Chicago renters need the protection of a ‘just cause’ eviction ordinance

Just Cause defines the bounds of eligible reasons to terminate a tenancy or evict renters, instead of allowing arbitrary dispossession.

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Housing activists hold signs protesting evictions in October 2020. The federal eviction moratorium is due to be lifted on March 31, 2021.

Housing activists hold signs protesting evictions in October 2020. The federal eviction moratorium is due to be lifted on March 31, 2021.

Michael Dwyer | AP Photos

We take as a given that the life of a renter is fundamentally insecure. In the City of Chicago, a tenant may find their family uprooted through no fault of their own, experiencing the shock of displacement again and again. This dispossession drives social, racial and economic inequality in our city and across our nation. 

But housing need not be treated only as a crude commodity, and the time has come to take action. Chicago must demand Just Cause for Eviction, in the form of Council bill O2020-3449, without delay.

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Just Cause defines the bounds of eligible reasons to terminate a tenancy or evict renters, instead of allowing arbitrary dispossession. The landlord must prove that the tenant violated the rental agreement in some way, or, if the tenant has done nothing wrong, the landlord must demonstrate an enumerated reason to compel the renter to move. 

Landlords maintain their right to expel tenants who don’t pay rent, cause damage or disrupt their neighbors. They also retain a right to evict tenants or terminate leases for defined personal reasons, such as allowing a close family member to move in, significantly renovating the property, converting the unit to a condominium or removing it from the market entirely. In these cases, in which the tenants are without fault, landlords are required to provide relocation assistance to support tenants with the life-altering and financially burdensome task of moving homes. 

Research has shown that evictions are both a symptom and a cause of poverty, and are growing in the U.S. These same investigations show that evictions trash credit scores, increase the risk of depression and suicide and are correlated to job loss. Just Cause laws have been shown to decrease evictions and stabilize rental markets.

The context of the COVID-19 pandemic provides even more reason to pass Just Cause now. With more than 1 million Illinois residents at risk for eviction when the current moratorium inevitably ends, we may see the traumatic effects en masse. Policymakers will have a choice to either compound this crisis with more displacement, or provide some amelioration.

The issue is also one of racial justice. Residents in Chicago’s predominantly Black neighborhoods are up to four times as likely to be evicted. Redlining, contract selling and other racist policies have plagued these communities since the Great Migration, driving the city to become one of the most racially segregated in America. 

Part of the result of this legacy can be seen in Chicago’s precipitous loss of Black residents. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago showed that this emigration can be partly linked to disinvestment in Black neighborhoods. Tragically, many of these residents are moving to areas of lower average educational attainment and employment opportunities. 

These issues matter for Just Cause because the disparate impact of discriminatory housing policy in Chicago has robbed Black, Indigenous and other people of color of housing stability. Just Cause can help to restore some of that stability. In addition, no-fault terminations of tenancies are a common tool of gentrifiers and house-flippers in neighborhoods of color, allowing discriminatory overhauls for the sake of the bottom line.

Just Cause laws already exist in many states and municipalities, including New Jersey, Massachusetts, California, Oregon, Seattle, Washington, D.C. and more. While opponents invariably claim that the sky will fall and markets will plummet when such laws are proposed, each of these regions’ housing and rental sectors remain bustling. 

The Chicago Housing Justice League supports Just Cause for Eviction with more than 60 endorsing organizations. We call on city officials to take action to halt the suffering that no-fault evictions can bring to families. 

When the history books are written, how will our response to these challenging times be judged? Even amidst incredible hardship, will we have carried on with business as usual? Or will we have demanded public policies rooted in fairness and decency, responding to crises by building a more just city?

We demand the latter. Join us in urging the Chicago City Council to pass Just Cause for Eviction now.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com

Dominic Voz is a member of the Chicago Housing Justice League.

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