CHICAGO — A network of real estate companies that owe more than $15 million to the city in rat-related tickets involving hundreds of properties could finally have to pay the piper.
The City of Chicago is jumping into a legal battle with its hand out as the CTA wrangles in court with the companies over eight properties. The CTA needs the land as part of its extension of the Red Line but they can’t agree on the price.
The move by the city comes just weeks after an investigation by the Illinois Answers Project and Block Club Chicago showed how the city was failing in its battle against rats, including how the city wasn’t collecting fines issued to the biggest debtors.
At the top of the list were the network of companies that have had ties to Suzie B. Wilson, of Northbrook, which amassed more than $15 million in unpaid debts on hundreds of mostly vacant properties located on the city’s South and West sides.
Wilson had been listed as the manager of the companies for years but after the Illinois Answers/Block Club story came out, the agent of record for the companies and the listed managers were changed, Illinois state records show. Douglas Belofsky, an attorney who Wilson is using in an unrelated lawsuit, is now the agent of record for the companies. He declined to comment. The managers are now different LLCs based in South Dakota, and the public records in that state do not have to list which individuals manage the companies.
To stake its claim on the properties, the city officially recorded more than 40 court judgments for property violations such as failing to cut weeds and leaving out junk that can provide “potential rat harborage.” Some of these judgments were obtained years ago in administrative court but were only recorded after the Illinois Answers/Block Club investigation brought the potential CTA deals to light.
The City of Chicago Law Department declined to comment due to the litigation. Chasse Rehwinkel, the city comptroller who pledged to “enforce the rules of the road when it comes to our revenue collection” during his confirmation hearing, also declined to comment, deferring to the city’s law department. Redacted emails obtained by Illinois Answers show Rehwinkel called a meeting with the law department to discuss follow-up actions for the outstanding fees.
“Are we aware of this?” Rehwinkel said in his email to his City of Chicago Finance Department colleagues, sharing a link to the story about the debts. “What is the backstory? Can we collect these?”
Phone messages and emails left for Wilson and the attorney representing her in the CTA lawsuit were not returned. A spokesperson for the City Law Department declined to comment, citing active litigation.
The CTA is looking to acquire eight vacant properties owned by the companies that are in the footprint of the CTA’s $3.6 billion project to extend the Red Line 5.6 miles south to 130th Street. After failing to settle on a price, the CTA filed lawsuits against the companies that own the properties.
On Sept. 11, the city filed a motion court in one of the CTA’s cases, which is seeking to obtain a 3,125-square-foot vacant lot in the 300 block of West 111th Street that is owned by Vivid LLC, a company Wilson has managed. Five days earlier, the filing states, the city recorded previously obtained judgments against Vivid.
“Additionally, the City has recorded Judgments in other matters against Defendant Suzie Wilson, the manager and controller of Vivid,” the filing states. “Judgments against Defendant Suzie Wilson are a lien against her interest in the Property.”
In response, an attorney for Wilson and Vivid said that the city was trying to “boot-strap its claims on other properties” onto the Roseland parcel, and no judgements were recorded at the time the CTA filed its lawsuit to obtain the property. A judge has set a hearing in the matter.
So far the CTA has spent more than $7.5 million acquiring properties for the long-promised transit development, records show. Payouts for the properties range from a few thousand dollars for a 510-square-foot stretch of empty land to $784,000 for an 89,000-square-foot building that was once a concrete business. As such, properties that the companies scooped up for little or nothing in private transactions and tax sales decades ago could produce a big payday.
The eight properties in the footprint of the Red Line extension total 116,512 square feet, according to the assessor’s office.
Wilson has taken steps in getting these properties ready for sale. As of late July, she signed an affidavit correcting a 15-year-old mistake in the deed of one property.
Another company Wilson has managed previously sued the City of Chicago, alleging it was unconstitutional for the city to fine the company for failing to cut the weeds on its vast network of empty lots. The company lost the case, with one federal judge calling their arguments “ridiculous.”
Unpaid ticket debts held by the companies were uncovered during the Illinois Answers/Block Club investigation into Chicago’s rat problem, which found the Bureau of Rodent Control was understaffed and often days or weeks late in responding to complaints, which have surged to record levels in recent years.
Following the investigation, Mayor Brandon Johnson boosted the rodent control budget by $1.5 million, which would pay for three new rat control crews and pay for salary increases that were negotiated in a new union contract.
Contributing: Mina Bloom
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Read More: City Goes After Companies That Owe $15M In Rat-Related Tickets After Illinois Answers/Block Club In