DeKALB – “We have a lot of work to do,” said Chicago-based developer Amy Rubenstein Thursday as the City of DeKalb approved a $1 million incentive for the real estate company to purchase more than 400 Hunter Properties-owned units in the city.
The DeKalb City Council unanimously voted, 8-0, on Thursday to approve the financial incentive to Chicago-based developer Clear Investment Group LLC, which is looking to purchase Lincoln Tower, Hunter Tri-Frat, Hunter Ridgebrook and more than 100 individual units throughout the city – all currently owned by Evanston-based Hunter Properties, DeKalb’s largest landlord.
DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas said during the special council meeting that the $1 million will go toward renovating Hunter Ridgebrook, a three-building apartment complex at 808 Ridge Drive, 832 Ridge Drive and 835 Edgebrook Drive, documents show.
Nicklas said he arrived at the $1 million number by considering the roughly 10,000 police calls made alone to the Hunter Ridgebrook buildings specifically within the past three years. He said each call costs the city about $100. The conditions for the incentive include several safety measures like a functioning 24/7 live security system that DeKalb police will have access to at all times.
“These are security measures that have not been active on this property for many years,” Nicklas said.
Northern Illinois University student Page Weaver, who lives in a two bedroom Hunter Properties-owned complex called Hunter Star off Lucinda Avenue, said what initially attracted her to the place was the ability to walk to her classes. Her opinion changed, however, when she said it took months for work orders to be fulfilled during the past two years that she and her partner Derek Detzler, also an NIU student, have lived in the apartment. She said property management staff were rude to her every time she put in requests.
“It’s just been, to say the least, a nightmare living here,” Weaver said.
Detzler said issues included bugs in the common hallways, windows being painted shut and the building’s security door being constantly broken.
“We’re just walking in with issues with the apartment and [someone] just doesn’t want to help,” Detzler said. " ... So they got to work out for them, whoever’s buying the [buildings].”
According to city documents, Clear Investment Group is currently in talks with Hunter Properties to purchase all 184 units in Hunter Ridgebrook, near Edgebrook and Ridge drives; all 40 units in Hunter Tri-Frat, 930 Greenbrier Road; and all 66 units in Lincoln Tower, 1100 W. Lincoln Highway. Nicklas confirmed Thursday the remaining 113 units would be purchased from various smaller Hunter-owned rental units throughout the city.
The million would be given to the Chicago developer within 10 days of the final purchase.
Clear Investment Group would take control of the properties within three months of the purchase, and complete renovations within a year from the date the first building permit is issued. The developer also would agree to own, maintain and operate the property for at least three years.
The Chicago developer’s total investment would be $22.5 million for all three complexes, including $13 million going toward Hunter Ridgebrook alone, and $3 million for renovations and upgrades to the buildings.
Representatives for Hunter Properties, including property manager Tiffany Meadows, did not respond to requests for comment.
Response to new ownership
Some community members say they are skeptical about whether having new ownership will completely eliminate issues. That’s including DeKalb resident John Walker, who has helped multiple Hunter Properties tenants sort out issues with the property management company.
Walker, also a UPS driver by trade and a member of the city’s citizens’ review board for the DeKalb Police Department, said he’s concerned about potential displacement of residents and whether new ownership would solve issues in the area.
“All those areas that this new developer’s going to buy, if you check the history, all those areas were already bad areas before even Hunter Properties took them over,” Walker said.
Walker said his concerns are mainly about how the City is reactive to landlord-related issues instead of proactive.
“No one really ever comes up with any real answers until it’s three or five years later and we say, well, why didn’t we think of that?” Walker said. “I’m saying to people now, let’s think about it right now. Let’s not just be happy to get Hunter out and bring somebody else in.”
DeKalb Mayor Cohen Barnes reiterated his support for the proposal. He said he took ride-alongs with DeKalb police in 2020 through the hallways of Hunter Ridgebrook and Hunter Tri-Frat.
Barnes said he saw housing conditions that “no one, especially within the city of DeKalb, should live in.”
“What I saw in the hallways, what I saw in the stairwells, what I smelled, what I physically witnessed was absolutely appalling that we have let this go on for as long as we have,” Barnes said.
Developer talks rent, renovations
According to Secretary of State company records, Amy Rubenstein is listed as a manager for Clear Investment Group. City documents state she would be involved in the DeKalb development.
Rubenstein said she believes about 80% of the 403 units up for sale are currently occupied, meaning about 80 units are vacant. She said DeKalb appealed to her.
“What we really want to do is bring it [the rental units] up to the quality of the rest of the community,” Rubenstein said. “There should be no reason that people live in apartment buildings that are filled with trash, or smell bad, or don’t get maintenance requests taken care of.”
Rubenstein said the properties came up on the company’s radar from brokers, and that Clear Investment Group specializes in buying and renovating properties in managerial or physical distress.
Rubenstein said it’s not the group’s intention to start kicking people out of their units. She said the group plans to speak with residents individually about needs, determine if pest control is needed, and address unfulfilled maintenance requests within the first few months of the purchase.
“But we have a lot of work to do,” Rubenstein said.
Rubenstein said the goal is to get the majority of the renovation work done in the first year. That will include renovating common areas in the buildings and beginning to renovate currently vacant units.
“I think we’ll make huge changes within the first six months,” Rubenstein said.
Rubenstein said gradual rent increases are also part of the renovations for the units. She said Clear Investment Group would accept Section 8 affordable housing vouchers and those tenants also would be subject to the same background checks as other residents.
“We’re not trying to take $600 rents and make them $1,000 rents,” Rubenstein said. “That’s not our goal.”
Barnes said he was happy to think of what the purchase means for students within the DeKalb School District 428 who also live in the buildings.
“And with this transaction, we can affect  units and a ton of families that those kids can now live in a safe place in our community and have an experience that so many of us have,” Barnes said.
City officials for years have sought to improve quality of living in several of the buildings owned by the Hunter Properties. The landlord began purchasing buildings in DeKalb in 2016, and owns the most units in the city, about 1,000 in total. Over the years the properties have been the subject of nearly 500 code violations since 2019. Those include two buildings where tenants were forced from their homes after several fires that DeKalb fire officials said were attempted arsons in July 2019, displacing about 200 people.
Court records show the cited violations include electrical and mechanical issues, broken smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, bedbug infestations, security failures, lighting and plumbing problems and more.
Northern Illinois University Spokesman Joe King said in a Thursday written statement the university commends the City of DeKalb’s efforts to find and collaborate with a new property owner he said was committed to improving quality of housing for student and residents.
“It’s important to NIU that our students and employees have a safe and thriving community to live, work and learn – not just on campus, but beyond,” King said in the statement. “We look forward to the progress to come.”