Agency officials seek alternatives for tenants of apartment complex
Hermalinda Cruz moved out of her apartment Thursday afternoon.
That's not a newsworthy event under most circumstances. But for Cruz, it took a bit of courage and came with a sense of relief as she exited unsafe and unsanitary surroundings.
Cruz and three of her children were among the residents living at Cherry Orchard apartment complex in rural Rantoul, in conditions that Julie Pryde, administrator of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, called "appalling."
Windows are out of apartments in the middle of winter, water turned off at night, no electricity and no heat in some apartments, septic conditions that Pryde said would, ultimately, result in illness. And that doesn't even take into account the bugs and rats.
Cruz's family had been staying with her daughter, Lydia Cruz, and her two children in Rantoul recently, but she expressed fear that landlords Bernard and Eduardo Ramos would try to intimidate her, and maybe more, if she came back for the rest of her belongings at Cherry Orchard.
All the tenants at the apartment complex were offered the opportunity to move out of Cherry Orchard this week. About 12 people agreed to make the move and are staying in motel rooms, paid for by the Salvation Army, until more permanent accommodations can be found.
Pryde said one family also wants to move out but can't do so immediately.
The action came as a result of a meeting Wednesday at Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, spearheaded by Pryde and attended by public and private social services representatives.
The Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, Regional Office of Education, Department of Children and Family Services and Center for Women in Transition are among the agencies looking into programs to help the tenants.
The Ramoses have been ordered to stand trial Jan. 24 after failing to live up to an agreement with the health district to shut down five of the tenant buildings at Cherry Orchard due to untreated effluent that was discovered being discharged into a tile in a farmer's field.
Hermalinda Cruz said all of the Cherry Orchard tenants are Hispanic and all want to move out.
Lydia Cruz translated her mother's statements at the meeting. Afterward, Hermalinda Cruz said she came to the Rantoul area as a migrant worker from Texas and unlike most migrants, stayed here. She said she works 30 hours a week for Pioneer. She has lived at the complex for a year and a half.
Lydia Cruz, who used to live with her mother at Cherry Orchard, said rent at Cherry Orchard is $500 a month, which includes water, electric and heat, but she said the landlords would frequently come to them and say they needed more money for utilities, even though they had paid their rent.
In August, Eduardo Ramos came to their apartment and said he needed $800 – $300 for just the light bill – or they would shut off electricity, Lydia said. Despite paying more than they were supposed to via rent several times, the electricity has been shut off, she said.
Pryde said many apartments are without water, electricity or heat. She said some tenants hadn't had water for a month.
In one apartment, a window was out in the middle of winter, and there was no heat.
"Had I the authority I simply would have shut it down," Pryde said. "I don't know what the judge will do."
Pryde said most tenants didn't know how to get help, and she termed their attitudes almost "fatalistic" because they didn't think they had any power to change things. "There is probably some intimidation by the landlords," she said.
When a reporter and a photographer visited Cherry Orchard Thursday to interview and take photos of a tenant moving out, a man believed to be Eduardo Ramos approached them and began yelling at them to get out because they were on private property. The two left.
Jim Roberts, health district director of environmental health, said that as long ago as the fall of 2007, raw sewage was discovered on the ground near one of the buildings. But the health district has little jurisdiction over the condition of the apartments. Nor does the county.
It was only when it was discovered that raw sewage was being channeled into pipes to catch basins and then to a farmer's drain tile that the health district was able to take action.
Pryde said the Illinois Migrant Council has steered residents to Cherry Orchard in the past. But that is no longer the case, said Suzanne Lino, Migrant Council advocate for the Regional Office of Education. She said seed corn companies, however, continue to direct migrants to the apartment complex.
Andy Kulczycki, director of Community Service Center, Rantoul, said the center keeps a list of available housing and has supplies of food and clothing for low-income individuals.
Angie Hertel, leasing manager for Golfview Village, brought a list of rental properties available in the village. Pryde said she approached Golfview due to its low deposit required. Lydia Cruz said some places want as much as $500 for a deposit.
Several children lived at Cherry Orchard. Heidi Gulbrandson of DCFS said the agency can help with apartment deposits if there are children under 18 involved.
"If there are kids in unsafe conditions, those calls need to be made now," Gulbrandson said.