As pandemic ebbs in Illinois, let’s do right by struggling renters — but also hard-hit landlords

There are no good guys or bad guys. There is only a nation of people trying to preserve their homes and communities in the face of extraordinary adversity.

SHARE As pandemic ebbs in Illinois, let’s do right by struggling renters — but also hard-hit landlords

“As we emerge from the pandemic,” Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart writers, “we also have to take stock of the economic impact on housing providers, particularly smaller ‘mom-and-pop landlords’ who are dependent on rental income for their own families’ financial well-being.”

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As summer begins, I’m excited to join Illinoisans who are celebrating “reopening” and the hopeful end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, we also must grapple with the aftermath of the pandemic on the health, mental health and financial stability of our community.

The impact has been especially pronounced when it comes to housing. When entire industries shut down, far too many households were unable to pay their rent or mortgage. Performing evictions in a traditional manner would have been a public health disaster as people were forced into homelessness or overly crowded living conditions. Waves of evictions would have threatened to destabilize entire neighborhoods.

Fortunately, at the national, state and county levels, various evictions moratoriums have kept people in their homes. A working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that policies limiting evictions reduced COVID-19 death by 11%.

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But as we emerge from the pandemic, we also have to take stock of the economic impact on housing providers, particularly smaller “mom-and-pop landlords” who are dependent on rental income for their own families’ financial well-being. Many of these landlords have had to get by the last 15 months without consistently receiving rent — or even more in the case of tenants who stopped paying rent before the pandemic but could not be evicted once the moratorium began.

During the mortgage foreclosure crisis in 2008, I was proud to stand up to predatory lenders that were trying to force reliable tenants out of their homes. It was easy to determine who was the “good guy” and who was the “bad guy.” But with today’s housing crisis, there are no good guys or bad guys — there is only a nation of people trying to figure out how to preserve their homes and their communities in the face of extraordinary adversity.

I am hopeful that the infusion of rental subsidies will prevent a feared “evictions tsunami” from fully materializing. Almost $1.5 billion in rental relief in Chicago, Cook County and Illinois in the last year should go a long way toward helping housing providers stay afloat and tenants stay in their homes. The Cook County sheriff’s office has worked extensively to spread the word about these rental assistance programs, as well as legal aid and mediation programs, to both landlords and renters.

And when we begin to enforce evictions this week, my office will not allow evictions to be scheduled if a housing provider or tenant has rental assistance funds pending.

Unfortunately, we know that some people will require more than financial and legal assistance. Some households include medically fragile members whose illness may have been exacerbated by COVID-19. Over a year of social isolation has contributed to mental health and substance use challenges for many people. Eviction itself is a significant stressor that can leave a household desperate for help.

The heightened need stemming from the pandemic was one of the major drivers behind my creation of a Community Resource Center last year. The Center provides the social services my office has long provided to households facing eviction — outreach and connection to social services before an eviction is enforced and social workers who serve as co-responders with sheriff’s deputies when an eviction affects someone with complex family or health needs. Ultimately, the Center aims to prevent evictions by connecting any Cook County residents to needed services and by addressing factors such as domestic violence and behavioral health issues that put people at higher risk of eviction.

The Community Resource Center can be contacted at 773-405-5116.

Housing is the very fabric of a community. Safe, healthy neighborhoods depend on stable and engaged tenants and housing providers. With support, resources and resilience, the people of Cook County can emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever.

Tom Dart, a Democrat, first was elected Cook County sheriff in 2006.

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