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Landlord v. Tenant is a special GLT investigative series exploring low-income rental housing in Bloomington-Normal:An aging stock of low income housing in Bloomington-Normal is causing ongoing tension between tenants and their landlords. Twin City landlords are cited more than 3,000 times a year for housing code violations. Because of their age, many low income rental units are in chronic disrepair. Compounding the problem is that Bloomington and Normal each have only two housing inspectors to oversee more than twenty thousand rental units. And there is little pressure on landlords to change.

Landlord v. Tenant: 'Slew Of Excuses' Leaves Renters In Stressed-Out Limbo

On the morning of July 1, Brad May and his roommate woke to a situation no one relishes: a stopped-up toilet.

The problem soon grew worse. Raw sewage started oozing through the tub drain and the bathroom sink in his apartment in Bloomington’s Lakewood Terrace complex.

“The toilet wasn’t operating. It kept overflowing until we had to shut the water off. It got worse and I called the landlord within a half hour. They explained with the holiday weekend coming up, it would be a couple of days before they would be able to be out," May said.  

Landlord v. Tenant is a special GLT investigative series exploring low-income rental housing in Bloomington-Normal.

Two days later, the complex’s property manager, RCS Property Management, sent a local plumber to estimate the cost for repair. The plumber staunched the flow of sewage, and said he would return in two days to complete the repairs.

“That came and went and they didn’t call us or show up," May said.

At that point, May started calling the RCS management office daily.

“It didn’t really make a difference. I started talking to them about rent reimbursement of some sort for half our apartment being usable and these pretty unsanitary conditions. They never got back to us on that. Every time we called, the property manager was in court or otherwise occupied, a whole slew of excuses.”

Thirteen days passed. On July 14, a new set of plumbers finally arrived to fix the source of the problem, a cracked drain pipe. To get at the pipe, workers had to break through concrete flooring as well as a wall between the kitchen and bathroom. They also pulled up tile in the bathroom, removed the toilet and disconnected and moved the stove and refrigerator.

“Thirteen days without water. We haven’t been able to cook, so we are spending huge amounts of money eating out just because there is nothing else we can do. It’s been quite a headache. We’ve got food spoiling here and we have our cat locked in a small bedroom, and that is not very fair to the cat," May said.

Credit Judith Valente / WGLT
The front of the building in Bloomington’s Lakewood Terrace complex where May and Hart live.

May and his roommate, Brittany Hart, were left to disinfect the areas that had been covered with sewage. Cockroaches and drain flies began showing up in the apartment.

“Me and my girlfriend actually spent probably three hours killing these drain flies spawning in the sewage and flying around the apartment by the hundreds. And by the hundreds is no exaggeration. We have a trash can full of paper towels from killing them.”

Reasons For The Delay

“I commiserated with him in his frustration," said Kyle McShane, the RCS property manager who oversees the Lakewood Terrace complex where May and Hart live. 

"One of the things I said to him from the get-go is I want your apartment fixed. I don’t want you to live in any conditions that are unsanitary," he said.

McShane blamed the delay in getting the work completed on the initial plumbing company he called.

“I was waiting to hear from them so that I could get numbers from them so I could go ahead and submit them to the corporate office to get approval to get the work started. He waited a week before lining up another plumbing company to do the repair," McShane said.

"It’s frustrating to me as well when I have to get work done and I have to call different companies to even start repairs in the first place." 

McShane said he then worked as fast as he could to get approval from RCS's Chicago office for the second plumber’s bid.

May and Hart say it wasn’t fast enough.

“I developed this twitch in my eye because of the stress. I went to the doctor and that’s what they are telling me the cause probably is. I didn’t know if I was having a heart attack or something or what," May said.

“We certainly got extremely ill about a week after this whole ordeal started. It’s been really hard on us. I’ve been just mentally drained this entire month," said Hart.

Rental Property Violations - City of Bloomington

Bloomington - Rental Property Violations
Editor's note: In 2014, violations data is skewed due to a change in the city's rental registration and inspection program.

As their ordeal dragged on, May and Hart spoke with the Carey Snedden, Bloomington’s manager for code enforcement.

“I did speak with the tenant and he told me the condition of that apartment," Snedden said. "We did not verify that particular situation because the sewage problem had been corrected by the time that we got there.”

Snedden’s office is responsible for responding to tenants’ complaints and inspecting Bloomington’s more than 10,000 rental units.

Will the city cite May's landlord for any type of violation?

“Not at this point," Snedden said. "They did get the situation corrected and we were brought in the final day. Unfortunately we had to take it at that point in time. There was not a situation where we could go back on somebody in a 'he said, she said' situation.”

Was 13 days a long time for May and Hart to wait for the repair?

“In my opinion, yes, that is way too long," Snedden said. "There are a lot of health concerns with sewage that is not properly capped or taken care of. Thirteen days is a long time frame.”

Credit Courtesy / Brittany Hart
Brittany Hart
A maintenance worker for RCS Management criticized tenant Brad May on a Facebook page for complaining publicly that the company was slow to fix his apartment's sewage back up.

May and Hart’s case underscores the difficulties tenants can face. The city says there was little it could do for them because they did not contact inspectors as soon as the sewage problem arose. 

The case also shows how a dispute can quickly escalate.

Before the sewage leak was fixed, an RCS maintenance employee engaged in a war of words with May on social media after May complained about how long it was taking to fix the problem.

The maintenance worker wrote to May on Facebook, “What kind of bull are you pulling? … This is not a one-hour job, it takes days … So to blow smoke up people’s you know what’s … Saying nothing is happening is very childish and disrespectful on your part.”

McShane says that employee was merely expressing frustration. By the time the Facebook exchange took place, he says RCS had offered to let May stay in another unit until the repairs could be completed.

“So he had access to the apartment right next to his for showers, for toilets, for anything along the lines of that," McShane said.

May says he was shocked when he went to use the apartment RCS offered.

“It’s filthy. It’s infested with cockroaches. There’s oil stains, what appears to be oil stains, on the walls and the doors and the cabinets," May said.

The day a GLT reporter visited the apartment, dead roaches littered the kitchen floor. A layer of mold covered the bathroom sink. McShane says May should have contacted him if he was dissatisfied.

“If he had let me know there were any adverse conditions in the apartment he was staying in, I would have had my cleaners go over there and clean the apartment for him, and clean the bathroom. If he had let me know there was a problem with pests, I would have had Orkin go over there the same day to get the place treated," McShane said.

But by that time, May says he was too exhausted to deal with the management company.

McShane says, at that point, RCS offered to let May and Hart out of their lease. In the end, the company agreed to pro-rate the $585 monthly rent to compensate May and Hart for the days they couldn’t use their apartment.

May says he would have liked to move out, but he was recently laid off from a job as a waiter. He says it will be difficult for him to put down another security deposit and one month’s rent for a new place. With the city’s shortage of low-income housing, May worries he won’t quickly find another apartment he can afford.

"People just get that kind of abuse and have to put up with it."

“I just feel that because we are lower-income people living in lower-income housing, these property managers … assume everyone in this position doesn’t have the resources to stand up for themselves and advocate for themselves and defend their right to have a decent place to live … As a result of that, people just get that kind of abuse and have to put up with it," May said.

Aiming For Compliance

“I disagree strongly with the premise," said Tom Dabareiner, Bloomington’s director of community development who oversees the city’s housing inspections department.

"We are interested in high quality housing and achieving compliance as quickly as possible. I understand the frustration of a tenant who has a problem landlord. We’re there to work with them," Dabareiner said.

In 2015, Bloomington hired an additional housing inspector to step up rental property inspections. In the past year, the city’s two inspectors performed about 2,400 inspections. More than half those inspections required re-inspections, meaning inspectors found some type of housing code violations.

Rental Property Inspections - City of Bloomington

Bloomington Rental Property Inspections
Editor's note: In 2014, violations data is skewed due to a change in the city's rental registration and inspection program.

“We are not interested in supporting landlords necessarily. We of course support the good ones. They never come up as a problem. Our interest is in having a supply of quality housing," Dabareiner said.

Prairie State Legal Services, a legal aid agency, has compiled a Renters Handbook. It covers such topics as getting repairs done, dispute and complaint procedures, what to do if a tenant receives an eviction notice, or if a landlord withholds a security deposit.

Emily Petri, an attorney at Prairie State, said most landlords know their advantages under the law. But many tenants are unaware of their rights, or even what’s written into their leases.

“They are not aware of what their legal rights and options are under their lease. Some tenants have not read their lease or understand fully the agreement they are entering into when they sign their lease,” Petri said.

May, who had the sewage problem, said he learned of his rights too late to press his case. He vowed to be more informed in the future.

“There are tenant laws and a bill of rights for tenants, but a lot of people aren’t familiar with it," May said. "They are ignorant of the fact that there are things that can be done."

Until that changes, May says many tenants who find themselves in a dispute with their landlord will likely face an uphill battle.

WGLT's full story Landlord V Tenant.

Coming Thursday: Judy Valente examines how Bloomington and Normal try to correct code violations in rental properties. What are some of the common code violations? And is the city cracking down hard enough on landlords who are chronic scofflaws? Read more of the Landlord v. Tenant series.