A question of security: how much is too much? | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

A question of security: how much is too much? 

The showdown at the Town & Garden Apartments has all the marks of a classic landlord-tenant dispute--with one major twist: it's the landlords who say they're the victims. For the past several months the tenants have waged an aggressive campaign, employing lawyers and tenant organizers, to force their landlords to give them a greater say in rehabbing and operating the 628-unit, near-north-side federally subsidized complex. "We're standing up for our rights," says Charles Pepper, president of the Town & Garden Tenant Association. "No one gives you anything--you got to demand it."

Such criticism is unfair, the buildings' owners counter, adding that they've met extensively with the tenants, keeping them posted on all major decisions in the multimillion- dollar rehab project. "This is a case where a few instigators try to make a crisis so they can create a bad guy," says Henry Hyatt, one of the owners. "And I resent that, because we aren't bad guys at all. We're good guys. And this is a great, fantastic project, and most of the tenants who live here love it. It's just a shame that its nose is being bloodied."

At the center of the squabble is the proposed security system--a computerized scanning device that tracks when people enter and leave the six-acre complex, on Sedgwick just south of North Avenue. The owners call the system a potentially ground-breaking innovation in security; the residents say it's intrusive and dehumanizing. The owners have already attempted to evict two tenants for refusing to participate in the security system. The evictions will most likely be tested in court.

"We want to be treated like partners in this project," says Pepper. To which Hyatt replies, "We will work closely with the tenants, just as we always have. But they are not our operational partners."

Town & Garden, a compound of ten brick buildings surrounding several courtyards, was heralded as a model in working-class housing when it first opened in 1929. But over the years it fell into disrepair as it was passed from one owner to the next. It was rehabbed in the 60s, then deteriorated again. By the late 1980s half the units were vacant and the complex was a mess, in need of painting, tuck-pointing, new wiring, and other repairs.

In January 1992 Hyatt and his two partners, Sheldon Baskin and Dan Epstein, bought the complex for about $10 million. It seemed an ideal match. In the last 30 years Hyatt, Baskin, and Epstein have built or rehabbed thousands of low-income units, working with such not-for-profit housing groups as Bickerdike and Voice of the People. "In all the hundreds of low-income buildings we have worked in we have never had a tenant organize," says Hyatt. "There has never been a need."

Last summer they embarked on an ambitious $34-million renovation, vowing to reopen all the vacated apartments. New carpeting, doors, and windows were installed. The final stage of the project will be to landscape the courtyards, which were so overrun with thugs and dope dealers that previous owners fenced them off. "We want to make this a high-quality living environment," says Epstein. "We want people to enjoy the courtyard. We want it to be a place where kids can play."

Yet almost from the outset the owners were feuding with several longtime residents, who maintain they weren't given enough say in how the renovation was planned. "This is not like the old days, where you can just do something without involving the tenants," says Jeanette Mayberry, vice president of the tenant association. "Yes, Henry Hyatt would meet with us. But it wasn't to seek our approval--it was to tell us what to do. If we raised any questions, his reaction was, 'If you don't like it, don't stay.'"

There were disagreements over the design of the complex's social center and over who would be hired as the resident coordinator. But most of the complaints had to do with the security system, which will not be completely installed until late September.

Originally there were 14 entrances to the complex, which made it vulnerable to break-ins. "When we bought the building every door to every entrance was vacant--there were no locks," says Epstein. "They had all been stripped. The place was open to the streets. There were constant break-ins, drug sales, and other crime. Even after we installed new gates and locks, they were broken by vandals within two weeks. We had to install stronger locks."

In addition, there were dozens of illegal occupants. "You can't make a complex like this work if you have too many illegal occupants--it's just too much of a strain on the buildings," says Baskin. "As it is, we're going to have 1,200 people living here. We cannot afford to have too many more than that or it would be unmanageable."

To limit access to the complex the owners reduced the number of entrances to two. At each entrance they've placed a guard station and three glass-enclosed booths. To gain access to the complex, a tenant must enter one of the glass booths, then activate a door-opening mechanism by punching a personal identification number into a computer and holding a hand over a scanning machine.

"We spent thousands of hours trying to devise a system that works for everyone, and we think the benefits of this one are tremendous," says Hyatt. "We could not devise a system for 14 different entrances--it was just too much. And we needed a system that would discourage what we call tailgating, where people hand back their keys to a friend. To get in you have to enroll in the system, that is you have to let the system get a reading of your hand's configuration."

In August the owners sent fliers to residents asking them to enroll in the system. "Your hand is the key to a safer living environment," the flier read. "Starting in September, your hand unlocks the door to cleaner stairwells where outsiders can't 'hang out.'"

Not all the residents were impressed. "It's almost insulting that we have to go through this to get into our house," says Mayberry. "It's like we have committed a crime or we are being punished. That computer keeps track of when we come and when we go. They are creating a mentality of confinement."

The system is also inconvenient, residents say. "With only two entrances they're making some of the seniors do a lot of walking to get from the entrance to their apartments," says Mayberry. "Plus if you have kids or groceries, that's a lot to manage when you're walking into that little booth."

The owners say such concerns are exaggerated. "This system has never been installed in any prison, so I resent this notion that we are locking people in jail," says Hyatt. "It does not keep a handprint, like a fingerprint, that can be used to identify people. It simply works in conjunction with the personal identification number to open this door. This isn't meant to cramp anyone's personal life-style. We're not making any judgments about who anyone sleeps with or has over as guests. This isn't Big Brother. We want people to live in a relaxed, decent environment. As I told the residents, in a perfect world we would not have any system at all. But this isn't a perfect world. There's a lot of crime on the street. We simply want to create a system where people who are supposed to get in can get in, and people who aren't supposed to get in can't get in."

Over the summer Hyatt had several meetings with the tenants. But little was resolved as the meetings often turned turbulent. "I would say that the opposition is limited to a handful of people who intimidate the others," says Hyatt. "Nothing we do will satisfy them."

Pepper counters that at least 90 percent of the tenants have signed petitions opposing the new security system. "They always act like they're doing something because they're nice, when in fact if they do something it's either 'cause they have to or we demand it," says Pepper. "In today's market the poorest of people want to be seen and they want to be heard. This is supposed to be freedom of speech, and we aren't going to be embarrassed by demanding it."

In August Pepper and his fellow board members contacted the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, which dispatched Denice Irwin to help organize the residents. "We felt we needed some assistance in learning how to deal with the owners," says Pepper. "Denice didn't come to us. We went to her."

Ironically, Irwin is a board member of Voice of the People and has worked closely with Baskin, Epstein, and Hyatt on several Uptown housing deals. "I shouldn't be an issue," Irwin says. "The tenants contacted me, and that's why I'm here."

But the owners are cautious about Irwin's role. "I'd like to know what Denice Irwin is trying to accomplish by coming here," says Hyatt. "Is she trying to do positive things, or is she trying to just paint us as the enemy? I don't want to get into a war with anyone. But I'll be damned if I'll just let someone kick us around."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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