City offers free legal representation to low-income Chicago renters at risk of eviction

The Chicago Department of Housing on Monday chose two nonprofit groups to provide the legal help to tenants.

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A “For Rent” sign.

As moratoriums on evictions expire, City Hall is taking steps to make sure vulnerable tenants are able to protect their rights.

Sun-Times file

Across the nation, 90% of landlords involved in eviction lawsuits have legal representation. On the tenant side, it’s 10%. No wonder landlords have a better chance of winning.

Now that eviction moratoriums have expired, City Hall is taking steps to level the playing field.

The Chicago Department of Housing on Monday chose two nonprofits to provide free legal help to low-income tenants “at risk of or subject to eviction or lock-out” in Chicago.

Lawyers Committee for Better Housing will to work alongside its partner agencies, Legal Aid Chicago and the Coordinated Advice and Referral Program for Legal Services. The second group will be led by Beyond Legal Aid.

Both groups will operate under one-year contracts renewable for two additional years, based on performance. The three-year pilot program will be bankrolled by $8 million in Emergency Rental Assistance Program 2 funds earmarked for “housing stabilization.”

“This project will allow us and our partners to expand our free legal and supportive services that help stabilize tenants with limited incomes who might otherwise become homeless,” Mark Swartz, executive director of Lawyers Committee for Better Housing, was quoted as saying in a press release.

“With this investment, Chicago moves closer to joining New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland and other major cities and states that have adopted a Right to Counsel in eviction court.”

To qualify for legal assistance, Chicagoans must:

• Be a tenant in a property intended for residential use.

• Have an income at or below 80% of the area median income. based on household size.

• Be part of a household in which someone has “experienced a reduction of household income, incurred significant costs or experienced other financial hardship during or due directly or indirectly” to the coronavirus pandemic.

• Be a part of a household in which someone “can demonstrate a risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability.”

None of those criteria will be difficult to meet, at least in Chicago neighborhoods dominated by renters, including essential workers hard-hit by the pandemic. They were protected by eviction moratoriums that were extended repeatedly, but have now expired.

Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara called the program a natural extension of her department’s efforts to “expand housing access and choice for all residents regardless of income or zip code.”

“We are working to ensure that those vulnerable to eviction have the legal representation they need to help them remain in their homes,” Novara was quoted as saying.

Throughout the pandemic, the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing and Beyond Legal Aid have helped Chicago renters “stay safely housed,” the commissioner said.

“I am excited that we can continue this invaluable partnership to protect Chicago tenants from unnecessary eviction,” Novara was quoted as saying.

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