Fires Spark City Conversation About Local Landlord
This is the second in a series of stories looking at housing conditions in northern Illinois. We'll have the next installment Friday, July 26.
Last week, we looked at a new tenants rights group forming in DeKalb County. It was spurred by complaints about one property owner in particular, Hunter Properties. How did Hunter Properties and the City of DeKalb get to this point?
More than 100 people were displaced from Hunter Property-owned apartments in DeKalb because of recent cases of suspected arson. Community-led aid efforts include food drives with DeKalb County Community Gardens and service partners.
This comes at a time when some DeKalb renters formed an association with hopes of improving living conditions of properties countywide.
Lucinda Castano used to live in a Hunter Property-owned building in 2017. She said her maintenance requests went ignored and her apartment was burglarized.
"They're creating an environment with violence. They're creating an unlivable space for a lot of these families," said Castano about management. "And it's become a community issue -- it's not just a tenant issue, because of how it's projecting outwards into the rest of DeKalb, in general."
She started a Facebook group to consolidate complaints about Hunter. She even sued Hunter DeKalb Properties two separate times in 2018. She said one case was settled, and the second voided.
Castano said she stopped paying rent at one point out of protest.
"Had they just given me adequate electricity, adequate heat, and promised to deliver what they had promised, then it would have been a totally different outcome," she said.
Hunter-apartments are not public housing, or what some would call “Section 8” housing. Director of the DeKalb County Housing Authority Shelly Perkins said the Authority stopped approving tenants to live in Hunter Property apartments last year because of repeated concerns about management unresponsiveness and code violations.
Much of Hunter Property history in DeKalb can be traced through County Civil Court records, collected at the Circuit Courthouse in Sycamore.
Hunter Properties operates under at least 10 different names, which encompass almost 1,000 units.
These include, but are not limited to: Hunter Campus Suites LLC, Hunter DeKalb Properties LLC, Hunter Greenbrier Properties LLC, Hunter Normal Properties LLC, Hunter Ridgebrook Properties LLC, Hunter Stadium View Properties LLC, Hunter Tri-Frat LLC (or "Tri-Fraternity"), and D. R. DeKalb LLC, or Lincoln Tower Apartments. Cook County records also show a Hunter Management LLC. In DeKalb Civil Court, cases have been filed against Hunter Star Properties and Hunter Star Properties LLC.
Properties vary in quality and administration, but they're commonly referred to as one singular Hunter body. Owners started buying most of their DeKalb property within the last five years, largely in 2016. Assistant city manager Raymond Munch said the city took an "aggressive" approach toward Hunter Properties in 2017, when crime rates began to rise in neighborhoods surrounding these apartments. The extra attention caused the city to “uncover other issues” about Hunter and property maintenance upkeep, said Munch.
Hunter LLC’s have been the defendants in at least 470 cases filed in DeKalb County. The majority of those are for ordinance violations.
If a property has an unremedied code violation -- say the fire alarm doesn't work or the grass isn't cut -- the city can bring that issue to court as an ordinance violation. Code violations at Hunter addresses range from pest infestations to water leaks, mold issues, and building security problems, according to 2018 logs. Records show six code violations in 2019 for Hunter Property companies.
"We are tired of this shameful condition in our community," said Bill Nicklas, the DeKalb City Manager at a press conference about the July fire and suspected arson at 808 Ridge.
The press conference happened before a recent second and third arson case had occurred this month.
At 808 Ridge, people leapt from third story windows to safety, according to officials and witnesses. City records count at least seven fires at that building since 2017.
"It speaks to cynical indifference to the conditions of that particular complex," said Nicklas. "It speaks to a business model that puts a return on investment ahead of the welfare of the people the complex serves."
Nicklas said most of the city's interaction has been with the attorney representing the properties in court, Clay Campbell, which Nicklas said he appreciates.
"But an attorney can't control his client. An attorney can't keep a place clean, can't keep a place fire safe. That has to come from others. And until that management is able to deliver those, we are not going to rest, we are not going to be satisfied," said Nicklas.
"I obviously contest any sort of allegation that Hunter, in any way, is responsible for these fires,” said Campbell. "These are criminal acts done by unknown people and the sooner we catch them, the safer everyone will be."
Campbell said Hunter has been working with city officials to relocate displaced residents and reopen fire-affected homes.
He said he's worked with Lucinda Castano in the past and that her complaints about Hunter are not credible.
"It's our responsibility in providing affordable housing to make sure that, you know, the housing is up to snuff, so to speak," said Campbell. "So we're not in the business of ignoring complaints, we're not in the business of letting maintenance problems go untended."
He said there are positives about Hunter, like their multi-million dollar investments in buying properties, and their tax contributions.
"The only thing I would caution everybody before you judge an entity: get all the facts first. And I think that the information that's come out so far here lately has been very negative toward Hunter Properties, and obviously think that's unfair," said Campbell.
He said Hunter provides affordable housing, and that not enough credit is given to them at a time when "it's a crying need in the country."
"If you're going to charge six or seven hundred dollars a month for rent, it's going to be a challenge to try to maintain that property in a safe manner. And every day that the maintenance guys and the managers and employees of Hunter come to work, we're trying to commit to that goal," he said.
There have been no fines paid, said Campbell, in regards to city-imposed ordinance violations in court. Fines are measured to be over $100,000, according to Nicklas.
Samuel Okner is listed on land records as manager for multiple Hunter LLC's. He's also listed on the city's landlord registration forms. Land records also list Eric Rothner as a manager for multiple Hunter LLCs, including member manager of Hunter Ridgebrook. David Aronin is an authorized manager of at least Hunter Normal Properties LLC.
Hunter's corporate office is based in Evanston, Ill. Cook County records also show a presence of Care Centers Building LLC at that same address.
David Aronin is also involved in Extended Care Clinical.
It’s not the first time these men have been involved in controversy.
Last year, Champaign privatized their county-owned nursing home. They approved its sale to bidders Altitude Health and Extended Care. William "Avi" Rothner told county officials at a May 9, 2018 board meeting he is the president and CEO of Altitude Health Services.
“People who are for the sale are for the sale. People who are against the sale are against the sale. There are some people in the middle,” said Rothner at that meeting.
Claudia Lennhoff is the executive director of Champaign County Health Care Consumers, a health advocacy group, and was a prominent critic of the sale.
"I think it is one of the most heartbreaking things that has happened in our community in healthcare in the 22 years that I've been working in this role," said Lennhoff about selling the home to Altitude and Extended Care.
Health Care Consumers researched Rothner-owned homes after receiving only one bid for the county home. They expected more than a handful, at least, she said.
Lennhoff said she was worried after seeing multiple negative public health reports about other Rothner-owned facilities in Illinois.
"The other part of the research was actually going and visiting several of the homes that were owned by Extended Care. And that was a pretty dismal experience and really shook my confidence in those companies and wanting to sell our nursing home to those companies," said Lennhoff.
Lennhoff said tracking history is a challenge for some nursing home owners because complex corporate ownership outlines can include many names. She said nursing homes are being bought nationwide as business investments, not quality care centers. She wants the state to become more sophisticated in considering the track record of nursing home buyers who operate as multiple corporate LLCs.
"I believe that this is something relatively new, maybe in the last 10 years or so, that we're seeing the growth of this practice," said Lennhoff.
Lennhoff said she's been concerned about staffing changes since the purchase.
The previous county-owned home now operates as University Rehabilitation Center of C-U LLC.
Corporate names of the buyers changed before the sale was finalized.
Back in DeKalb, leaders continue to struggle with how to reduce crime in Hunter-owned properties.The 808 Ridge fire that displaced 140 people was the first of three suspected arsons in the last two weeks. All have been at apartments owned by Hunter Properties.
Next Friday, hear more about crime reduction and revitalization in this part of town.