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Tenant Association seek to equip residents with tools to create change

DeKalb Tenant Association to speak during Monday's council meeting about housing in county

DeKALB – Caprisha Shamyra Williams pointed to water damage on her living room ceiling Thursday in her ground-floor unit at Lincoln Tower, and said that she wishes she could move but feels stuck by what she says are limited affordable housing options in DeKalb.

Williams, 30, will return to classes Tuesday as a sophomore at Northern Illinois University, studying nonprofit, nongovernmental organization, disability and rehabilitation services. She also has cerebral palsy, among other health difficulties, and relies on Section 8 Housing to help her pay $200 of the $588 owed in monthly rent. She often uses a wheelchair to get around.

“It is what it is,” Williams said, admitting she’s used to being a vocal advocate. “I’m handicapped. I’m black. Whatever. They brush me off. I’m trying to find another place. The best place for me would probably be Cortland, but I don’t drive, so I’m in between a rock and a hard place.”

Williams is part of the DeKalb Tenant Association, which formed in March. Initially coined as the Hunter Tenant Association, for residents living in Hunter Properties-owned buildings, the organization since has expanded to accommodate tenants countywide – in part because of a July filled with fires.

Two fires in DeKalb at Hunter-owned properties on 808 Ridge Drive and 930 Greenbrier Road, and a fire at St. Albans Green, owned by DeKalb-based Mason Properties, displaced almost 200 residents combined.

During Monday’s city council meeting, set for 6 p.m. at the DeKalb Municipal Building, members of the association will be sharing personal testimonies about living in DeKalb.

Mayor Jerry Smith also
will be reading a landlord-tenant proclamation, in partnership with NIU, in support of the association, according to the document.

The fires set off a chain of events in DeKalb, with city officials crying foul at Hunter-owned buildings, calling them “shameful.” Hunter Properties, represented by Sycamore attorney Clay Campbell, since has filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming “unequal, discriminatory treatment.” Hunter operates 1,000 units in the city, more than any other landlord, according to city documents.

Mason Properties owns 738 units, University Village owns 534, Lincolnshire 258, Amber Manor 228, Varsity Square and High Meadows each 192, West Ridge has 156 and Gideon Court 150, according to city documents.

Another association member, Jacob Maas, 24, of DeKalb, said a priority for the association is tenant education, as well as ensuring the city of DeKalb, and other areas, focuses on affordable housing. He said the organization also is drafting a tenant bill of rights. Membership is growing and includes people from DeKalb, Sycamore, Cortland and Rochelle, he said.

“The city wants to give a couple more million dollars investing in higher income housing like the Agora Tower project,” Maas said, referencing DeKalb-based Pappas Development’s plan to bring a third high-end apartment building downtown.

“We have a lot of needs for affordable housing in town, and right now there’s no voice in the process to argue for affordable housing in DeKalb,” Maas said. “Years down the line, when we have city elections, it’d be great if tenants were organized and mobilized.”

Roxanne Jenkins, 56, lived at 902 Ridge Drive in DeKalb for three years before moving to an apartment unit on Wells Street in Sycamore. Jenkins also is a member of the association.

“I just moved, thank God,” Jenkins said. “I’m living in Sycamore now. I just had to get out of there. It’s like night and day now.”

Although he’s happy Jenkins moved, Maas said that shouldn’t have to be the case for most. He said equipping tenants with the tools to advocate change for themselves is the goal of the monthly association meetings.

“People shouldn’t have to move in order to have a decent situation,” said Maas, who lives on South Second Street renting from retired professors. “But we want property owners to take care of their properties so people don’t have to continuously look for new housing. The problem is irresponsible property owners.”

“The thing is, people who aren’t poor don’t understand,” Williams said. “It’s not about moving. If you can’t afford it, you can’t afford it. I would love to be in a two-bedroom, but it’s really expensive for me and I’m not in that income bracket, so I have what I have. It’s really difficult for me to live on my own as it is.”

The DeKalb Tenants Association meets from 6 to 8 p.m. the third Monday of every month in the parish hall behind St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 900 Normal Road in DeKalb.

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