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State Needs To Act Now On Rent, Mortgage Relief, Aldermen Say — But Rent Control Ban’s Power Is ‘Startling’

Gov. JB Pritzker said the rent control ban ties his hands when it comes to offering rent relief, but housing advocates say something must be done.

A rally to lift the ban on rent control in Chicago.
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CHICAGO  — Chicago aldermen, housing advocates and organizers across the city are imploring Gov. JB Pritzker lift the state’s rent control ban and issue a statewide rent freeze and other measures to protect tenants and landlords as joblessness and financial instability mount due to the coronavirus crisis.

But Pritzker at a Thursday press conference said he can’t lift the ban with an executive order.

“That state law can only be repealed by the state legislature,” he said. But the state legislature is unable to act due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The governor said his office instead is “doing an awful lot of other things to make it easier for people during this crisis to stay in their homes,” including ordering sheriffs in all 102 counties to halt evictions during the crisis and stopping utility shutoffs.

Several Chicago aldermen, including members of the Latino Caucus, are pushing back against the notion that the governor’s hands are tied and are doubling down on calls for statewide tenant and landlord protections, which are being implemented in other cities across the country.

“The governor has broad powers during a state of emergency to put measures in place. They cannot change the constitution, but they can put legislation in place,” Latino Caucus member Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) said.

Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st), also a member of the Latino Caucus, said an executive order “should’ve happened a week ago when we knew we were coming up to April 1st.”

“At least now people have worked for half a month. When we come up to May 1, the impact is going to be that much more devastating.”

Other cities, like Oakland and Los Angeles, are freezing rent hikes, extending eviction moratoriums indefinitely and prohibiting landlords from charging late fees for rent payments missed during the outbreak.

Those measures are being considered in Illinois but some also require overturning the state’s ban on rent control, according to La Spata, who said, “It’s startling how much the ban covers.”

Last week, Chicago officials 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, according to officials. The grant application deadline was Wednesday.

But Chicago aldermen fighting for more protections say that program isn’t nearly enough to help renters and landlords during this crisis.

“When we see the total number of applications, it’s going to be orders of magnitude greater than the funding that has been put into it,” La Spata said.

According to WBEZ, unemployment claims in Illinois are through the roof. Illinois keeps shattering records — 178,421 new applications for unemployment insurance were filed in the week that ended Saturday.

Members of the Latino Caucus said they’re highly concerned about undocumented Chicagoans who have found themselves out of work but don’t qualify for federal aid.

“They have no income, no safety net,” Sigcho-Lopez said.

In addition to protections for renters, Chicago aldermen and housing organizers are also pushing for protections for landlords including mortgage relief. In New York, a bill that would suspend rent for certain tenants and small businesses and certain mortgage payments for 90 days is making its way through the state legislature.

“A rent freeze without a mortgage forbearance just leads to a massive wave of foreclosures later on this year and that’s not what we want either. They have to go hand in hand,” La Spata said.

Diane Limas, longtime community organizer and board president at Communities United, said mortgage relief is key.

“We know the governor, the mayor have done a lot to keep people safe and that’s greatly appreciated. But after talking with leaders, the governor needs to work with banks to come up with a mortgage relief plan for the entire state,” Limas said.

Chicagoans can apply for mortgage forbearance through the recently passed $2 trillion federal CARES Act, or the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.The law covers those with federally-backed mortgages — about 70 percent of mortgages in the current market. But those with mortgages backed by other lenders likely still qualify for a forbearance due to the pandemic. Read the Sun-Times FAQ for more information

Recent City Council meetings were canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak but aldermen in the Latino Caucus said when meetings resume they also plan to push forward the just cause for eviction ordinance.

The ordinance is designed to protect renters by establishing landlords can only evict tenants for specific reasons like non-payment of rent and breaking terms of the lease.

Chicago alderman said they’re not giving up on securing both short-term and long-term protections for renters and landlords despite what Pritzker has said.

“If we give up on it, we’re either dooming people to evictions or foreclosure and both of those are terrible options,” La Spata said.

Said Sigcho-Lopez: “The Latino Caucus is not going to give up. This is not a new issue. Unfortunately, the fact that we have not [prioritized housing] for such a long time — now it’s not putting us in a real bad position.”

Asked about a rent freeze at a recent press conference, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said, “That has to come from the state legislature given the way that our laws are structured.”

“We have stood up the $2 million fund to provide rental and mortgage assistance. I’ve been very much an advocate in using the bully pulpit to talk to banks and landlords that in this time they need to grant renters and people who hold mortgages some grace. We continue to have those discussions at the state level, as well.”

The mayor’s office on Thursday said Chicagoans who have lost their jobs in the crisis should explain their situation to their landlords to negotiate new terms such as deferred payments.

“Just as we’re asking young, healthy people to stay home so they don’t infect those who aren’t, we also need people who have not been negatively impacted economically by this virus to continue to pay rent, as there are many who cannot,” the mayor’s office said in an email. “Many landlords are local small business owners for whom months of no rental income will result in foreclosure. Those who can, please do your part.”

The Chicago Housing Authority is freezing rent until the governor’s stay at home order is lifted, according to the mayor’s office. The rent deferral does not apply to voucher holders who live in privately-owned rental housing, but the mayor’s office said it has reached out to those property owners and landlords and is urging them to work with those tenants.

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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