Senior citizens blast prominent community leader as a 'slumlord'

February 19, 2013

WBEZ/Lewis Wallace
A small group gathered in front of the Chicago Housing Authority to demand a response from Rev. Leon Finney.

A group of senior citizens held a protest Tuesday over what they call “deplorable conditions” in public housing in the Kenwood-Oakland neighborhood. The four senior homes in question are managed by the Woodlawn Community Development Corporation (WCDC), a project of Reverend Leon Finney.

Finney rose to prominence fighting slumlords in the 1960s and 1970s, but has since become the subject of scrutiny, a lawsuit, and a federal probe related to allegations of mismanaging funds provided to WCDC and The Woodlawn Organization. Finney began working in property management in the 1970s. WCDC manages 4,000 private and public units that house 10,000 people in the Chicago area.

On Monday, the Sun-Times reported on a visit to the Judge Slater Senior Housing Complex at 42nd and Cottage Grove in Chicago. Columnist Mary Mitchell described evidence of vermin and roaches, and related residents’ accusations of abuse and neglect on the part of management.

“How can he be against slumlords if he’s a slumlord?” said Aryah Benyahuda, who lives in Judge Slater. “What has up there is a facade, it’s camouflage.”

Benyahuda joined four other public housing residents and about 20 people from the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) in front of the CHA’s downtown offices. KOCO helped the seniors organize a demonstration after a group of residents came to them for help. Residents said they believed others had been intimidated by WCDC not to speak out.

Inside, at the CHA board meeting, other residents of WCDC buildings did speak out – against protestors.

“When we need something, they are there,” said Shirley Jean Lee, a resident of another WCDC-managed building.

Two senior homes residents who spoke out in favor of WCDC at the meeting hung up when contacted for this story. Others said their buildings do have bed bugs, roaches and mice. But they didn’t blame the managers.

“You know why that’s a problem,” said John Williams, also a resident of Judge Slater. “Because people won’t clean up.”

Williams accused the protestors of intentionally causing trouble.

A spokesperson for the CHA says they have addressed bed bugs in the senior homes, and had not heard about problems with mice or roaches.

“We regularly have meetings with our residents to address any concerns,” said Wendy Parks, a spokesperson for CHA. “We have had our CHA staff out at Judge Slater on a continuing basis.”

The protesting residents have received a response from Finney’s real estate manager, Sandra Harris, agreeing to meet with them. But Shannon Bennett of KOCO said seniors aren’t satisfied.

“We asked to meet with Finney in our letter,” Bennett said. “That’s not what they’re offering.”

Finney is a high-profile target for a campaign – but his connections also make him a likely one. He’s been on the board of the Chicago Planning Commission, served as Vice Chair of the Chicago Housing Authority, and served as a trustee at Chicago State University. He’s a pastor and a professor, and his real estate investments through WCDC number in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s also not the first time he’s been called a slumlord. But KOCO says their actions are not about targeting Finney.

“It could be the man on the moon who’s managing their property,” Bennett said. “Seniors who are already marginalized do not deserve to be intimidated for speaking up.”

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