Champion for Tenants Rights
After the SRO building he’s lived in for the past 13 years on Chicago’s far North Side was sold to a high-end developer last summer, Lamont Burnett along with more than a hundred other tenants were facing imminent eviction. Most, having nowhere else to go, would soon be homeless.
So Lamont helped organize his fellow tenants. Last October, they met with the new owner to address the deteriorating living conditions — including chronic bed bug infestations and broken plumbing — that led to a building code violations complaint with the city. With the help of several legal aid and housing groups, they also petitioned the city to ensure no evictions would take place until the new owner submitted a relocation plan, which is required by city ordinance. The tenants then went public, holding several press conferences outside the building and at City Hall, and garnered news stories in the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times.
They ultimately won a court injunction against any evictions taking place until a relocation plan, including cash reimbursements for moving and move-in expenses, was in place for all residents.
“I wouldn’t exactly say justice was done,” says Lamont, “but we accomplished something by preventing the new owner from just kicking us all out on the street.”
Lamont, 51, has been a regular at CHI meals for more than a decade. A lifelong Chicagoan who grew up one of 12 children in the Robert Taylor homes on Chicago’s South Side, he subsists on a monthly disability check after a near-fatal stroke in his early 30s left him unable to work. CHI has been a lifeline not only for the nutritious, delicious dinner that he can count on every Wednesday, but also for the friendships that he’s made breaking bread with his fellow guests.
“I come for the company, and the programs, especially arts and culture,” says Lamont.
One of his favorite outings with CHI so far was the architectural boat tour along the Chicago River he enjoyed last year. “That’s the first time I’d ever been on a boat!” he admits.
Without CHI, he adds, “a lot of us would be in trouble. A lot of people who come to the meals have no other resources. There are others out there that provide food, but they don’t go the distance [CHI] does.”
Recently, Lamont was able to move in to another low-income housing unit not too far from his previous place. He’s satisfied with his new digs, which he says are cleaner and more spacious than the 7x7 room he had lived in before. He has his own closet and a full ceiling instead of the overhead fencing in his former building (typical of many SROs). But he’s learned that the city has plans to rehab the building soon and he’s on the waiting list for a low-income unit in his former home once it’s redeveloped.
For now though, he says he’s happy where he is and what he and his fellow residents were able to accomplish.
“I know I can’t save everybody,” he says. “I just want to make sure everyone gets their fair share.”
— Jeanie M. Barnett
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