John R. Petruszak, Executive Director
John is an Illinois licensed attorney who has worked in fair housing and civil rights professionally for the last thirty-two years. He originally served as the SSHC staff attorney and Compliance Program Coordinator from 1981-85, practiced law privately from 1985-89, and then served as a senior staff attorney with the Illinois Department of Human Rights’ Legal Division from 1989-95. In 1995, John returned to SSHC to become its Executive Director. He has been a fair housing law presenter at seminars conducted by the John Marshall Law School, Illinois Association of Realtors, Illinois Municipal Human Rights Workers Association, Illinois Department of Human Rights, Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance and NAACP.
In 1998, John testified before a U.S. House Budget Housing Subcommittee regarding evidence of FHA mortgage product steering by race in the Chicago area. He represented SSHC at the September 2012 White House conference convened to provide community group input on resolutions for the foreclosure crisis. He has served on the Board of Directors of the Washington DC based National Fair Housing Alliance for the past eight years and was the Chairman of NFHA’s National Enforcement Advisory Committee for three years. He has been a member of the board of Housing Choice Partners of Illinois, a mobility counseling organization assisting Chicago area Section 8 subsidized families since 1995. He is a past President and current Director of the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance’s board.
Leslie C. Woods, Lending & Systemic Investigation Coordinator
Leslie Woods has been the lead testing coordinator and more recently the coordinator of systemic investigations for SSHC’s Fair Housing Enforcement program for the last 24 years, making her one of the most experienced fair housing investigators in the country. During her tenure with SSHC she has been responsible for recruiting and training over 400 volunteer testers. She coordinated the testing investigations leading to federal court action settlements in SSHC v. Forest Hills Management ($450,000 damage award), Howard v. Zoberman, ($114,000 damage award), and the Wooton v. Timmons, HUD Administrative Law Judge decision awarding $78,000 in damages to the complainants for race discrimination violations of the Fair Housing Act, that have all received national attention. Woods has obtained extensive advanced training in sales, mortgage lending and insurance redlining testing procedures from the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) and by the Civil Rights Division of the U. S. Department of Justice in Washington as a prerequisite for SSHC’s receipt of a contract to perform sales market testing for Justice in the 1990s.
She has been the project coordinator on four fair housing testing compliance contracts with NFHA and contracts with the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing’s monitoring discrimination against Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) families by Chicago landlords. During the last two years she has been SSHC’s lead systemic investigator in the Fair Housing Act complaints brought against national mortgage lenders for racial discrimination in the marketing and maintenance of abandoned foreclosed REO properties. One of these national complaints led to the 2013 settlement where Wells Fargo Bank paid $1.42 million to establish the SSHC administered Inclusive Community Grant Program providing assistance to mortgage distressed families in south suburbs.
Carrie Jones-Thomas, Home Seekers Service Coordinator
Carrie joined the SSHC staff in August 2000 as the Home Seekers Service Coordinator. Carrie currently conducts all the Home Seekers Service, HUD, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac certified pre-purchase and foreclosure counseling activities. She also organizes and facilitates SSHC’s highly successful home buyer workshops conducted throughout the south suburbs. In recent years, Carrie has received certification for attending Neighbor Works Homeownership Counseling trainings held in Chicago, Kansas City and Washington, as well as HUDs Loss Mitigation training.
Prior to joining the Housing Center staff, Carrie was employed for ten years at New Cities Development Corporation of Harvey where she served as an Acquisition and Closing Officer, Housing Counselor and Assistant Project/Construction Manager. She was also employed for three years by the City of Harvey as a Housing Program Administrative Assistant for the Planning and Development Department.
Susan M. Reed, Testing & Outreach Coordinator
Susan joined the staff in June 2001 and currently serves as the Testing and Outreach Coordinator for SSHC. Susan is directly responsible for Education and Outreach activities, recruitment and training of fair housing testers, managing the testing and coordination process, as well as overseeing the day to day fair housing complaint intake functions conducted by SSHC staff. Susan also works closely with disability rights and Latino agencies to help support their education and outreach initiatives. In 2002, Susan attended Fair Housing School training conducted by the National Fair Housing Alliance held in Philadelphia.
Prior to joining the staff, Susan conducted tests for SSHC and four other Chicago area private enforcement agencies for seven years.
Russelyn L. Williams, Office Manager & Housing Counselor
Russelyn joined the SSHC staff in July 2006. She provides administrative and technical support for all of SSHC’s programs and is also a certified housing counselor. Russelyn’s primary responsibility is client oversight, ensuring that each client is referred and scheduled appropriately and timely. Additionally, Russelyn manages our client database to ensure accurate accounting and reporting of our activities.
Prior to joining SSHC, Russelyn received her Associates Degree in Office Administration and Technology from South Suburban College in 2005, where she also worked for three years as a receptionist and tutor in the Academic Assistance Center. She also worked for Robert Half International as an office assistant at several different sites. Since she has been employed with SSHC, she has completed the NeighborWorks foreclosure training and received certification for both the basic and intermediate levels. In December 2010, Russelyn received her Bachelor’s Degree in Communications, Media Arts and Theatre from Chicago State University where she graduated as class valedictorian.
Rebecca Casanova, Foreclosure Counselor
Rebecca joined the SSHC staff in November 2010 as a foreclosure counselor to provide on-site support for the Cook County Mortgage Foreclosure Mediation Program. Rebecca is a bi-lingual HUD Certified Housing Counselor who provides one-on-one counseling with clients that are in default and facing foreclosure. Rebecca works closely with our Fair Lending Compliance Attorney assisting clients prepare for and work through the foreclosure mediation program. Rebecca also works directly with clients and their lenders to help negotiate positive resolutions. Rebecca has received training and certification from the National Fair Housing Alliance, NeighborWorks Center for Homeownership training and the National Council of La Raza in foreclosure prevention. Rebecca has counseled over 200 families for SSHC through the foreclosure mediation program since joining the staff.
Rebecca is a seasoned, all-purpose housing counselor with over six years of rental, pre-purchase, mortgage default, and post-purchase counseling experience working for the Community Economic Development Association (CEDA) in Cook County. Prior to joining SSHC, Rebecca also worked as an Administrative Assistant for the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association in their Single Family Rehabilitation Program.
Michael W. van Zalingen, Fair Lending Compliance Attorney
Mike teamed up with SSHC’s staff in June 2011 to provide assistance to distressed mortgagees through SSHC’s Mortgage Rescue Fraud Project made possible by a HUD Fair Housing Initiative Program grant.
Mike is a private attorney specializing in foreclosure defense and is a published author and expert trainer/presenter on foreclosure prevention, foreclosure loan modifications and workout alternatives. His expertise on foreclosure matters has been quoted by the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Crain’s Chicago Business, Reuters and the Wall Street Journal. He had formerly been the Director of Homeownership Services and Homeownership Preservation Initiative for the Chicago based Neighborhood Housing Services.
Derek T. Adkisson, Director of Finance & Operations
Derek joined the team in July 2013. As the Director of Finance & Operations, Derek is responsible for the accounting and financial functions of the organization, including monthly financial reports, grant expense reports, payroll, and budgets. Additionally, Derek is charged with developing and administering SSHC’s Inclusive Communities Fund, as well as implementing business process improvement initiatives to improve the overall efficiency, effectiveness and capacity of the organization.
Prior to joining SSHC, Derek was employed by First Midwest Bank for nearly 15 years in various positions, including Direct Banking Sales Manager, Business Analyst and most recently as the Bank’s Fair Lending Officer, where he was directly responsible for the data collection, analysis, reporting and compliance of the Bank’s fair lending practices. Derek previously served on SSHC’s Board of Directors for 3 years and fulfilled the role of Treasurer during his last year.
Michael Chavarria, Fair Housing/ Fair Lending Intake Specialist
Michael joined the SSHC team in September 2014. As the Intake Specialist, Michael is the first point of contact for any client alleging discrimination or facing mortgage default. He is responsible for conducting intake interviews and following up with individuals alleging fair housing / fair lending discrimination or in need of foreclosure mediation assistance. Michael also coordinates and conducts site visits for SSHC’s REO investigations which are done in conjunction with NAFHA and many other fair housing enforcement agencies across the country. Additionally, Michael works on the grant programs which are part of SSHC’s Inclusive Communities Fund (ICF). Through these programs, he processes all applications and coordinates applicants, lenders and other third parties. Michael also manages the SSHC website and collects and analyzes grant program data
Currently, Michael sits on the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance’s (CAFHA) Events & Marketing Committee, where he manages the website, helps coordinate membership meetings, and recruits new members. Michael received his B.A. in Political Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Viviana Gentry, Intake/Outreach Specialist
Viviana joined the SSHC staff in September 2013. As a bilingual Intake Specialist, Viviana handles all Spanish-speaking client intake calls. She is involved in the legislative outreach efforts to keep our representatives in Congress informed about fair housing issues. With the passing of HUD’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule in July 2015, Viviana assists in the coordination of AFFH trainings throughout Illinois and Northwest Indiana. Viviana also works to keep our paperwork in compliance with HUD regulations for the high volume of clients that SSHC counsels. She also conducts research for various fair housing investigations. She has received accredited training in foreclosure counseling and in Spanish language legal interpreting. Viviana received her B.A. in Environmental Studies and History from Oberlin College.
Prior to joining the SSHC staff, Viviana co-founded The Cooperation Operation, a non-profit permaculture community garden organization based in the Pullman neighborhood of Chicago, IL. She currently acts as the Chairwoman of the board of directors as well as the Garden Operations Manager.
Carrie Simpson, AmeriCorps VISTA
Carrie began her service year as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteer in Service to America) in August 2015. Members of the VISTA program dedicate a year of full-time service to their country as volunteers with non-profit organizations, assisting with capacity building efforts. These projects aim to increase the long-term efficiency of their host sites, as well as improve the lives of individuals within the communities serviced. Carrie dedicates her time to outreach initiatives such as the implementation of new and creative methods for maintaining communication with clients & partners, and directing the attention of new supporters. She is also tasked with resource development, data analysis and integrity, and research into new sources of funding.
Before joining South Suburban Housing Center, Carrie was a student at Oberlin College in northern Ohio. She graduated the spring of 2015 with a Bachelor’s degree in psychology.