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Housing advocates in Chicago aiming to help tenants ahead of a potential wave of evictions

Despite a state moratorium, aid groups say they’re hearing more from renters facing illegal evictions or facing tactics meant to drive them out.

Even though Illinois has an eviction moratorium in force, Luz Franco, 51, says she was kicked out of her apartment late last year after she fell behind on her rent when she missed work after getting COVID-19. She says her landlord turned off her utilities and eventually put some of her belongings out in the front yard
Despite an eviction moratorium in Illinois, Luz Franco, 51, says she was nudged into leaving her apartment late last year after she got COVID-19 and missed work, which led to a late rent payment. She lost heat in her unit and some of her belongings were found on the front lawn.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

When Luz Franco got sick with COVID-19, she missed work and knew she wouldn’t have the money to pay the rent on her apartment in Brighton Park.

Franco, 51, figured she could give what she had to her landlord until she was able to catch up.

But she says the landlord said she was a year behind on rent, and soon she found the heat had been turned off in her apartment, and one day her son found some of their belongings on the front lawn.

She knew that wasn’t how she should be evicted but, worried about the safety of her son, decided to move to a smaller apartment with the help of a community organization, Little Village Unete.

“There was nothing we could do,” Franco says.

A year into the coronavirus pandemic, housing advocates say that — despite moratoriums meant to stop most evictions — renters like Franco still face problems.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has extended Illinois’ eviction moratorium every 30 days, the latest one in place until Feb. 6. The moratorium blocks evictions statewide unless a tenant “poses a direct threat to the health and safety of other tenants or an immediate and severe risk to property.”

Nationally, on his first day in office, President Joe Biden extended the federal eviction moratorium through March 31. It applies to parts of the country that don’t have their own moratorium in place.

In Chicago, housing advocates say they continue to get calls from renters facing illegal evictions or face tactics meant to drive them out. The Metropolitan Tenants Organization says it has gotten more than 500 calls since last March about lockout attempts.

Little Village Unete, which helped Franco, and other organizations have created eviction defense teams to respond to lockouts and prepare for what they expect will be a wave of evictions once the moratoriums are lifted. Some lawmakers recently tried to extend the Illinois moratorium until September, but the measure didn’t go anywhere in the Senate.

“We already knew [housing] was a crisis pre-COVID because rents were skyrocketing,” says Sara Heymann of Little Village Unete. “This is a pot ready to burst. We need to make sure we have the system to make sure people in our community have support.”

Even before the pandemic, Jonathan Wilson had heard that evictions were a problem in South Shore. Though the number fell last year because of the moratorium, South Shore still had the most filings, 393, according to the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing. More than half of them in South Shore in 2020 were in January and February — before the pandemic took hold.

Jonathan Wilson, who is part of the housing advocacy group Not Me We: “When the moratorium wears out, I think that there’s going to be a crisis in the South Shore area.”
Jonathan Wilson, who is part of the housing advocacy group Not Me We: “When the moratorium wears out, I think that there’s going to be a crisis in the South Shore area.”
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Wilson, who lives in nearby Avalon Park, and others got together before the pandemic and formed Not Me We, a housing advocacy organization that focuses on South Shore and surrounding neighborhoods. When the pandemic hit, their work picked up.

“When the moratorium wears out, I think that there’s going to be a crisis in the South Shore area,” Wilson says. “We have been trying to get into tenant organizing, reaching out to folks through our food distribution.”

The group has been letting renters know what their rights are and walking them through the steps of an eviction, Wilson says. It’s also connecting tenants with each other, hoping they’ll form a tenant union — a strategy that’s taken hold elsewhere in Chicago as people brace for evictions as the pandemic wanes.

The Chicago Tenants Movement, a network of housing organizers, was established during the pandemic, with hubs across the city, each of them meeting virtually every week or every other week. The aim is to ensure that anyone facing a housing problem can speak with the organizers, says Michael Robin, who’s one of the members. The group also started a hotline and a team to handle calls from renters facing an immediate lockout.

Valerie Barrett, coordinator for the Chicago Tenants Movement’s response team, says that, once they get a call, an organizer calls the landlord and explains the law regarding evictions. The idea is to show the resident has community support, according to Barrett, who says those calls sometimes are enough for the tenant to be able to return home.

Other times, members of the team will show up to help the renter get utilities turned back or get back into the home, Barrett says. They also sometimes use social media to get support. Still, even if renters are able to return home, just going through that makes some choose to leave, Barrett says.

“Tenants choose not to stay because they are terrified of what comes next,” she says.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing and Loyola University Chicago estimated there could have been as many as 21,000 evictions filed in January if not for the moratorium. That would have been more eviction cases in one month than the number filed, 18,200, in all of 2019 in Chicago, according to the report.

The Lawyers’ Committee’s Michelle Gilbert is leading the group’s eviction prevention program, started in September in anticipation of a wave of eviction filing. Gilbert says the group goes to court when cases pop up, but for now its work largely has shifted to helping people get rental assistance, responding to illegal lockouts and helping tenants negotiate with their landlords.

Changes have been made in Cook County eviction court in anticipation of more cases. Instead of an eviction case going to trial right away, the first hearing will be to give tenants more time to find a lawyer or reach a resolution with the landlord, she says.

“Evicting people out in a pandemic is not a good idea,” Gilbert says. “Sometimes, people are behind on their rent for reasons out of their control. We should not rush to evict them.”

Nareen Kim: “There is a huge number of people who wouldn’t normally end up in a situation where they wouldn’t be able to pay rent.”
Nareen Kim: “There is a huge number of people who wouldn’t normally end up in a situation where they wouldn’t be able to pay rent.”
North Suburban Legal Aid Clinic

Last year, the Illinois Housing Development Authority provided $225 million in rental assistance to 45,600 people — a little over half of the 79,000 applications it received. The latest federal COVID-19 relief package is expected to bring additional rental assistance to Illinois.

Nareen Kim, director of the housing law practice at the North Suburban Legal Aid Clinic, says more rental assistance is needed, with many renters in the same tough situation financially they were in at the start of the pandemic. Kim says the clinic, which takes calls from suburban Cook County and Lake County, is hearing from many renters who are struggling for the first time in their lives to pay their rent.

“The reality is there is a huge number of people who wouldn’t normally end up in a situation where they wouldn’t be able to pay rent,” Kim says.

She says undocumented renters have been particularly vulnerable because many don’t have written leases or proof of payments. As a result, more of these renters move out even without a legal eviction out of fear, Kim says.

Richard Monocchio, executive director of the Housing Authority of Cook County: “We can’t wait and then we see this tsunami of evictions and foreclosures happen.”
Richard Monocchio, executive director of the Housing Authority of Cook County: “We can’t wait and then we see this tsunami of evictions and foreclosures happen.”
Rich Hein / Sun-Times file

Richard Monocchio, executive director of the Housing Authority of Cook County, says the lessons of the 2008 housing crisis need to be applied now, including providing financial and legal assistance to renters and homeowners in need.

“We have to act quickly this time,” Monocchio says. “We can’t wait and then we see this tsunami of evictions and foreclosures happen.”

Last year, the county opened its housing voucher list, offering 10,000 spots, and got 60,000 applications, according to Monocchio. Those who receive a voucher must put 30% of their income toward rent, and the government picks up the rest.

He sees the high demand for a voucher as part of a broader social crisis caused by the supply of housing not keeping up with the demand, as well as wages not keeping pace with the cost of living.

Nereida Oropeza, who works as a case manager with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, says referrals have gone up as more families fall behind three months on their rent. Before the pandemic, families referred to the group for help typically were behind on one rent payment.

Oropeza says she and other case managers connect families with food pantries and financial assistance from the community and other programs. Rental assistance programs pay landlords directly, but, because of the paperwork involved, some landlords resist accepting that, Oropeza says. It’s something she wants lawmakers to take into account when providing the next round of aid for families.

Juana Dorantes, 41, is among those the group has helped. The Brighton Park woman’s husband was out of work for three months and now works two jobs to make up for his reduced hours. She also is caring for someone’s else child at her home to bring in extra money.

Speaking in Spanish, Dorantes says her family of five at times has been a week late making rent.

“It’s difficult, very difficult to complete the rent,” Dorantes says, but she says her landlord has been flexible.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.