Franklin said Ari Lowenstein was knocking on doors, “trying to get into [units] and make repairs” without a required 48-hour notice.

Franklin and Ari Lowenstein then argued at length about the landlord’s responses tenants’ complaints, residents’ accusations of harassment and whether Lowenstein would meet with tenants as a collective as Block Club listened.

The Block Club reporter identified himself during the argument and briefly spoke with Lowenstein. Franklin also told Lowenstein a reporter was on the line before the conversation began.

Ari Lowenstein is dealing with tenants “on a case-by-case basis,” he said to Franklin. He also told Franklin, who has lived at the property since 2014: “Maybe this isn’t the place for you long-term.”

“I’m not saying I can or can’t,” Ari Lowenstein told Franklin as she pressed him to answer “yes or no” to her demands to meet with the group rather than with individual tenants.

Ari Lowenstein has frequently visited the property since Saturday’s press conference, Franklin said. The Lowensteins confirmed this to Block Club Tuesday, saying “we’re there every day right now” in an effort to address issues.

Before forming the union, it was “almost impossible to get them to come fix anything, and the only time they reach out to you is asking about rents — even if the rent isn’t actually late yet,” Kumaran said.

The Lowensteins did not answer directly when Block Club asked whether they would meet with the tenants union as a collective.

“Our only goal is to [resolve] a tenant’s maintenance requests,” Raphael Lowenstein said. “That’s our job, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

“… Some of the residents are being wonderful and awesome, and a few will not give us access,” he said. “It’s a difficult situation which will hopefully be put to bed soon.”

One tenant, who moved in this week and requested anonymity, only found out about issues at the building when residents held a press conference Saturday to speak out against their living conditions, they said. By then, the new resident had already signed a lease, they said.

Upon going through their move-in checklist, they discovered roaches and refused to move anything into the apartment, they said.

Just one day after preparing to move into an apartment they “prayed to their ancestors for,” they were living with their mother, as their young family member doesn’t deserve to live among pests, they said.

They plan to attend the next union meeting and figure out how to legally break their lease, they said.

“All I can think is how [the landlords] were smiling in my face, telling me that everything was going to be okay,” the resident said. “… Nobody in this [complex] looks dirty, no trash is outside the units, so clearly it’s something with the management.”

The Kenwood Avenue property was previously the Carolina condo association.

Raphael Lowenstein is listed on mortgages and deeds as the manager of 6610 S. Kenwood Residences LLC, the company which bought the property in 2019, according to county records. The company shares a mailing address with 312 Property Management.

There was “pretty much nothing wrong” with the building when it was a condo association, and conditions even remained acceptable early into the brothers’ tenure, Franklin said.

She has in the past year dealt with severe injuries from caved-in flooring that forced her to leave her job, been in and out of hotels due to flooding in her unit, and haggled with management for two months to replace her stove after a rat got stuck in it and died, she said.

“As they’ve been the management [for] longer, things fell into disrepair,” Franklin said.

312-affiliated companies bought about 20 properties in South Side lakefront communities from early 2015 to late 2021, reporter Emeline Posner found.

The company’s tenants have previously complained about squalid living conditions and poor communication from management, Posner wrote last year for the Hyde Park Herald and South Side Weekly.

Landlords’ inability or refusal to maintain their properties is a major factor in south lakefront communities’ struggles with displacement, said Dixon Romeo, a tenant organizer with Not Me We.

In addition to the 312 affiliate’s purchase of the Kenwood Avenue property in 2019, an affiliate company in 2021 bought the Tudor Gables Building Cooperative, one of the city’s first Black-owned housing cooperatives.

Tudor Gables residents who remained in the building beyond the 312 affiliate’s June 2021 deadline to move out — a deadline issued under a COVID-19 eviction moratorium — dealt with utility shut-offs, lock removals and confrontations with scrappers as the new owners gutted the building, according to the Herald and the Weekly.

Since holding last weekend’s press conference, the tenants union is in touch with residents of other 312-affiliated properties who have faced similar issues, Franklin said. Those residents plan to join this week’s meeting at Taylor’s office, she said.

“A lot of the people I talked to [in other buildings] thought their situation was just a one-off,” Franklin said. “We want to let people know it’s not just you that’s in a hole, it’s not just you with rats — you’re not just dirty.”

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