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Knocking on doors across Chicago, they’re aiming to help people stave off eviction

The Communities United canvassers are part of the Chicago Flats Initiative, organizations working to save the city’s dwindling supply of two- to four-flat buildings.

Electa Bey (left) and Hiwotenshe Bekele found few people interested in learning about government programs for rental and mortgage assistance.
Communities United organizers Electa Bey (left) and Hiwotenshe Bekele go door-to-door in Belmont Cragin to inform tenants and landlords about programs designed to help with pandemic-lated financial problems.
Mark Brown / Sun-Times

It’s hard to imagine a more difficult time to be doing door-to-door work than right now.

Between the new surge of the pandemic and the general atmosphere of mistrust upon the land, knocking on a stranger’s door is more than ever an invitation to rejection.

So I really have to give credit to the eight-person canvassing team from the group Communities United who worked their way across a portion of Belmont Cragin Thursday evening with a newspaper columnist in tow.

Their goal was to find people who might need help averting the wave of evictions and foreclosures many expect is coming with the lifting of pandemic-related moratoriums.

If success is measured by actually identifying those people and having a substantive conversation with them about how to access existing programs that might help, then I can’t honestly say they were successful.

Few people answered their doors. Even fewer took the time to talk. And nobody said they were looking for the kind of help being offered in terms of referrals for mortgage or rental assistance.

But here and there someone would politely accept the materials and promise to show them to someone else who might benefit. Others surely read it later after retrieving the green packet from their porch. In such ways, incremental progress is made.

The Communities United canvassers are part of the Chicago Flats Initiative, a coalition of organizations working to save the city’s dwindling supply of two- to four-flat buildings.

These are the apartment buildings that have long been the cornerstone of the city’s affordable housing stock for low- and middle-income families. Now, as the buildings reach a century old, they are caught in a squeeze on both ends of the economic spectrum, subject to teardown-replacements in gentrifying neighborhoods and demolition in deteriorating ones.

My old friend Diane Limas, who was instrumental in building the old Albany Park Neighborhood Council into the more broadly based Communities United, is passionate about the Chicago Flats Initiative and its goal of preventing evictions. Limas is always on the side of the angels, so, if she’s passionate about a project, it’s worth taking a look.

What attracted me most to the Chicago Flats Initiative’s effort was its emphasis on working with landlords as well as tenants.

To my thinking, the eviction moratoriums imposed during the pandemic have placed an unfair burden on small landlords forced to undertake the expense of subsidizing their tenants.

I don’t want to see anyone evicted, but our housing market can’t function if property owners can’t get paid, and the government programs that were supposed to fill that gap during the moratorium have been ineffective.

Heather Barnes, a leader of the Communities United canvassers and a small landlord herself in Roseland, sees the problems from both sides. She said many landlords try to work with tenants who have fallen behind on rent during the pandemic, but others don’t see any advantage in helping them apply for emergency rental assistance, with all of its paperwork requirements.

“Landlords have to give up too much [personal financial] information to get assistance,” Barnes said. “They don’t want to do it.”

Other landlords worry that forbearing rent will harm their own credit ratings — and ultimately cost them their properties, she said.

Hiwotenshe Bekele, one of the community organizers going door-to-door, said she often learns of situations in her West Ridge neighborhood in which landlords don’t bother with the legal niceties of eviction — or the moratorium — and resort to illegal lockouts of their tenants.

The door-knocking effort is taking the canvassers this summer into Garfield Park, Austin, Greater Chatham, Englewood, Roseland, Belmont Cragin, Albany Park and West Ridge.

In recognition of the limitations of going door-to-door in 2021, Barnes said the group is developing a plan to do phone banking to reach more people.

Meantime, they’ll keep heading back out and knocking on doors. If folks happen to see somebody knock on their door with a green packet in their hand, it might be worth their time to listen.

I promise you they’re not selling anything.