Residents worry about losing rental help
Obscure federal program helps half of residents at 510 W. Belmont, but its time is up soon
07/07/2010 10:00 PM
Amrita Dayal moved into 510 W. Belmont in 1978, a single mom and recent immigrant who had arrived from India just a few years earlier with $8 to her name. Thirty-two years later, she’s fighting for the building to remain the affordable housing haven it has been for her.
“If it wasn’t for this place, I really don’t know how I would have survived,” she said. “I believe there are a lot of mothers like me who need a safe place to live and raise their children.”
Built in 1968, the building has always been affordable to working-class and lower-income people because of two federal subsidy programs, both of which are nearing expiration. Dayal and many other residents fear that when these programs end, rents will go up and residents will end up having to leave their homes.
“My neighbors come up to me, asking, ‘If this building turns condo, what would I do?’” Dayal said. “It makes tears come to my eyes.”
Half of 277 units at 510 W. Belmont are project-based Section 8 units, the federal program created in 1974 that requires low-income tenants to pay 30 percent of their income as rent, with the federal government making up the difference to the landlord.
The other units are subsidized under the federal government’s Below Market Interest Rate program, a little-know program created just before Section 8’s debut. Below Market Interest Rate, or BMIR, allowed building owners to purchase a property with a very low interest rate in exchange for keeping rent in the building low for 40 years.
Both programs promised to keep buildings affordable. But now the subsidies underlying thousands of units across the country, including those in 510 W. Belmont, are expiring all at once, throwing their future into the air.
“Forty years ago, it seemed like ages away,” said Leah Levinger, coordinator of the Chicago Housing Initiative. “But now it’s a ticking time bomb.”
Levinger said families in the building are paying between $400 and $600 below what their neighbors in nearby buildings are paying. The Section 8 portion of the building expired on April 30 of this year, and owner Dennis Fields renewed that contract for one year.
But the BMIR units expired July 1, and the program has no renewal option. If Fields decides not to continue the Section 8 contract in the future, those tenants would be able to get Section 8 vouchers, allowing them to find a unit anywhere in the city. But the BMIR tenants, many of whom have lived in the building for 30 years, Levinger said, have no such fix.
“When the BMIR units come to an end, there’s no provision in the policies for these families,” she said.
The building may be safe for a while. The current state of the housing market may stall any rent increases or moves toward condo conversion, according to Stacie Young, the director of the interagency coordinating council at DePaul University’s Institute for Housing Studies. Young works with local officials and landlords on properties like 510 W. Belmont.
“In a strong market, you have an incentive to not bother with the government subsidy and just deal with market-rate clients,” Young said. “Right now we’re in a tough rental market. In today’s marketplace, very few of these properties are at risk. Vacancies are up, rents are down.”
But Levinger and Dayal aren’t just worried about what will happen in the next few months. They’re concerned that the building is being readied for upscale tenants, especially because renovations have started to take place.
The elevators in Dayal’s building were recently redone, as well as the parking lot. Now, Dayal said, they’re talking about putting in new windows and making upgrades to the kitchen.
“The question is,” Levinger said, “Who is this building being rehabbed for?”
The residents at 510 W. Belmont have been trying to get an answer to that question for some time. They’ve sent letters, made phone calls, and even impromptu visits to owner Dennis Fields, trying to get assurance that rent increases aren’t on the way.
So far, they haven’t been all too successful. After a year of sending letters, making phone calls and writing post cards to Fields with no response, two tenants decided to show up on his doorstep while he was holding a political fundraiser for Cook County Board presidential candidate and 4th Ward Ald. Toni Preckwinkle at his home in Winnetka.
Dayal said Fields was noncommittal and seemed annoyed at their presence.
“I gave Mr. Fields a manila folder full of letters from the tenants,” she recalled. “I would guess he threw that whole file in the garbage.”
Fields declined to commment for this story.
Tenants have also tried working with Tony Augustine, president of Prairie Management, which manages the building. While Augustine has been willing to talk to them, according to resident Patricia Smith, he hasn’t made any promises.
“Augustine said absolutely that he [Fields] is not going to meet with us,” Smith said. “He’s not going to come to a meeting, and he’s not going to sit down and talk with us.”
Augustine did not respond to requests for comment.
Smith said she understands that both Smith and Fields are businessmen. But she said she wishes they would inform residents of their plans.
“Just to let us know where we stand,” Smith said. “Just to give us some idea of what’s going to happen.”
Local officials have also been trying to guarantee 510 W. Belmont’s future. Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) said he’s been aware of the situation for more than a year and has been working to retain the affordable units.
“We’ve got a commitment that the owners of the building will continue to work with us and with HUD,” said Tunney, whose ward includes the building.
Levinger, along with activists at Lakeview Action Coalition, have been trying to push a legislative measure that would give the BMIR tenants access to housing vouchers if the building’s rent structure changes. They’ve asked Illinois Senator Dick Durbin to attach such an amendment to this year’s appropriations bill.
A spokesperson from Durbin’s office did not respond to requests for comments by Skyline’s weekly deadline.
Whatever happens, Dayal said she’s hoping and praying that she and her neighbors will be able to continue to stay in the neighborhood.
“A lot of people who have lived here and work here have the right to stay here,” she said. “I can’t even imagine what will happen to them if they can’t.”