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Residents of CHA senior building: ‘We feel as if we are prisoners’

Aryeh' Nasi Benyehudah 71 far left Frances Banks 71 center Alphonso Jones 66 tenants Judge Slater Apartments talk about living

Aryeh' Nasi Benyehudah, 71, far left, Frances Banks, 71, center and Alphonso Jones, 66, tenants of Judge Slater Apartments, talk about the living conditions at the apartment complex in the 4200 Block of South Cottage Grove Avenue, Chicago. Monday February 18, 2013. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 20, 2013 6:43AM

The Rev. Leon Finney built his reputation and his livelihood by running slumlords out of the Woodlawn community.

Now decades later, Finney and his Woodlawn Community Development Corp. are being accused of committing similar abuses.

The latest complaint comes from seniors living in the Judge Slater Senior Housing complex at 42nd and Cottage Grove, which Finney’s organization manages for the Chicago Housing Authority.

In a letter dated Jan. 24, in which residents requested that Finney meet with them, the seniors complained that Woodlawn employees routinely intimidated them and used “disrespectful and degrading” language towards them.

They also alleged that their apartments were infested with bed bugs, rats and roaches.

On Tuesday, the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization will hold a news conference at 10:30 a.m. outside CHA’s downtown headquarters to bring attention to these complaints.

“We feel as if we are prisoners,” said Frances Banks, who pointed out some of the problems when I visited the building on Monday. “I feel like I am serving time and haven’t done a crime. My only crime is being 71 years old and exercising my rights as a senior.”

The complex comprises several buildings: Judge Green, Judge Slater, Judge Slater Annex and the Vivian Harsh Senior Housing.

I was unable to reach a CHA official about this matter on Monday.

Finney responded by email with a written statement:

“No one, especially our most vulnerable seniors should live in conditions like those that have been described. No on-site property manager should ever disrespect our residents,” Finney wrote. “I take these allegations seriously and am willing to meet personally face-to-face to better understand the facts and work to resolve any issues.”

When I arrived at the building on Monday, a white Allied Bed Bug van was parked in the lot.

Visitors are required to show IDs and sign in at the front desk. A security guard scanned my ID and gave me a paper badge with my photo on it to display while in the building.

Shortly after my arrival, that same security guard confronted the seniors who were escorting me.

At the time, I was speaking with Alphonzo Washington, a 65-year-old resident.

“They treat us any old way,” Washington said, leaning on his cane.

“I’ve been here three years and have heart problems and other medical problems,” he said. “You have to be worried about being put outside when you go and talk to them with a complaint or something.”

Residents showed me a window that has been without a screen for months; evidence of vermin and roach infestations, and a locked door that they claim would make it harder to escape a fire.

“I kill roaches every time I come down this hall,” said an unidentified man who was exiting his apartment just as I was walking up.

By virtue of her age and her infirmities, 71-year-old Yvetta Mack is trapped in her fourth-floor apartment.

Her hospital bed takes up most of the space in her cramped bedroom.

“I had to get some poles put up on the outside of the shower to hold onto. I had to get some guys to put the poles up,” she told me.

But what really seemed to upset her the most was what she calls the “nasty attitude” from the on-site property manager.

“When I told her the mice was bad, she told me if I don’t like it I could move because mice won’t come if you clean your house up,” Mack said.

According to Shannon Bennett, deputy executive director of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, the seniors met for two months before coming to his group to seek help. The organization’s offices are less than a block away, and the group asked for assistance after they were locked out of the community center they used as a meeting space.

“We decided to go to CHA to pressure them to intervene,” Bennett told me.

In recent years, Finney’s organization has come under scrutiny by federal housing investigators, but he has not been charged with any wrongdoing. Hopefully, he will move quickly to fix the problems at this senior complex.

Because for a legend like Finney to go from savior to villain is too tragic an irony.

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