Illegal tenant lockouts an early warning sign of a national evictions explosion to come

Federal assistance and tax breaks should be leveraged to encourage landlords and tenants to reach an accommodation.

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Signs that read “No Job No Rent” hang on May 20 from the windows of an apartment building in Northwest Washington State.

Andrew Harnik/AP

From the moment the coronavirus pandemic hit Chicago, throwing thousands of residents out of work, the fear has been that evictions would follow.

Now, as reported by the Sun-Times on Friday, it’s beginning to happen. Unscrupulous landlords are using illegal methods to push out tenants who are behind in the rent. The problem threatens to grow worse, and could explode, unless government takes action.

We favor intervention at the federal level, given the national scope of the problem, and given as well the limited ability of local governments to help without subverting market forces in ways that could make things worse.

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We favor the leveraging of federal assistance or tax breaks to encourage landlords and tenants to reach an accommodation. A specific bill we support, proposed by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., would offer forgivable federal loans to landlords who waive rent and extend leases during the pandemic.

As reported by Stephanie Zimmermann, calls to the Metropolitan Tenants Organization about illegal lockouts in Chicago roughly doubled from mid-March through mid-June compared with monthly averages.

The actual numbers are not yet high — about 41 calls a month compared with the usual 22. But only a fraction of tenants who are illegally evicted ever call for help. And in those rising numbers is a warning sign about a possible explosion in evictions once Chicago’s housing court reopens.

Illinois has imposed a moratorium on evictions due to nonpayment of rent through July 31, and the Chicago City Council recently passed an ordinance requiring landlords to make “good-faith efforts” to help tenants. But some landlords are skirting the rules, locking out tenants and cutting off utilities.

The immediate recourse for tenants is to call the cops, though there’s some disagreement about how helpful the police have been. Or call the Metropolitan Tenants Organization’s hotline: (773) 292-4988.

The tenants organization has called for all mortgage and rent payments to be put on hold during the pandemic, but this is a measure we don’t support. We see that as a form of rent control, even if only temporary, that could discourage investment in the long run in affordable housing.

Housing experts predict a tsunami of evictions across the country as pandemic-related protections expire. As with so much else when it comes to COVID-19, the threat is national, the fallout is national and the best response would be national.

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