Katherine Henrici has lived in the same three-story yellow bungalow in Berwyn since 1948 and thought she had seen it all.
That was, until the rats came.
“They were everywhere,” Henrici said. “They lived in flowerbeds, garages, sheds, weeds, grass, wood and garbage cans. It was disgusting and something I had never dealt with here.”
Henrici suspected the rats that were overrunning her block were attracted by the garbage from a nearby McDonald’s restaurant, at the corner of Kenilworth and Ogden Ave. After failing to get action from McDonald’s about its garbage, Henrici turned to Mary DelMedico, Berwyn’s blight administrator. DelMedico put pressure on McDonald’s and solved the problem.
“Mary not only took care of McDonalds, but she called pest control who took care of the infestation. She listened to our needs and acted,” Henrici said. And the rats went away.
Blight can be anything from improperly disposed garbage, to dilapidated buildings. And in Berwyn officials and residents feel that they are getting control of the situation after a few years marked by problems. But neither DelMedico nor other officials could provide statistics on reports of blight.
“I don’t know who was in charge of blight years ago, but they pissed off a lot of people in the community,” DelMedico said. “From my understanding they were not in tune with the needs of the residents. When you make it about the people, everything goes a lot smoother.”
DelMedico has worked in the blight department for six years. “In the last two years, since (Buildings Director) Lazzara has been here, there have been a lot less calls for blight and a lot less reports,” she said. “I think the decrease in those calls have been because of the tight hold we have on the city.”
Some residents hope the blight department has in fact changed. One resident had a completely different experience than Henrici.
“I had a serious problem with the blight department a few years ago,” Berwyn resident Frank M said. “We were living in our building near Cermak and Oak Park, and the large courtyard building behind us was having a problem with their garbage and rats. I called the blight department and nothing happened. I called and called and called. I finally called the Berwyn Police who drove over to the offending building, checked it out and issued the owner a $500 ticket. The Problem was solved instantly.”
DelMedico said a reason for some mishaps is because the blight department is understaffed. There are only two blight officers on patrol, Ron Stricklin and Gino Blotto, and one illegal apartment inspector Rick Hinojoso. They break into zones, Roosevelt to 22nd St., 22nd St, to 39th St. and Lombard to Harlem.
The officers go out daily and inspect for public nuisance complaints, such as garbage, weeds, high grass, peeling paint, house and garage disrepair, debris, etc. These public nuisance complaints are followed up with form letters, final notices, violation citations and possible court action. The Department of Neighborhood Affairs also conducts team inspections of dangerous and unsanitary buildings with the Fire Department and Health Department.
“While garbage and exterior problems to a property are a big part of blight, it’s not the only thing we deal with,” DelMedico said. “One time we came across a hoarder who had old coffee cups covering every inch of his kitchen. We walk into a lot of different situations”
DelMedico goes to court every Thursday to handle blight cases. The inspectors present all evidence to the judicator, including photos and all previous notices. The fine depends on the history of the situation, but a court cost is always $50. The ticket price is situational with the highest fine being $2000, although it usually never exceeds $750.
“Most people aren’t in the best financial situation, they are elders or simply going through a rough time, so we try to be as understanding as possible,” DelMedico said.
Anthony Perri, Licensing Officer and Inspector for Berwyn, was a blight officer before landing his current position and said since the economic downturn, blight has actually been under control and foreclosures are more problematic.
“The north end of town has more problems than the south, but overall crime, drugs, foreclosures and illegal apartment renting are much more prominent than blight now a days,” Perri said. “Blight is obviously still a issue, but not anymore so than usual. The blight department has a good handle on it.”
In the case of the rat infestation DelMedico immediately went to McDonald’s, which Henrici said would leave garbage bags next to overflowing dumpsters in their garbage corral area.
DelMedico started fining the restaurant until the problem was fixed. She gave deadlines to find a better way to deal with their garbage situation. Several tickets later McDonald’s finally listened, and now has mandatory rattraps, a closed garbage corral and a strict policy against leaving garbage next the dumpster. Henrici was happy.
“I don’t know who was in charge of the blight department years ago, but they seem to have it figured out now,” she said.