Housing nightmare lingers for residents of the Distillery

By Rachel Small

Residents of the Distillery at 25-29 E. John St. were told it would be finished in time for the start of this school year. Three months into the semester, they were allowed to move in, but into an unfinished building.

Tenants discovered the building had not been wired for Internet access, one of the provisions of the lease. The Tenant Union has also heard from various tenants at the building complaining of exposed insulation and wires hanging out.

“They had to wait three months to move in, and when they move in it’s still not ready, and they don’t have Internet service,” said Esther Patt, the Tenant Union’s coordinator. “And in the interim, they were rented a house that’s unfit for human habitation.”

Property maintenance inspector Cliff Peete, who performed the inspection, confirmed that the building at 707 S. First St. used for temporary housing was deemed unfit for human habitation because the basement failed to meet the habitable house requirements.

The lease gave the landlord, JTS Properties, until Nov. 15 to have the Distillery approved for occupancy by the city of Champaign, and it was not until that date that the building was issued a conditional certificate of occupancy.

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Had the building failed to pass, tenants would have been able to break the lease without liability.

The building failed inspection on Friday, Nov. 14 but passed the next day.

“I was hearing from some of the kids that were moving in that there was a disagreement going on, that the tenants were unhappy with the delay and didn’t necessarily want to see the thing get approved,” said Gary Bowman, building safety supervisor for the city of Champaign. “It’s either there or it’s not, and that’s what I told the owner, too.”

Bowman said JTS had people work on the building through the night and into Saturday, Nov. 15. An overtime inspector was paid to re-do the inspection.

The building was issued a conditional certificate of occupancy, which may be given if the building’s safety features are in place, even if details like landscaping and concrete floors remain unfinished.

Patt voiced concern that the building might have passed inspection out of concern for the interests of JTS. However, Bowman said the building passed because it was up to standard, not because of any business considerations.

“We’re not going to compromise our standards for that,” he said.

While not all of the building’s tenants who have been working with the Tenant Union have filed official complaints, one recurring theme in the complaints is the unavailability of the JTS staff.

JTS is owned by Champaign bar owner Scott Cochrane. The JTS staff declined to comment on the situation.

Patt said the absence of an Internet connection is of particular concern for students who may have papers or assignments due or available only online.

“They were all better off in temporary housing in terms of their experience as students,” she said.

While JTS is technically in violation of that provision of the lease, Patt said it would be hard to force the company to do anything about it.

“The amount of compensation that I think most people would want for the hassle of having to go from Oak and John to a computer lab is probably a lot more money than what they’re going to get,” Patt said.

Some tenants are pursuing the matter with Student Legal Services.

Patt said she advises students against signing for a place not in move-in condition when viewed.

“Best advice is, don’t do it, and if you aren’t going to follow that advice, come to the Tenant Union and let’s have a look at what in the world it is they’re asking you to sign,” she said.