By Mark Brown, columnist
A group of SRO tenants who probably couldn’t afford to buy a late-model Chevy if they pooled their money taught luxury auto dealer Joe Perillo a lesson Friday in Cook County Circuit Court.
In the process, they learned something about themselves.
It was a beautiful thing to see.
The 15 or so tenants applauded spontaneously when Circuit Judge Edward Harmening ordered Perillo, owner of the Rosemoor Hotel, to pay each of them $3,000 to help them vacate the building on an emergency basis.
You’re not really supposed to applaud in court, and the judge looked a bit embarrassed, but he didn’t tell them to stop, sensitive perhaps to the fact he had contributed to their problem by ordering them out in the first place.
Harmening also appointed a receiver to help the tenants find somewhere to go and to assist them in moving, which will cost Perillo even more.
The reason I take satisfaction in that is for the past week Perillo’s management team at the single-room occupancy building at 1622 W. Jackson had tried to bluff and bulldoze the residents into leaving voluntarily.
They blamed the judge’s order to vacate by noon Thursday, glossing over the fact it was the result of a fire hazard created by Perillo trying to have it both ways — rehabbing the building with people still living there and paying rent.
Perillo’s guys didn’t back off until community organizers encouraged the tenants to stay put until compensated, and I wrote a column in Thursday’s paper about what was happening.
After that, the city began taking a more aggressive stance on the tenants’ behalf. Even then, however, somebody sent in a police officer overnight to try to scare them off, residents reported.
Then in court Friday, Perillo lawyer Arnold Landis tried to lowball the judge, offering to pay a maximum of only $500 to the tenants, instead of the $3,000 sought by the city, and arguing his team should be allowed to conduct the move without a receiver.
Harmening, having learned his own lesson after accepting Landis’ previous assurances management would work with the tenants, said he no longer had enough confidence to trust them with the responsibility.
So what was the lesson in this for Perillo, whose luxury auto group deals in Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Lamborghini, Bugatti and Maserati?
“We’re dealing with people not cars.”
That was actually a line used in court by Judy Frydland, a lawyer for the city, after Landis used his negotiating ploy with the judge and ended up costing Perillo a lot more money than if he just treated the tenants fairly in the first place (though notably still not as much as it would cost to buy any one of his luxury automobiles.)
I knew the tenants were going to come out okay when I got to court and saw Frydland, a member of the A-team in the city corporation counsel’s office and someone with a history of fighting for people in these situations.
Now, I can’t really explain why the city didn’t put up the same fight a week earlier, or why it took months for the city to realize ongoing rehab work at the hotel had created a fire danger or that the fire alarm was disconnected. But I don’t want to detract from a happy outcome.
And the tenants were, oh, so happy, as they celebrated in the hallway afterward, congratulating each other, and thanking everyone who had gone to bat for them.
It wasn’t just the money.
Forty-eight hours earlier, most of them were resigned to their fate, desperately looking for somewhere to move and unaware they might have any say in the matter. They didn’t even know each other by name.
But as I stood outside the Rosemoor on Wednesday with West Side activist Elce Redmond and organizers from the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, I could see the idea start to take hold that they could stick up for themselves.
And outside the courtroom Friday, I saw it come to full fruition — a sudden sense of empowerment.
The lesson for the tenants?
“This is what happens when you work together.”
That’s what John Bartlett, executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, told them, and they agreed.
“You know what. I’ll be able to sleep at night. I feel like I can walk away with my manhood,” said Roy Giddens, a Vietnam veteran and leader of the tenant group.
Many of the tenants, though, are still worried about finding a place to live by Wednesday, the new deadline set by the judge.
“I can’t live on the street. I’ve got oxygen at home,” fretted Karen Everett, 61, who would have been staying at the Rosemoor three years next month.
That’s why it’s so important to save what’s left of these SROs.