LANSING, Ill. — In Chicago’s south suburbs, WGN Investigates has found that squatters are moving into vacant homes with few consequences.
Nilam Patel owns a house in Lansing, Ill. The home was for sale when her realtor found a random woman and her children living inside the property.
“I don’t even know where to begin,” Patel said. “It’s crazy. It’s frightening. I have to deal with this all alone because no authority is willing to help.”
Patel reported the issue to the Lansing Police Department, but nothing happened. Police told her it was a “civil issue” and she’d have to go through the proper channels to evict the woman from the home.
“They’re literally allowing her to commit a crime, because she’s been getting away with it,” Patel said.
Through open records requests, WGN Investigates discovered squatting a common occurrence, especially in places like Lansing, Calumet City and Dolton. In Calumet City, there have already been 20 documented cases of squatting this year. Police, local realtors, property management companies, and even some banks, said it’s happening frequently.
The woman who moved into Patel’s home, Sandrea Calhoun, has a history of squatting. Court records show she owes former landlords tens of thousands of dollars. She often pays one month's rent, and then waits to be evicted. Sometimes, she just finds vacant homes and moves right in with her five children.
“She’s a pro at this," Tromaine Langham, a former landlord, said. "She’s done this before and she knows exactly what she’s doing."
Calhoun told Langham she was living in a hotel with her children and needed a place to stay. She signed a lease, but only paid one month's rent. It took Langham nine months to formally evict her from the property, and by the time he did, she had destroyed it.
“The conditions when I got there were just deplorable,” Langham remembers. “I walked in and there was broken glass, broken windows, closet doors, bedroom doors smashed. Maggots were just all over the kitchen and in the stove area. I had to totally gut [it] and get that replaced.”
All in, he said, it was $52,000 worth of damage.
“I just think she’s a habitual squatter and she knows the system,” Langham said. “So she can bounce around from house to house or place to place.”
When Patel finally got back into her Lansing home in July, appliances were missing. Maggots and roaches infested the kitchen. Doors were broken, and locks had been changed. She found her "for sale" sign in a closet filled with garbage and clothes that weren’t hers.
In April, Patel spent $10,000 to remodel her property in order to put it on the market. It was just days after the contractors finished that Calhoun moved in with her children.
“I was trying to sell the property," Patel said. "We were about to close on the house, and it’s destroyed. Everything is destroyed. The entire house is torn apart.”
Patel said she had to pay nearly $1,000 to formally evict Calhoun, and the process took months. She was frustrated Lansing police wouldn’t help.
“If anybody walks through a lawn you get arrested,” Patel said. “They are actually living in my property, trespassing.”
Because her house was secured by a lockbox, Patel believes Calhoun worked with someone who had access to the box’s code to get into the home — someone with access to the MLS, like a licensed broker.
Dolton police said they dealt with a similar incident this spring. While police didn’t investigate, records indicate Calhoun was the squatter in that case, too. The house was owned by a bank, and was on the market to be sold.
“It took me literally two months to get a court order just to walk into my property,” Patel said. When she finally got inside, the squatter had left a framed selfie in a now-abandoned bedroom.
Neighbors say Calhoun took off after she received an eviction notice from the Cook County Sheriff's Office.
“She’s been gone three weeks and it’s just been so peaceful, thank you lord,” neighbor Cathleen Smith said.
“I’ve never had a problem like this in my life,” Smith said. “The girl blasted her music. She has five kids, and the kids was running all around the house and they were jumping off the roof. They were just wild.”
In May, Patel contacted WGN Investigates to help her get Calhoun out of the home. Calhoun wouldn’t come out of the house, but did talk to us through the door. She claimed she had been scammed by a woman on Craigslist.
“I do apologize for the situation that took part, however, there’s nothing I can do right now," Calhoun said. "Like I said, I pushed out all my money to this lady for this place."
She showed us a fake lease, and said the woman who gave it to her should be held responsible.
“Anybody that goes through this situation with her," Calhoun said, "I feel like she should give the money back and she should be locked up. There needs to be some kind of consequence for people because it’s not cool.”
At the same time, Calhoun was posting videos and photos to her Facebook page, bragging about her “new homes.”
Police records indicate that when she gets caught, Calhoun shows a fake lease to police and claims she found the property on Craigslist. Then she strips the home of appliances and flees, not bothering to clean up.
Sometimes she’s even the one who calls police, claiming she’s the victim. In May, Calhoun filed a police report saying Cook County Sheriff’s deputies were “harassing her” when they tried to serve an eviction notice. Even when a Cook County detective told the Lansing police “Calhoun was squatting illegally with her children,” police did nothing.
“I blame the system,” Patel said. She had to pay for an eviction and then pay to clean up her property to put it back on the market. After Calhoun was formally evicted, neighbors said she came back to the home a few weeks later and kicked in the door and broke all the windows.
Criminal charges have yet to be filed, though Lansing police said they are now investigating. Calhoun continues to insist she was scammed on Craigslist.