Families in Little Village face utility disconnections as they await financial relief

Chicago’s Department of Housing said it was processing applications for its Emergency Rental Assistance Program as quickly as possible.

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Patricia Vazquez, who says her gas was shut off when she fell behind on payments, was recently approved for funds through Chicago’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program. But the money didn’t arrive soon enough to keep her utilities from being cut off.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

By the time Patricia Vazquez was approved for funds through Chicago’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, she was struggling to keep her utilities on in her Little Village apartment.

Vazquez, a single mother of two, said the gas to her apartment had been disconnected because she owed an estimated $1,400. She had sold clothes and jewelry to make a payment to keep her electricity on, and she was six months behind on rent.

“Sometimes I say, I can’t anymore, what am I going to do,” Vazquez said in Spanish. “But I see my sons and I keep going.”

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The program is the third round of rental assistance the city has administered during the coronavirus pandemic that derives from federal relief funds. In June, residents across the city applied for this round of funds, which includes up to 15 months of rental assistance and financial help paying off utility bills. Nearly two months after applications were submitted, housing advocates in Little Village said many like Vazquez were anxiously awaiting the money.

Through Únete La Villita — a community-based organization — Vazquez received an email July 23 telling her she had been approved for the program. But by then, the gas in her apartment had been disconnected and it would be about a week of phone calls before the utility was reconnected.

Simone Alexander, who is part of Únete La Villita, said the group heard from other families who are struggling to keep basic utilities in their homes while awaiting funds from the city. The group has worked with the local aldermanic offices and other organizations to keep the renters in their homes.

The city’s Department of Housing, which is overseeing the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, said it was “processing applications as expeditiously as possible,” said Eugenia Orr, the department’s spokeswoman, in an email. The department has started to release some funds, and it expects to approve 8,000 to 9,000 applications as part of this latest round, Orr said.

The Department of Housing is planning to open another round of rental assistance in the fall, Orr said.

The need for the funds comes as the eviction moratorium in Illinois phases out, though Tuesday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a modified federal eviction moratorium that will last through Oct 3. Starting Aug. 1, landlords in Illinois can file eviction filings for tenants behind on rent, though eviction orders won’t be enforced until at least Aug. 31.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday also insisted there is federal money available — some $47 billion previously approved during the COVID-19 crisis — that needs to get out the door to help renters and landlords.

“The money is there,” Biden said.

The White House has said state and local governments have been slow to push out that federal money and is pressing them to do so swiftly.

Since the annual winter moratorium on utility disconnections ended March 31, companies have been able to continue doing disconnections, according to a previous news release from Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office.

Though Únete La Villita received an email saying Vazquez had been approved to receive funds, Alexander said it wasn’t clear when exactly all the funds would trickle down to help pay off back rent and past due utilities.

Vazquez said she and her sons had been living without gas by using an electric stovetop to cook and taking showers without hot water.

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Patricia Vazquez says her gas was shut off when she fell behind on payments.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A letter the family received July 19 said gas was being used without an active account and that it would be disconnected. Vazquez said she was told she had to pay off all that she owed before her account could be reconnected.

Vazquez said she feels more in debt now than ever. She’s bounced around different factory jobs without being able to land a stable one during the pandemic. And after her son developed medical issues, she needed to stay at home during the day.

“God willing, the help will come and everything will work out,” Vazquez said before her gas was restored.

In a statement, People’s Gas said the company has been offering customers longer and more flexible payment plans that include a 10% down payment.

“As conditions surrounding COVID-19 continue to change, we remain committed to providing the safe and reliable energy our customers depend on,” the company said in the statement. “We have provided additional benefits to assist customers facing economic hardship as a result of the pandemic, including $18 million in bill payment assistance.”

People’s Gas had not received funds from the city to cover customers’ outstanding bills as of Saturday.

Tom Dominguez, a spokesman with ComEd, said the company has tried to identify customers who could benefit from assistance programs administered through the state and city. The company sent letters to customers who qualify for the city’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, and it has also tried to steer customers to other assistance grants or to extended payment plans, Dominguez said.

Last fall, the number of ComEd customers signed up for payment plans went up by 98%, Dominguez said.

Another Little Village woman said her electricity was shut off days before housing advocates with Únete received an email saying her application had been approved for the emergency rental assistance.

The 32-year-old woman, who asked not to be named, said her power was shut off for about a week before she received help from community organizations that assisted in paying off her account balance. She spent part of that week at a relative’s home seeking refuge from the summer temperatures while at other times taking her daughter to a park to cool off.

The Housing Department finally sent funds to ComEd to also cover the woman’s account, Alexander said.

She said she felt elated when her power was restored, turning on the family’s air conditioning unit and charging their electronics.

The woman said her family, which includes two daughters and her partner, started to have trouble after her partner lost his factory job shortly after the coronavirus pandemic caused a shutdown across the state. Since then, he’s worked construction jobs when he can or taken odd jobs from their neighbors, she said.

“Thank God many people were put in our path that can help us and fight for our rights,” she said.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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