JOLIET – A federal judge's ruling on Evergreen Terrace agreed with the city of Joliet on every point in its nine-year bid to condemn the low-income Broadway Street housing complex.
U.S. District Judge Charles Norgle, in an order issued Thursday, ruled in favor of Joliet and against Evergreen Terrace owners New West LP/New Bluff LP on all claims.
Much of the ruling focused on findings that New West/New Bluff failed to fix health, safety and security problems at the 356-unit site after the city began condemnation proceedings in 2005.
Norgle noted that the property continued to receive failing scores on U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development real estate assessment inspections even after receiving $5 million in renovations through HUD’s Mark-to-Market program.
As recently as July 2012, both Evergreen Terrace I and II received failing scores of 46 and 50 on a 100-point scale. The inspections noted the presence of serious health and safety violations, ranging from plumbing and electrical issues to broken windows and inoperable emergency exits.
Mold also was reported, as well as pervasive German cockroach and Norwegian rat infestations since 2005.
“The court finds that the property was not decent, safe, sanitary or in good repair following $5 million in repairs and renovations,” Norgle stated. “Blight at the property has not been eradicated as of 2012 or later.”
Norgle also noted that security remained a problem.
“There are numerous reports that security staff are too afraid to deal with loiterers and those who commit crime on the property,” Norgle stated. “Security guards have had their lives threatened on multiple occasions.”
In one case, a glass window at the guard station was shot out by a BB gun. There also were reports of people paying residents to obtain visitor passes for them.
Norgle noted that the property lacks sufficient fencing around its buildings, and that some of the cameras used for security on the site have themselves been stolen.
The court noted that Joliet continues to expend resources for the high numbers of police, fire and medical emergency calls at the facility, which was one of the main reasons it sought to condemn the property in 2005.
Norgle noted that all of the failed inspections, safety violations, unsanitary conditions and criminal activity at Evergreen Terrace in the case occurred after 2005 when it was under close scrutiny by HUD.
“The evidence shows that even [the owners’] best efforts have failed to make a meaningful difference to eradicate blight at the property,” Norgle stated.
Norgle also found no evidence that Joliet acted with an intent to discriminate against African-Americans, noting that the city agreed with HUD to provide 115 low-income housing units if it gained ownership of the property, and that the Housing Authority of Joliet also provided housing opportunities.
Confident in city’s case
City Attorney Jeff Plyman said he didn’t learn about the failed 2012 HUD inspections until the trial started in 2013.
“They hurried up to do the inspections to provide evidence that the property was no longer blighted, and then they flunked the inspections,” Plyman said. “They re-inspected a second time and the results were even worse.”
Plyman, who has worked on the case from the beginning, said he always was confident that the city would be able to prove that living conditions at the complex were horrible.
“Everyone knew the place had drugs and crimes. I knew we would be able to establish that,” Plyman said.
Plyman said his biggest concerns were over the owners’ claims of racial discrimination and how potential changes in the federal Fair Housing Act might affect the process.
“I knew the discrimination claims were false, but I didn’t know how the court would handle those claims,” Plyman said. “Even though I knew they were fabricated, there was an uncertainty.”
Plyman said the court has set a Sept. 26 status hearing for the case. He said he expected dates then would be set for the next phase of the trial, which will determine how much Joliet will pay the owners to take over Evergreen Terrace.
Burnham Management Co., the firm that manages Evergreen Terrace, said it plans to appeal the ruling.
“While we are disappointed with this ruling, we plan to appeal and will continue to move forward singularly focused on providing safe, affordable housing for those who need it most,” the company said in a news release.