The senior residents of Heritage House are a vibrant, social group. They have parties, play Bingo and have potlucks together, making the midrise apartment building at Lake Street and Lombard generally a fun place to live. But residents believe their quality of life has deteriorated due to the building’s poor management.
Bedbugs, roaches, poor ventilation, toilets not flushing, water damage and unprotected electrical outlets near water sources were among hundreds of building standards violations Heritage House received during inspections conducted by the village of Oak Park this year.
Those inspections were accelerated by the village after Jim Taglia, then a village trustee, met with residents last winter and reported his observations to village staff.
“No one should have to live in those conditions, with bed bugs, mold and freezing temperatures being common complaints,” Taglia told Wednesday Journal.
“It has really gone down from when I moved here,” said Irma Baker, a Heritage House resident. “When I first moved in, oh my goodness, it was beautiful.”
Baker moved into Heritage House in 2007, but before that, she had looked forward to becoming a resident of the apartment complex, located at 201 Lake St. She remembers talking about it with her girlfriend during their many walks around the neighborhood.
“I used to tell my girlfriend, ‘I want to live in that building right there,’” she recalled to Wednesday Journal. “Finally, I got up in here, and the manager back then, she cared about us. She cared about the people in here.”
Heritage House is a privately owned 200-unit apartment complex specifically for residents aged 62 and over, capable of living independently but of limited means. Those who live in Heritage House receive assistance through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which pays a rental subsidy to tenants. The tenants in turn pay 30% of their adjusted gross income to live in the apartments, according to HUD, which has not inspected the building yet this year.
“HUD pays the money. Why is it that HUD won’t do something about what’s going on in this building?” said Rita Arrington, president of the residents’ association.
Since Baker and Arrington have been living in Heritage House, the building has been managed by Pacific Properties Management, whose representatives did not respond to requests for comment. The management company shares a Chicago office address with Heritage House Apartments LLC, the entity which owns the building. Heritage House Apartments LLC is owned by Wellness America Inc., the president of which could not be reached for comment.
The Pacific Properties employees stationed at the property have changed over the years. This change has resulted in the building’s decline, according to residents, who said that the management company only has two employees assigned to Heritage House, responsible for overseeing the building and its residents.
“It seems like they don’t care about seniors,” said Baker, who also serves on the residents association.
Residents have lodged several complaints to management over the years, without seeing the problems rectified. The first floor has two bathrooms, both single occupancy. Both used to be available to residents, according to Arrington. One is available to residents and guests, while the other is kept locked, only for employee use.
The management company has since limited the hours in which residents can do laundry, which has made it difficult given that not all washers and driers work. Four laundry machines were apparently broken when Wednesday Journal visited. The residents also had to fight for a table to be put in the laundry room, according to Arrington, and the vending machine has been out of order for roughly six months.
“It’s always excuses with management,” said Arrington.
At times, the elevators have stopped working, causing the senior citizen residents to climb the stairs to reach their apartments. That may not be so bad for those on the first or second floor, but it’s quite a trek for those who live on the upper floors of the 14-floor building. And sometimes the lights go out.
Betty Coffey, assistant president of the residents’ association, had to wait about four months to get the carpet removed in her two-bedroom unit. Her husband was diagnosed with respiratory issues, which the doctor said could be aggravated by carpeting. The carpeting in their unit was old and in disrepair.
“We didn’t know what kind of impurities could be in there,” she said. “And he was living with it for months.”
Residents credit Taglia, former Oak Park village trustee, for getting the village to inspect Heritage House, prompting management to begin addressing the long list of violations. Then serving on the village board, Taglia attended a meeting of tenants last winter and was “shocked” by what he learned.
“HUD and the Pacific management company turned a blind eye on these seniors for years,” Taglia said.
The village of Oak Park has a tiered inspection system based on the number of violations a building receives. Up until recently, Heritage House was considered to be “gold” tier, the highest designation, which meant that it had few violations. The village only inspects “gold” buildings once every four years. Heritage House was last inspected in 2018 and should have been inspected again in 2022, but the village’s inspection schedule was pushed back due to COVID-19.
Once Taglia made village staff aware of conditions at Heritage House an inspection was scheduled. The entire building was inspected by the village twice in both January and February. The village inspector returned three times in May for a follow up inspection. A HUD spokesperson said the agency was not notified of the village’s inspections.
The village was not expecting Heritage House to perform so poorly in its 2023 inspections, the reports from which had pages full of violations. Wednesday Journal received copies of the inspection reports through a Freedom of Information Act request.
“It was a surprise to us that this building didn’t continue with what had historically been their practice of being a high performing building,” said Tammie Grossman, Oak Park development and customer services director.
Village staff will be paying more attention to Heritage House going forward. A follow-up inspection is scheduled for the week of June 26. The village is working with the building owners to see all the violations are properly addressed. The owners have been cooperative, according to Grossman.
Some changes have already been made. The carpeting was replaced on the first-floor common areas. Plants sit in the lobby by black sofas and armchairs. The exercise machines were replaced, so the track on the treadmill no longer unfurls while someone is using it, and the library has some new furniture.
“All of it is refurbished, but it’s better than what we had,” said Arrington.
Heritage House tenants fall under HUD’s Project-Based Section 8 assistance. It differs, however, from other Section 8 housing in that the federal agency has a contract with the owner of the building to provide “decent, safe and sanitary housing” for senior citizens, but to receive rental assistance, tenants have to live in the building.
This is unlike the perhaps better-known Section 8 voucher program, which is used to help people of low income rent any privately-owned home that meets program guidelines.
If tenants were to move out of Heritage House, they could not transfer HUD support to their new place of residence. They would have to apply for the voucher program through the Oak Park Housing Authority, if applications are being accepted, or they could apply for another Project-Based Section 8 development, according to a HUD spokesperson. Heritage House is fully occupied with a wait list of qualified tenants.