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Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Avondale

Laid-Off Renters Beg City, Landlords For Relief As April 1 Nears, But A Rent Freeze Is Not Coming: ‘I Can’t Even Afford Groceries’

A city spokesperson said a rent freeze isn't possible without lifting the state's ban on rent control.

Chicago renters are demanding a rent freeze in response to the coronavirus crisis.
Autonomous Tenants Union
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LOGAN SQUARE — The coronavirus pandemic — and the shutdown designed to slow it — has put millions out of work and created a crisis for renters and landlords across the country.

In Chicago, thousands of tenants are looking for help and some small landlords are offering whatever relief they can. Frustrated by their landlords’ lack of action, many tenants — from Hyde Park to Humboldt Park — are preparing to go on a rent strike.

As of Monday afternoon, a petition calling for Mayor Lori Lightfoot to freeze rent had drawn more than 14,000 signatures, but the mayor does not have the legal authority to enact a rent freeze due to state laws, a city spokesperson said.

The petition also calls for the city to freeze mortgages and utility payments and to ban new filings for evictions and foreclosures.

“Government agencies have not acted honestly and effectively to prevent the pandemic from reaching its current point, and now the most vulnerable members of our society stand to pay for it unless drastic action is taken,” the petition reads.

The online petition was launched by the Autonomous Tenants Union, a group “committed to organizing for housing justice,” according to its website, and endorsed by dozens of groups, unions, state representatives and aldermen, including Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), Ald. Rossana Rodriguez (33rd), Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) and Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th).

Over the last few weeks, tenants have been “literally begging and pleading for help” in the lead-up to April 1, according to Michael, an organizer with the Autonomous Tenants Union.

Michael declined to provide his last name for fear of reprisal. He said he and his neighbors are making a list of demands of their landlord, who has yet to offer any rent relief despite the crisis.

The housing organizer works at a call center and his pay is getting slashed to minimum wage starting Wednesday, the same day rent is due.

Michael said thousands of tenants in neighborhoods across Chicago are in the same boat as him and his neighbors.

“We don’t anticipate that a significant number of landlords will be proactively offering help to their tenants. We haven’t seen any proof or any hint of proof that they’ve been doing so,” he said.

“We really just want our leaders — like Lori Lightfoot, JB Pritzker along with the chief judge of the circuit court — we really want them for once to speak to these issues.”

A rent freeze won’t be coming anytime soon, however. A city spokesperson said it can’t be done without lifting the state’s ban on rent control.

“Under State law, the City does not have the authority to abrogate private landlord/tenant contracts or enact a rent freeze,” the spokesperson said in an email.

The spokesperson said instead the city is taking steps to help rent-burdened residents “in other ways during this unprecedented crisis.”

On Friday, the city announced a grant program that will use $2 million from the city’s Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund to give 2,000 Chicagoans $1,000 toward rent or mortgage payments. Half of the grants will be awarded through a lottery and half will be distributed by nonprofit groups working in the neighborhoods, officials said. The grant application deadline is Wednesday and can be found here.

Also in response to the coronavirus crisis, the city has halted eviction proceedings. The moratorium still allows landlords to file court paperwork in person or electronically, however.

Groups — including Chicago aldermen — are calling on Gov. JB Pritzker to permanently lift the ban on rent control and enact a three-month “rent holiday.”

“One-time pay-outs fall short of the systemic remedies this crisis demands as we see Illinois’ infection rate climb, and elected leadership suggests prolonging the standing order to stay indoors,” Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) said in a letter to the governor. “Gov. Pritzker, we need you to immediately repeal the Rent Control Preemption Act, establish a “rent holiday,” and restore power back to communities to help everyday people right now.”

‘We need to take care of human beings as best we can right now’

While renters and housing advocates vie for help as April 1 approaches, some small landlords across Chicago are offering whatever relief they can.

A couple of weeks ago, when the coronavirus crisis “started to get serious,” Roscoe Village landlord Jonathan Pilsner reached out to his two tenants and offered to reduce their rent should they lose their jobs.

“I didn’t want to get to the end of the month and have them say, ‘Oh by the way, this happened.’ I know it’s fast moving too, but let me know, and don’t be afraid to come to me. I want to be as cooperative as possible. If I can help, I definitely want to try and help,” Pilsner said.

Pilsner, who lives in the building, said he’s been going back and forth with his tenants and, so far, they haven’t taken him up on his offer, but he knows that could change any day now.

“If it changes, they know they can tell me as soon as they know and we can try to make it so nobody has to worry about this stuff,” he said.

Avondale landlord Stephen Gardner has a similar view.

At first, Gardner offered his tenants, who both work in the service industry, $500 off their $1,800 rent, but quickly rethought that offer once the reality of the restaurant and bar shutdown sunk in.

“I get to keep working from home. … they’re not working. I can float this for a while,” he said.

Gardner, who, like Pilsner, lives in the building he manages, is now letting his tenants pay “substantially less” or nothing until things settle down. In the meantime, he’s applying for mortgage relief.

Both Gardner and Pilsner acknowledged that they don’t depend on rent money to survive; Gardner works for a financial services startup and Pilsner works as an attorney.

“I did this to help me pay for a place, not for a source of income,” Gardner said.

Michael with the Autonomous Tenants Union said landlords like Gardner and Pilsner are rare. He said most Chicago landlords, whether they’re small or own multiple properties, are reluctant to give rent relief right now.

Nancy Curran, who owns three apartment buildings in the Wicker Park/Ukrainian Village area, said she simply can’t afford to “let people live for free.”

“If you don’t pay rent, I can’t support my family. … All of a sudden if people don’t have to pay the rent, is it ok if i go to Jewel and take all of the food I want because I’m hungry? No, we don’t do that to Jewel or Marianos,” Curran said. 

Curran said rent is her only source of income and she uses it to support her special needs child and her elderly mother. She said there’s a misconception out there “that if you own a building, you’re rich.” 

“It’s just not true. … I manage my building for Chase [Bank]. They actually own it. I use that money to pay the mortgage, the utilities, the insurance, the taxes. Whatever is left over from that is what I get to keep. There’s a big obligation that a lot of things have to get paid. If the people don’t pay their rent, I can’t pay my mortgage. Theres not a big slush fund of $500,000 sitting there.”

Curran said she’s still paying off the loan she took out to rehab her first property in the mid-1990s. She acknowledged that some of her tenants may find themselves out of work during this crisis, and she’s willing to work with those tenants on a case-by-case basis on payment plans and the like. But she said she can’t stop collecting rent unless she gets mortgage relief.

Bella Chapman, a 21-year-old DePaul University student, said she was denied a rent reduction when she needed it the most.

Chapman, who lives in a large apartment building off the Belmont Red Line station, asked her landlord, Beal Properties, for a reduction in rent earlier this month after her hours were slashed at her minimum wage job. She went from working 25 hours a week at the school’s gym, called the Ray Meyer Fitness and Recreation Center, to only getting paid for 10 hours a week. She makes $13 per hour and her monthly rent is $810.

Beal Properties denied her request for a reduction and instead offered to push her rent deadline to April 30, according to an email shared with Block Club.

“In regards to your rent, monthly rent will still be due. I’m sure you understand that we cannot reduce rent or freeze rent,” the email reads.

Chapman said the email made her “really upset.”

“I’m still not making enough money to pay rent and it still means I owe rent for May. I can’t even afford groceries, let alone my rent,” she said.

After a Block Club reporter reached out for comment, Barb Willis, office manager for Beal Properties, said the property management company is willing to work with Chapman and other tenants who are struggling to pay rent during the crisis.

Willis said the initial email — denying the rent reduction — was a “knee-jerk response of us not knowing what the government was going to do and how we were going to receive help as well.” She couldn’t say whether or not the company would be offering reduced rent right away, but said she’s not ruling anything out.

“I’d like to see if we can do that for her. It’s unfolding so quickly and I want to help,” Willis said.

On March 20, a self-described “small, family” property management company called Newgard Partners L.P. sent a letter to its tenants explaining its cleaning protocol amid the coronavirus crisis.

At the end of the letter, management wrote: “This pandemic has impacted all of us personally including businesses large and small, of which we are in the latter. Many tenants have wondered how they will pay their expenses including the rent. For us, a small family business, this will potentially become a major financial below. We are in the process of working with our lenders to explore options.”

Management also urged tenants to “explore all options available” such an unemployment insurance and federal relief, adding, “Some major companies have put out calls for employees. Amazon and Walmart are two examples.”

That last line was eviscerated by tenants in the building and the company eventually took the notice down, according to Michael with the Autonomous Tenants Union.

Landlords have a “responsibility to make sure people are OK,” Pilsner said.

“We all know housing security is directly correlated to the physical health of a human being, so we should try and be as helpful as possible because we need to take care of human beings as best we can right now.”

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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