Ald. Joe Moore backs developer over displaced tenants in Rogers Park

The City Council housing committee chairman went above and beyond his record of siding with landlords by filing an affidavit supporting a building owner who has donated thousands to his campaign.

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Photo by Max Herman

As chairman of the City Council’s housing committee, Ald. Joe Moore has been criticized for blocking progressive housing measures such as the Keeping the Promise Ordinance and the Development For All Ordinance.

Gentrification and displacement are issues in aldermanic elections around the city  — but especially in the 49th ward, where longtime incumbent Ald. Joe Moore is also the chair of the City Council’s housing committee.

Organizers working with tenants to fight displacement have not viewed Moore as an ally. ONE People’s Campaign, an electoral coalition that grew out of anti-gentrification organizing, has endorsed challenger Maria Hadden against Moore, saying the incumbent “has overseen the gentrification of Rogers Park and the displacement of thousands of people of color.”

Moore said he’s been “a leading proponent of affordable housing” and has helped produce or preserve over a thousand units in his two decades in office.

“Over and over, he has either been indifferent to the concerns of tenants or has been explicitly on the side of landlords,” said Fran Tobin of Northside Action for Justice.

On legislative initiatives, Moore’s indifference to tenant concerns increased markedly when Mayor Rahm Emanuel made him housing committee chair in 2015. Before his appointment, Moore co-sponsored the Keeping the Promise Ordinance, which would increase accountability for the Chicago Housing Authority and end the hoarding of voucher funds. After becoming chair, he refused to hold a hearing on the ordinance.  

Moore has also single-handedly blocked the Development For All Ordinance, which would increase affordability standards for new developments and limit the ability of aldermen to reject affordable housing proposals in their wards.

But in January, Moore went above and beyond his previous record by signing an affidavit backing a developer against a lawsuit by tenants saying their rights had been violated.

Thirty-six former tenants of 7645 N. Sheridan Rd. have sued the building’s current owners, alleging they failed to provide the lease protection or relocation assistance mandated by the Keep Chicago Renting Ordinance. The ordinance was enacted in 2013 to protect tenants in buildings that are sold in foreclosure.

The ownership entity, 7645 N. Sheridan LLC, managed by Sal Becovic, president of Becovic Management Group, acquired the building in October 2016. It was one of the fast-disappearing apartment buildings in the 49th ward where longtime residents of moderate means could afford the rents, according to Tobin.  

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Within a few days, the new owners distributed notices giving tenants 30 days to leave, threatening them with liability for damages and attorney’s fees, according to the tenants’ complaint, filed by attorney Daniel Schlade. Some left immediately, some remained for a few months. But while they were there, the heat wasn’t maintained, the laundry was shut down, the intercom was shut down, and demolition was started, according to the complaint. One 30-year resident left his apartment for a few hours and returned to find his belongings removed and demolition underway in his unit, the complaint alleges.

The Keep Chicago Renting Ordinance requires landlords who acquire buildings through foreclosure sales to extend existing leases or provide $10,600 in relocation assistance. That didn’t happen. The tenants’ lawsuit seeks damages under the city’s ordinance and under the state’s consumer fraud act.

In January, though, Moore filed an affidavit arguing that the ordinance shouldn’t apply to this developer. His claim is legally questionable on two counts, according to Schlade.

First, Illinois courts have consistently held that legislators aren’t appropriate “expert witnesses” regarding the purpose of specific laws. As one ruling held, “Construing legislative enactments is a uniquely judicial function, and legislators and others involved in the legislative process ought not be allowed to testify regarding the meaning of a statute.” (Questions of “legislative intent” are limited to examining the record of debate during passage of a bill.) Schlade has a pending motion to bar Moore’s testimony.

Second, Moore seems to argue that the ordinance doesn’t apply to this deal, based on the timing of the transfer of ownership to the new LLC by the bank that foreclosed on the property. Schlade says he’s shown that a contract to transfer ownership was agreed to days before the process of the foreclosure sale began — and thus the tenants are protected.

According to Schlade, the owners have already presented arguments similar to Moore’s in two motions to dismiss the lawsuit that Judge Margaret Brennan has denied.

Moore told me he provided the affidavit at the request of Becovic’s attorney because it was clear to him that the ordinance was intended “to apply only to banks and financial institutions” and there was “never any intention that it apply to private owners of property.”

In fact, the ordinance as originally introduced was limited to financial institutions, but in the course of negotiations it was broadened to cover any purchaser at foreclosure, from private equity firms to mom-and-pop landlords, said Frank Avellone of the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing, a key proponent of the measure.

So why is Moore intervening with a dubious legal point to protect luxury developers who are displacing his constituents? In the affidavit he argues that the building was in need of investment, and “it is clear investment is being made in the property.”

That’s not the only investment apparently taking place, though. Sal Becovic has made multiple donations to Moore: $1,500 last June, $2,500 a couple weeks before the affidavit was executed, and another $1,500 this month.  

Moore said those donations have “no connection” to his support for Becovic in the lawsuit.