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Despite coronavirus eviction ban, some Chicago landlords are locking out tenants

They’ve shut off the electricity and changed the locks during the eviction moratorium, say tenants advocates expecting a flood of legal cases once the courts reopen.

Dean Thompson holds the keys to her South Side apartment.
Dean Thompson holds the keys to her South Side apartment.
Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

Despite a ban on evicting tenants during the coronavirus pandemic, some Chicago landlords have used illegal lockouts and other threats to push out tenants struggling to pay their rent.

Calls about illegal lockouts in Chicago have roughly doubled from mid-March to mid-June compared to normal monthly averages, according to the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, a not-for-profit agency focused on affordable, safe and accessible housing.

Advocates worry this is a sign that legal eviction filings will balloon once Chicago’s housing court reopens.

“The reality is that COVID has bared a housing market that is in crisis,” says John Bartlett, executive director of the tenants group, which he says fielded 125 calls about illegal lockouts from March 18 through June 18, an average of 41 a month compared to last year’s monthly average of 22. “It was in crisis before. And all this does is make it worse.”

The number of lockouts that get reported are likely to represent only a small portion of those illegally evicted, experts say, because most people don’t call for help.

That increase mirrors new data for Milwaukee released Friday by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. Those figures show new filings there skyrocketed after eviction protections began expiring at the end of May. The 556 new eviction filings in Milwaukee for the first two weeks of June top that city’s monthly average by 24%.

“In the absence of government intervention, we’re expecting to see a dramatic increase in eviction filings and homelessness,” says Alieza Durana, spokeswoman for the Eviction Lab, where Matthew Desmond, author of the best-selling book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” is principal investigator.

In Chicago, Dean Thompson says her landlord was among those skirting the law rather than going through the courts to evict her. Thompson says the electricity to the apartment she shares with her daughter suddenly was turned off in May on the morning of her 67th birthday.

Days earlier, a man from the rental company had banged on the door, she says: “He was just going off. He was saying stuff like, ‘I’m paying your bills,’ ‘You need to just move, go someplace, you know, go to a homeless place.’ ”

Her family already was two months behind on the $1,350 monthly rent and subject to eviction when the coronavirus hit, after a rough financial patch for her daughter’s small business that worsened during the stay-at-home order.

Dean Thompson, entering her South Side apartment, says her landlord illegally shut off the electricity in a effort to make her and her family move.
Dean Thompson, entering her South Side apartment, says her landlord illegally shut off the electricity in a effort to make her and her family move.
Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

Thompson says she told the man through her closed door that her daughter was working on a solution.

“It made me real scared,” she says of the encounter. “I didn’t know what he was going to do. I was scared to leave the building.”

Her daughter called 311, and a city worker told her the shutoff was illegal. Then she called the landlord, who at first denied doing it — but then, 15 minutes later, the lights came back on. Their dispute continues.

The Metropolitan Tenants Organization’s Bartlett says shutting off electricity is one way to push tenants out. Other tactics to force them out include turning off the water, changing the locks or doing a phony repair that leaves an essential appliance unusable.

“We’ve even had landlords come and take toilets out of the unit,” Bartlett says. “None of it’s legal.”

John Bartlett, executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization.
John Bartlett, executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization.

Bartlett says he understands landlords have mortgages to pay but thinks the best solution would have been for all mortgage and rent payments to have been put on hold because of the pandemic.

“What’s happening is you’re putting all this pressure on tenants, the people who have the least amount of resources,” he says.

It isn’t just mom-and-pop landlords who are pushing out tenants, says Jawanza Brian Malone, executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. His group has documented corporate landlords scrambling to file eviction cases before the moratorium was imposed.

More often, though, landlords informally threaten tenants by letter, Malone says, hoping they’ll move to avoid having an eviction on their record.

“People really all across the city have been getting notices,” he says. “It’s a huge problem.”

Jawanza Brian Malone, executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.
Jawanza Brian Malone, executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.

Tenants worried about how an eviction might affect their ability to get future housing or employment often opt to leave, as do undocumented immigrants, the Eviction Lab’s Durana says.

“We often call it ‘the Scarlet E,’ ” Durana says of evictions. “It will ruin your credit, which then affects your ability to get new housing.”

As renters deplete savings and max out credit cards they might have, it’s likely more people will fall behind.

Illinois’ moratorium on evictions due to nonpayment of rent was just extended through July 31, and the Chicago City Council recently passed an ordinance requiring landlords to make “good-faith efforts” to help tenants, including offering repayment plans and mediation.

Once housing court reopens — Cook County’s civil courts are expected to return July 6 — there will be a backlog of cases that have been in limbo since mid-March, plus filings that were rushed in ahead of the moratorium. After July 31, advocates expect a slew of new filings.

“All of those cases will have to be heard,” says Dennericka Brooks, director of the housing practice group at Legal Aid Chicago, who says the typical eviction case gets only about 90 seconds before a judge. “I am deeply concerned. I’m worried. I don’t know how the system will handle it.”

Landlords with federally backed mortgages and those who accept federal money — who have been banned from filing new evictions under Congress’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act — will be free to pursue evictions beginning Aug. 31.

Prior to the pandemic, when U.S. unemployment dropped as low as 3.5% in February, about 2.35 million evictions a year were filed nationwide. They disproportionately affect Black and Latino communities and frequently target households with children, according to the Eviction Lab.

In Chicago, an average of more than 23,000 eviction filings a year were filed from 2010 to 2017, with about 60% of them resulting in eviction orders, according to the not-for-profit Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing.

Low-income renters typically pay about half of their monthly income in rent.

Apart from evictions, consumer advocates expect to see a rise in mortgage problems for those lucky enough to own their homes.

Federally backed mortgages have protections for consumers who sought forbearance during the pandemic. But about 30% of home mortgages are private loans, and those lenders could demand a balloon payment when the forbearance ends, in some cases as soon as this summer, according to Diane Thompson, a lawyer with the National Consumer Law Center.

“Are people going to be back to work in three months? We have no idea,” Thompson says.