By providing BJB Properties, and other building owners, with financial support for the purchase and renovation of housing developments in Chicago, First Merit Bank is an accomplice to the decimation of the city’s affordable housing, according to a group of protesters who took their message to a downtown branch on Friday.
“They’re not investing money to develop communities, they’re investing money based on real estate speculation. That’s not in the best interest of the tenants,” said Marc Kaplan, one of roughly 10 participants in Friday’s rally and a member of Northside Action for Justice. “There’s no affordable housing left on the North Side.”
The demonstration was attended by several tenants of Astor House, located at 1246 W. Pratt Blvd. in Rogers Park. Protesters say the building serves as one of the only remaining affordable housing developments in the neighborhood.
But the building’s new owner, BJB Properties, is attempting to push out fixed- and low-income tenants and rehab the 147 units so they can be marketed to higher-paying renters, such as students from nearby Loyola University. BJB Properties purchased the building for $6.2 million in October and received a loan of $10 million from First Merit Bank.
“It’s like the cowboy days. When you’re sitting on a property with gold underneath it, they’ll come burn your house down to get to that gold,” said Melvin Jennings, 58, who moved in to Astor House in October, shortly before BJB Properties purchased the 12-story building. “We’re sitting on a piece of property — a lot of those units have great views — they can make money off of it. They want us out.”
According to their website, BJB Properties owns more than 40 apartment buildings on the North Side of Chicago.
Jennings, who works as a security guard and makes $13 per hour, called on First Merit Bank to support Astor House tenants and urge BJB Properties to negotiate with current low-income residents.
Since they bought the complex, BJB Properties has been handing out "evictions, any way they can”, Jennings said. He also accused the developer of “constructive evictions”, which is the illegal practice of rendering a property uninhabitable in the interest of persuading a tenant to leave the premises on their own volition.
Jennings said his unit, a one-bedroom apartment for which he pays $700 a month, has bedbugs and he has scars up and down his arms and legs as a result of bug bites. Most of the other units, he added, have mice and mold, often do not have hot water, and the building’s elevator is unsafe and frequently gets stuck.
“They’re trying to rent the same apartment as mine, two floors above me, for $200 more a month,” he said.
Astor House has been in and out of court since 2002 for a number of repeated code violations, including inadequate illumination in public spaces and an insect infestation in 2010.
Although many of the building’s problems derive from the former owner’s failure to maintain the property, according to Kaplan, more than 60 tenants have either moved out or been evicted since BJB Properties took over.
“These kind of buildings, like the Astor House, are really the hot market for real estate,” he said. “So these big developers come in and use every underhanded tactic to get tenants out, then they renovate the building and charge a fortune to make a profit.”
Kaplan alleges that the North Side of Chicago has lost more than 1,000 affordable housing units in the last two years because of property owners’ “atrocious conduct.”
“A lot of these folks, like people who work at minimum wage jobs or live off of disability, are already paying much more than one-third of their income on rent,” he said. “But after these development companies come in and flip properties — like what BJB is trying to do — they leave people with nowhere to go.”
Kaplan added that First Merit Bank is not a “responsible lender.”
“They loaned the money, they should have some responsibility for what happens,” he said. “They shouldn’t fund slumlords and real estate speculators.”
Meanwhile, Arbie Bowman, 45, who was evicted from Astor House on Thursday after living there for three years, said if she hadn’t been offered a room by her employer, she and her daughter would’ve likely ended up living in a shelter.
“First Merit Bank should help us work to keep affordable housing in Rogers Park,” she said, adding that she paid $550 every month for her studio apartment, which she claims was infested with bedbugs, but makes only $11.75 per hour as a home care professional.
Here’s more from Bowman and Friday’s protest:
Kaplan said Astor House tenants have seen little support from their elected officials.
“They should make it a law that a certain percentage of units in each of these developments, like the Astor House, should be affordable,” he said.
Kaplan added that Northside Action for Justice is encouraging Loyola University students to boycott buildings owned by BJB Properties and other high-end developers.
“Right now, people who need affordable housing are getting pushed out,” he explained. “And it’s because developers like BJB Properties and banks like First Merit are only worried about profits.”
Neither a representative from First Merit Bank nor BJB Properties could be reached for comment.