By Nona Tepper
Atul Mohlajee, owner of the Circle Avenue two-flat shot out more than 20 times Dec. 12, said he feels shocked. The Oak Park man got his start as a landlord in Forest Park, working full-time as a civil engineer for a Chicago-based transportation firm during the day, and rehabbing foreclosed properties at night. He's since bought more than 10 commercial and residential properties in the village and surrounding communities. Most of his holdings are local and range in value from $80,000 to $350,000.
"I've got close to 30 tenants, commercial and residential included, and this is the first ever incident," Mohlajee said. "I'm obviously vetting well, otherwise I would be bankrupt."
Mohlajee's referring to the Dec. 12 shooting, when offenders fired about 25 shots at a two-flat on the 1000 block of Circle Avenue at about 11 p.m., with bullets hitting residents' walls, windows and a TV. Police believe it was a targeted attack, intended to hit tenants on the second-floor.
Mohlajee said two women had lived in the second-floor unit for nearly a year. Leasing agents from Coldwell Banker screened both the women—a mother about 40 years old, her daughter about 20 and the daughter's three children—before Mohlajee approved their renting the space, confirming they had good jobs, credit, positive referrals and clean criminal backgrounds.
"This person who has been the cause of all this is the son" of the middle aged woman, Mohlajee said. "He lives in Maywood with his grandma, comes into town and all this was created. So it wasn't because I didn't vet them out. If you rent to some people you check everything, they're fine but sometimes their visitors are not."
About three months ago, the building's maintenance man told Mohlajee he thought the woman's 21-year-old son had been living on Circle Avenue. Mohlajee texted his tenant, reminding her it was illegal for the son to stay long-term on the property because his name was not on the lease. At the time, she told him her son was just visiting. But after an attack that's since inspired new interest in Neighborhood Watch, tenants on both floor have moved out, breaking their leases early, "I can't take her word anymore", Mohlajee said of the former second floor tenant. "We don't want those attackers to come back and scare the neighbors again."
He told them they had to move out the day after the incident. Four days later, the family was gone—Mohlajee doesn't know where they ended up. The family on the first floor moved out too because they were scared.
Mohlajee has experience renting to tenants with problem visitors.
A few years ago, police called Mohlajee and told him the Cook County Jail had recently released an inmate who listed one of Mohlajee's properties as home. The ex-offender was going to stay in Forest Park with his wife and two kids. The family had signed a month-to-month lease for a home on Circle Avenue, south of Roosevelt Road. Officers gave Mohlajee two choices: Does he want the man to stay or go?
Mohlajee voted go. He told the tenant her husband couldn't stay on the property and put up "No Trespassing" signs, so police could arrest him for trespassing if he entered the home. The family moved out two weeks later.
"She was a hard-working lady raising two kids on her own," Mohlajee said of his former tenant. But, "I don't want anybody with a criminal history. Although that guy did not commit a crime there, he had a criminal background."
About five years ago, he worked with the Forest Park police department to complete the village's voluntary crime-free multi-housing program, and learned best practices for screening prospective tenants, managing spaces and about a state law that allows him—if he thinks a tenant is committing a class A Misdemeanor on the property—to evict them. He also works with police to include an addendum on all his leases that tenants must sign, promising to do everything they can to keep their unit crime-free. Residents of the targeted home on the 1000 block of Circle Avenue had signed this addendum, which allowed Mohlajee to quickly move them out.
Mohlajee hasn't gotten around to inspecting the interior of the Circle Avenue two-flat for damage yet. He works full-time, is in the middle of purchasing a strip mall in Chicago and is gearing up for the holidays. But he expects it to cost about $10,000 to fix the Circle Avenue space. Once repairs are done, Coldwell Banker leasing agents will return to the property and start screening for new renters.
"I'm doing a benefit to Forest Park, every property I've bought except one have been foreclosures, empty for 2 and a half years, getting damaged, getting un-winterized, that would have brought the neighborhood down," Mohlajee said, noting that many had been broken into with obvious criminal activity taken place inside. "When you buy something like that and bring it up, the value of the entire neighborhood increases."