Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: New owners shut off heat, water, fire sprinklers for SRO tenants

By Mark Brown, columnist

There are laws in this state about the proper way to rid a building of unwanted tenants, but they don’t seem to apply to the new owners of the Abbott Hotel, 721 W. Belmont.

In an amazing display of arrogance, the building’s owners are performing a gut rehab of the four-story Wrigleyville walk-up with five of the apartments still occupied.

They have shut off the heat and water, disabled the fire sprinklers, tore out the shared bathrooms and generally left the entire interior of the building in rubble — without waiting for the evictions to run their course.

As I toured the building Wednesday and witnessed the unlivable conditions for myself, I was stunned that the city would allow someone to get away with such a blatant disregard for the health and welfare of the tenants.

But I suppose there is no slowing down a real estate developer in this city when there is a buck to be made.

The owner of record for this property is the anonymously named 721 W. Belmont LLC, although it is well-known that this is another of the many single-room occupancy hotels on the North Side being taken up-market by BJB Properties.

The name on the building permit is Timberwolf General Contracting, with Robert Purcell listed as the principle.

I called Purcell at his Park Ridge home Wednesday evening and after the usual nonsense about “how did you get this number?” and my explaining the purpose of the call, he said: “I have no comment on that. Thank you.”

I thought it was nice of him to say “thank you” but I think it would be even nicer for him to call off his dogs, or should I say work crew, until the building’s tenants have either found a new place to live or been properly evicted.

That work crew is quite industrious, I can attest, having visited one of the units while jackhammers overhead could be heard breaking apart what had once been the building’s walls, now taken down to the brick.

I was originally alerted to the situation by tenant Michele Parisi, 66, who says she served in the Navy on the ammunition supply ship USS Paricutin in Vietnam.

The dimunitive Parisi — who wears dresses, sometimes swears like the sailor she was and walks with a cane because of a bum knee — grew up in Evergreen Park and has lived at the Abbott for a year and half.

She says her problems started when the building’s new management refused to accept rent payments for two months, then moved to evict her and others on the basis of non-payment of rent.

With the help of another tenant, Bret Johnson, who is much savvier about eviction law, she found a lawyer and dug in to fight. At this point, there is no judgment against her.

Despite that, construction crews at one point tried to secure the door of Parisi’s apartment, sealing it closed, with her still inside, Johnson said.

“All they’ve done is harass her the entire time they’ve been doing construction,” Johnson said.

After the water was shut off and Parisi could no longer flush the toilet in her room, she used the common bathroom at the end of the hall. But that’s been demolished now, too.

Parisi was out searching for a new apartment when I stopped by Wednesday, but she told me by phone she has been unable to locate one so far.

“I’ve been looking like crazy and nothing’s happening,” Parisi said.

Although she has a source of income with a non-service connected veteran’s pension of $1,038 a month, which should make it easier for her to find housing than many others, Parisi is a good example of the type of individual who is in danger of being made homeless as these old SRO hotels are bought up by speculators who have discovered a new niche market.

“Michele is fragile,” Johnson said, which is a nice way of putting it.

Alan Mills, a lawyer with Uptown People’s Law Center, is not directly involved with the Abbott’s tenants, but is familiar with the situation and the landlord’s tactics.

“It’s an illegal lockout. It’s a cheap way of avoiding due process,” Mills said.

BJB is thought to be the same company involved with rehabbing the Chateau Hotel, 3838 N. Broadway, although its owners seem to prefer to operate in secrecy and won’t confirm it.

If city officials show up at the Abbott Hotel on Thursday and decide to vacate the tenants on an emergency basis, they’d better do a darn better job of looking out for those folks than they have so far.

Johnson asked me if I thought anyone in officialdom would allow prisoners at Cook County Jail to be treated this way — with no heat or running water.

No, no they wouldn’t.