What Does it Take to Take on Your Management Company?

TLC is a property management company that specializes in elevated, elegant lakeside living. The firm, helmed by former president of the Chicagoland Apartment Association Stuart Handler, owns a total of thirty-four high rises in the Chicago area that contain 2,750 units–a formidable total even in a city bursting with rental companies. The buildings are often gifted with opulent names like The Regal, The Versailles, and The Shorewind Towers. What would it be like to have the resources of this conglomerate arrayed against you? Shane Desautels–a health-literacy instructor, self-described activist, and tenant at TLC’s Flamingo property on the corner of 55th and South Shore Drive–doesn’t have to ask.

It all started with a pair of notes, slid under Desautels’ door on December 9, 2011. The first was from TLC announcing that it would take over the management of The Flamingo, the second was from IRMCO, The Flamingo’s erstwhile owner, thanking its former customers and assuring a smooth transition. Desautels’ suspicions were immediately aroused. “There was no prior notice,” he said, that the building was on the auction block. The missive from TLC cordially welcomed its new residents and stated that there would be some “minimal changes that you will notice right away.“ A few of these, and admittedly the ones that Desautels fails to mention, included allowing residents use of the fitness center free of charge and the establishment of a business hub in the gilded lobby. Another change, which Desautels did notice, set off the litigation that is now heading into its fifteenth month. It read, “We are changing the lobby-door entry system to state-of-the-art keypad entry system.” Within days the security window was boarded up and all eight members of the building’s security staff were informed that they were to be let go.

What precisely it takes to make a keypad system “state of the art” is unclear, but this still doesn’t seem a particularly unusual method for a rental company to deal with security threats. Desautels doesn’t see it that way, and it didn’t take long for TLC to figure that out. After years of doing pastoral work with at-risk youth, he was particularly attuned to security concerns and wanted his lakeside high rise to be a secure haven. Desautels’ argument is that he only considered migrating to The Flamingo because of the 24/7 lobby attendants and maintenance clearly advertised in its brochure. He had signed a two-year lease with IRMCO mere months before and points out that it is illegal for a buyer of a rental property to significantly decrease the services guaranteed by the previous owner to his or her tenants. Desautels didn’t hesitate to fight. It took him all of two days to form The Flamingo Tenants Rights Organization and garner thirty signatures demanding the attendants return. He then sent TLC notice of his intention, as provided under the Chicago Tenants Rights Ordinance, to withhold a portion of his rent in response to what he considered to be the reduced value of living in a building without adequate security.

TLC’s response was to threaten their most irked tenant with eviction, at which point Desautels procured the services of a prominent lawyer and the court battle enjoined.

As the legal dispute dragged on, Desautels kept up the pressure at home.  Each day he’d put up fliers excoriating TLC’s broken promises all over the building. The maintenance personnel would then loyally tear them down, which in turn prompted Desautels to wake up in the middle of the night and line the elevators with leaflets before the staff. By the end of the year, he declared on his taxes that he had racked up a $2,500 flier bill.  He set up petitions, websites, and even pretended he wanted to sublet his apartment on Craigslist just so that he could provide potential lease applicants with his list of TLC’s abuses.

By March 5, TLC had relented. It hired every member of the security personnel back.

Desautels had won a real victory, but all was not quiet. Desautels is now seeking punitive damages for what he terms TLC’s retaliatory conduct, namely their threat to evict him for taking lawful action. Desautels also claims that certain services advertised for the Flamingo are no longer provided. He maintains that the original advertisement proclaimed there to be twenty-four-hour on-site maintenance, TLC has reduced this to twenty-four-hour emergency maintenance. Some might say that this is a trivial distinction, but another resident (who wished to go unnamed) provided this pungent rebuttal: “My toilet was clogged and a staff member had to call in a flooding to get TLC’s maintenance to come and fix it.” In addition, Desautels says that IRMCO’s policy of allowing rent to be paid easily on a debit card has been altered. The new fee for this convenience is assessed as three percent of that month’s rent, hefty to say the least.

All of this raises some questions. Would installing a buzzer system pose a real safety risk to the occupants of The Flamingo? What constitutes a major change to resident services? The Chicago Weekly reached out repeatedly to TLC and received this pithy response from CEO Stuart Handler: “We have no comment. Except to say that legal proceedings have been initiated and Mr. Desautels is now in eviction court.”

TLC’s legal personnel have approached Desautels for a settlement, but he wants his day in court. In fact, he takes that common desire to uncommon lengths. He wanted to make it very clear that he was not going be bought off and go quietly.  So he formally instructed his lawyer to tell TLC’s legal team that that there was only one route through which this could be resolved privately.

“This is the only way that I will ever settle,” Desautels said. “First, Stuart Handler has to come to this building, and he has to stand downstairs in the lobby and he has to apologize to every tenant that walks in through those doors.  And he has to do so dressed as Darth Vader. He has to say ‘I am sorry for going to the dark side.’“ Desautels grinned as he spoke, gesturing out toward the lake. “Oh, and second. The building. I want the building.“

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