Owners fight the condo blues with go-go dance and grit

Condo owners on Chicago's North Side are turning to a fundraiser that's heavy on goofiness as a way out of their financial hole.

November 11, 2010

By Ashley Gross

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(WBEZ/Ashley Gross)
Kaara Kallen shows off her go-go outfits in her condo on Chicago's North Side.

There’s not a whole lot to laugh about when it comes to the housing crisis.

But tonight, neighbors in one condo association aim to find humor in their misery – and raise some cash to help them out of their financial hole at the same time.

Say you live in a condo building with a third of the units unfinished.

The developer’s bankrupt.

And the city has found code violations the developer left behind….that may wind up costing you and your neighbors tens of thousands of dollars. 

This might not be the obvious solution. 

GO-GO DANCE REHEARSAL: Twist, twist, 1, 2, 3, twist, twist, 1, 2, 3 and shimmy 

A go-go dance performance. 

That’s right – girls in retro bathing suits and sunglasses – coming to the rescue of a condo building on the brink of failure.

REHEARSAL: Prance, prance, prance, prance.

The nexus between the go-go group and the condo building is Kaara Kallen.

She’s president of her 12-unit condo building in Chicago’s Irving Park neighborhood.

She also shakes and shimmies on stage as Keeks La Reine in the go-go group the Revelettes.

She came up with the idea for the fundraiser with a friend from the comedy group the Neo Futurists.

The Neo Futurists will perform by staging a version of the movie My Little Pony as part of their Bad Movie Film Fest.

Kallen says this festival of goofiness is a way to for her and her neighbors to take their minds off their worries and – maybe raise a little dough. 

KALLEN: It’s something to do besides freak out.

Really, there is quite a bit to freak out about.

Their developer stopped working on four garden units as the housing market tanked and then turned them over to a bank.

Then the city issued stop work orders and found numerous code violations.

A judge has now ruled that Kallen’s condo association is on the hook to fix the violations in the common areas.

She says that plus legal fees will total at least 75 grand.

They can’t get a loan or sell their units.

So now the fear in her building is that people will start walking away.

KALLEN: We understood we were all in the same boat, we’re all in a leaky boat, we’re all sitting on a leak, and if one person jumps out, that leaks goes up, maybe we can cover it, but if two people jump out, the boat’s going to sink.

And they’re not the only ones.

Distressed condo buildings in Chicago and the suburbs number in the hundreds – and that’s a lowball estimate.

Evan McKenzie of the University of Illinois Chicago researches homeowner associations.

He says condos are an experiment in communal living that have only been around for about 50 years.

He says that experiment is now failing as condo owners grapple with foreclosures and money shortfalls.

MCKENZIE: They're in a desperate situation and are really suffering because there's no mechanism in place for solving their problems and they're thrown onto their own resources.

He says anything that can raise morale, like a silly fundraiser, is a good idea as a way to keep struggling condos together.

Right now, Kallen and her neighbors have tasks that are a bit more fun than getting estimates from contractors.

Like planning what to auction off at their benefit.

Everything from salsa and yoga class certificates to stuff donated by the adult store Early to Bed.

KALLEN: So we have a box of sexy toys, also we can put another burlesque certificate, so we can make a “naughty basket.”

Kallen says she knows this fundraiser likely won’t put much of a dent in their bills.

But she’s hopeful it will help people in similar situations feel more connected.

KALLEN: I think this is happening to tons of people throughout Chicago and throughout the country but it’s terribly isolating, it doesn’t feel like it’s happening to tons of people, it feels like it’s happening to you, and you’re alone.

But she’s one of those people who turns to gallows humor at a time like this.

Even last year, before she knew how badly off her building was, she wrote a little parody of American Pie.

KALLEN: Oh I wanted to be real grownup, so I put my money where I couldn’t mess up. But it wasn’t to be, oh where’s my equity? The developer’s fled in his pickup truck…

She's a reluctant singer, so she got her neighbor to record a studio version with someone else.

And tonight, Kallen’s hoping to give people another thing to laugh about – and put her own troubles aside, at least for a while.

The fundraiser to benefit the West Byron Association takes place Thursday, Nov. 11, at 7 p.m. at the Neo Futurists theater in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood.