Harold Shirley never had seen a bed bug before moving to the Milshire Hotel three years ago. Now his arms are covered in bites, and he has to take sleeping pills at night because the bugs wake him up. The building is thoroughly infested, and he said he doesn't have the money to move.
"When I wake up, they're in my ears and my nose," he stated in a letter to management of the Milshire, 2525 N. Milwaukee Ave., a single-room occupancy building in Logan Square.
Shirley and a handful of other Milshire tenants went to court Tuesday morning trying to make an unusual argument against their eviction: The bed bug infestation at the building is so bad that making residents leave would be a public hazard.
"The lawyers' and tenants' complaint is, in part, that to ask the tenants to move out is a violation of the bed bug ordinance because they will be asked to take this issue that hasn't been addressed and spread it across the city to wherever they move to," said Terry Enright, an activist with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association who has been working with Milshire residents.
It's one of the latest tussles in months of discussion over single-room occupancy buildings such as the Milshire. SROs generally rent small bedrooms with shared kitchens and bathrooms. Not all are in bad condition, like the Milshire, but their tenants are generally very low-income—Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) said they are sometimes "one step from being homeless."
SROs have grown scarce in Chicago as developers buy the buildings, evict the tenants and rent remodeled units at market rates. Chicago has lost 30 SRO buildings to redevelopment since the beginning of 2009, according to the city. Now, there are 73 licensed SROs left.
An ordinance backed by Mayor Emanuel to halt SRO conversions citywide passed a City Council committee Wednesday morning. If the full Council approves it, the city will not issue permits to redevelop SROs for six months or until permanent SRO legislation is passed, whichever comes first.
That will leave the SROs officially in limbo, a state that Milshire residents know something about.
"Till this plays out, [we] don't know what's gonna happen, don't know what's gonna go on," said Frederick Bartels, who has lived at the Milshire for seven years. "So basically, yeah. We are in limbo."
Bartels and his fellow residents were told in late April that the Milshire was closing and that they would have to move. Rumors circulated that the building would be sold. Some residents vacated; about 25 to 40 long-term residents remain. Some of them formed a tenants union and, with the help of the Lawyers' Committee for Better Housing, filed the legal complaint about the conditions at the Milshire.
Logan Square landlord Mark Fishman is widely presumed to be the Milshire buyer. His M. Fishman & Company recently filed with the state for an entity named "2525 Milwaukee LLC"—the address of the Milshire. Repeated attempts to reach Fishman for comment were unsuccessful.
Arthur Fischoff, the Milshire's current owner, could not be reached either; his attorney Robert Wigoda declined to comment on the matter.
The Milshire failed its most recent inspection last month. The city inspector found rotted wood, water damage, broken glass and building-wide infestations of rodents and roaches. The bed bug problem in particular was found to be so severe, the inspector noted that "areas surrounding beds are covered in blood spots from smashed bugs" and found "[m]attresses covered at edges with bugs so numerous it looks black," according to the code violation report.
"[The bed bug problem] is beyond being remedied by spraying and requires complete gutting of the building," according to Judy Frydland, deputy corporation counsel for the city.
After the preliminary hearing in building court Tuesday morning, the city joined the Milshire tenants union as a cross-plaintiff to deal with health and safety issues. Representatives of Milshire management agreed to replace smoke detectors and emergency lights, and tenants agreed to keep fire doors closed. The next hearing date is set for late August, and in the meantime, representatives from both sides will try to negotiate a settlement.
For now, Milshire management is no longer accepting rent from long-term residents. An exterminator has been called to spray for the bed bugs, but the city has indicated that will not be sufficient. And the residents are staying put.
"Hopefully it goes well for us, and otherwise, if they kick us out, I'm gonna be out on the street," Bartels said. "That's all there is to it. I got no place else to go."
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