For Ald. Jason Ervin, who represents a large swath of Chicago’s troubled West Side, drug activity in the area hits close to home.
That’s because until recently Ervin owned what sources and police records portray as a drug house in nearby Maywood.
Not all incidents were substantiated or resulted in arrests, and some of the troubles occurred just outside the building, on public property.
But enough problems were tied directly to the 2,200-square-foot Madison building that it gained a reputation as a drug and gang hotspot within the neighborhood and among police, according to records obtained by the Better Government Association and FOX Chicago, and interviews.
While Ervin takes issue with the characterization of his building as a “drug house,” he acknowledged a legion of problems, from shady tenants he was forced to evict to vandalism and drug activity.
“Would I make the same investment today?” he said in a recent interview. “No way.”
Ervin said he bought the building to make money – he planned to rent it out, not live there – while he was in his 20s and starting to dabble in real estate.
Cook County records show Ervin and his now-former wife purchased the property in 2001 for $175,000 from Henderson Yarbrough, who later was elected mayor of Maywood and hired Ervin as village manager – a job that made him responsible for municipal departments including police and code enforcement. (Ervin left the post in 2011 when he was appointed by then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley to serve as 28th Ward alderman. Ervin won a subsequent election.)
Eventually, the “economics” changed, in part because of soaring property taxes, and he ended up losing thousands of dollars a year “on a cash basis,” Ervin said.
He stopped paying the mortgage in early 2009 and, later in the year, Wells Fargo Bank filed a foreclosure action in Cook County Circuit Court against the Ervins, claiming they owed more than $200,000, court records show. Ervin and his wife separated around this time and later divorced, records show. Their divorce papers indicate Ervin is responsible “for any judgment, debt, expense or liability associated with 1600 Madison,” although Ervin was vague about whether that stands.
Ervin said he hasn’t considered himself the owner of the building for several years. He said Wells Fargo “informally” took control of the building in 2009 and “formally” took control in 2010. However, county records show the legal transfer of the three-flat to Wells Fargo did not occur until early 2012. The building is now on the market with a real estate company; an asking price hasn’t yet been set.
Regardless, since Ervin bought the building in 2001, police records paint a chilling portrait of life there.
Of the 150 or so police service calls from 2001 through 2011, roughly 30 were initially categorized as drug calls, while other reports ran the gamut: criminal trespass, fight in progress, domestic battery, shots fired, mental subject, loitering, open alcohol and criminal sexual abuse (with the alleged victim a girl living in one of the apartment units, a police report shows.)
In another police report, a Maywood cop wrote in 2002 how police arrested a 26-year-old man in the hallway of Ervin’s building during a “premise check.” According to the report, “As R/O [responding officer] began to ask who the offender was R/O noticed two white rocks in clear plastic knotted bags in the offender’s mouth. R/O used a flashlight to illuminate the facial area of the offender. R/O ordered the offender to spit the suspected crack cocaine from his mouth.”
The man was charged with possession of a controlled substance.
Former Maywood police Sgt. Dwayne Wheeler, who once ran the department’s narcotics unit, said Ervin’s building and others on the block were constant trouble for police and neighbors. Officers routinely responded to calls there, made arrests and investigated drug sales, Wheeler said.
“It was on our target list,” Wheeler said. “We had a list of properties that we would go to on a daily basis. We would do undercover buys at that property. It was always an issue.”
“It was regarded as an eyesore and a drug house,” he added. Maywood Police Chief Tim Curry personally made drug arrests at the building, but said Ervin’s three-flat wasn’t unique. “All of the buildings on that block were drug houses” at one time or another, Curry said.
Neighbors said 1600 W. Madison has been a well-known hot spot, with one local, Robbie Adams, saying “there was a lot of riotous living here, drug selling, it’s just ran down – in the early ‘80s it was a beautiful place.”
Ervin described the neighborhood as “an established heroin market,” and said drug selling in the area predates him. Village records also show police responded to drug calls at the building before Ervin owned it.
Yarbrough, the building’s previous owner, did not return phone calls from the BGA. His wife, state Rep. Karen Yarbrough, is the Democratic nominee for Cook County recorder of deeds.
Ervin also said he did what he could to clean up the three-unit building, at one time even evicting a relative who was living there and causing problems. Criminal activity is “not something we condoned or supported,” Ervin said.
To that end, a Maywood police report detailing a 2010 drug arrest at Ervin’s building – in which a suspect was found with substances believed to be marijuana and Ecstasy – mentions Ervin by name, stating “Mr. Ervin . . . has warned a group of male adults numerous times to stay out of the building hallway entrance or he will prosecute them for Criminal Trespassing to Property. Mr. Ervin also stated if we located any one trespassing on his property he will sign complaints.”
Ervin told the BGA that, in the end, owning the building “proved to be a bigger challenge than [we anticipated.] . . . At some point you have to make a decision that makes sense and move forward, and it was time to move on.”
Asked whether these circumstances indicate he’s ill equipped to serve in public office, Ervin said the experience makes him a better alderman because “it helps me to understand better some of the issues” affecting constituents on the West Side, which is rife with gang and drug activity, and foreclosures.
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Robert Herguth and FOX Chicago’s Dane Placko. They can be reached at (312) 821-9030 or firstname.lastname@example.org. BGA Senior Investigator Patrick Rehkamp and BGA intern Nathan Lurz contributed to this report.