Tenant-rights advocates hold up Tenants United Hyde Park Woodlawn banner. (Photo: Autonomous Tenants Union)

This story was originally published by City Bureau on June 9, 2020

CHICAGO — Chicago tenants were caught in a vortex of housing issues long before COVID-19 upended the housing market. The majority of the city’s Black and Latinx renters are already “cost-burdened,” paying more than 30% of their monthly income on rent. For some of the city’s lowest-earning tenants, as much as 87% of their monthly income goes to rent. The gap between the number of people in need of affordable housing and the city’s supply of it is more than 116,000 units wide. Not to mention the decades of hyper-segregation, economic disinvestment, and gentrification that Black and brown communities have always had to endure here.  

So while it may take years to fully measure COVID-19’s impact on housing in the U.S., it is clear that the pandemic is now compounding long-standing, unaddressed housing inequities, including eviction. 

“Even before the pandemic hit, we had already characterized the state of eviction in America as a housing crisis,” says Alieza Durana from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, a research group that studies the impacts of eviction. “We were seeing one eviction order every seven minutes. On average per month, we would see 300,000 eviction filings, which is roughly the size of Pittsburgh.” 

Chicago’s five eviction courts were long overwhelmed before the pandemic struck, seeing around 23,000 cases each year with the majority ending in people, disproportionately Black Chicagoans, being removed from their homes and forced into a cycle of housing instability. As the pandemic presses forward and rent relief stalls behind, housing advocates warn that if comprehensive interventions aren’t implemented soon, cities across the country will face an “avalanche” of evictions when courts reopen. 

While Illinois lawmakers battle over what rent relief could look like (or if it’ll come at all), I spoke with several housing experts in Chicago to get a better sense of what tenants can do now to side-step this avalanche and stay in their homes.  

Negotiate a Deal 

Your options to avoid eviction depend on where you are in the process. Philip DeVon is a lawyer and eviction prevention specialist with the Metropolitan Tenants Organization (MTO), a tenants rights group that offers free legal advice to Chicago renters. DeVon says it’s important for tenants to first identify if they’ve been hit with an eviction notice or a filing. Eviction notices are supposed to precede a court filing. Think of them as an official warning that if a problem, like failing to pay rent, isn’t resolved in a specific amount of time then your landlord will file an eviction lawsuit against you. Your landlord shouldn’t file an eviction case without first serving you a notice. If they do, you should be able to contest the lawsuit in court. 

Unlike an eviction filing, notices do not yet involve the courts, and therefore can be reconciled outside of them. “If the tenant only got a five or ten-day notice and there’s not a filing, we would strongly advise them to try and open up the line of communication with the landlord to discuss some sort of agreement,” DeVon says. “A pay-and-stay, a partial payment agreement, or even a move-out compliance, which says ‘hey, I’ll move out by this date.’”

Eviction filings are much more severe than notices and can be devastating for people, especially low-income tenants. Once an eviction lawsuit is filed against you, it gets attached to your credit report, damages your credit score, and can prevent you from securing housing in the future. Even if you win your case, the eviction filing will still appear in your credit history unless the case is sealed. Because landlords and management companies are far less likely to rent to someone with an eviction on their record, a filing alone can impede your ability to find stable, quality housing. If you do win your case and file the necessary paperwork to seal the records, DeVon says you should still run a credit report on yourself to make sure that the records have actually been sealed. 

If your landlord has already filed the eviction lawsuit, you still have the option to negotiate a deal. MTO can help tenants navigate these tricky conversations with their landlords, and will sometimes step in to mediate. The key to working out an agreement with your landlord, according to DeVon, is to be prepared to negotiate, willing to compromise, and never agree to a plan that puts you in a worse position. “If you’re negotiating around coronavirus, don’t sign something you can’t fulfill,” DeVon says. “It’s better not to have an agreement than to have one you can’t live up to.” 

Whether you negotiate a deal using outside help or not, it’s fundamental to get everything in writing. “The overarching advice with any tenant issue is documentation,” DeVon says. “You have to put things in writing because if you do end up having to defend yourself in court you want proof of your defenses.” 

Get Organized 

For some situations, there may be power in numbers. Jordan Sarti is a community organizer with the Autonomous Tenants Union (ATU), a volunteer-run organization advocating for housing justice. Sarti says if individual asks of landlords fall short, tenants should consider putting together a collective ask with their neighbors. This can be a group letter that explains your collective hardship, and asks for specific remedies like reduced rent, waived late-fees, or payment plans. “It’s kind of unprecedented,” Sarti says. “There’s not really a legal remedy that we’re aware of.” 

Efforts to set such a precedent have either stalled or fallen short. In early May, Mayor Lori Lightfoot introduced the “Chicago Housing Solidarity Pledge,” a nonbinding program where participating landlords would agree to provide struggling tenants “grace” during the pandemic. Housing advocates quickly denounced the move, calling the pledge a “slap in the face” for what they believed to be a lack of substantive relief and landlord accountability. Soon after, a bill to cancel rent and mortgage payments was making its way through the state legislature. The bill, which was spearheaded by State Rep. Delia Ramirez (D-Chicago), failed to gain enough support and died in Springfield late last month. What lies on the table now are a record-high unemployment rate, a third month of missed rent for many families, and a cue of forthcoming eviction cases that’s only getting larger as the pandemic rages forward. 

The horizon is not entirely doom and gloom. While progressive Democrats failed to secure a comprehensive rent and mortgage relief package in the form of cancellations, they were able to negotiate an increase in the amount of federal funds the state will allocate for rent and mortgage assistance to $396 million. “I think the reality is that people just don’t have the money for rent,” Sarti says. “We’re advising people to talk to their neighbors and be as organized as possible.” 

Given that the communities most vulnerable to eviction are also those hardest hit by COVID-19, organizing with neighbors isn’t entirely safe. To mitigate health risks, ATU created a toolkit with specific guidelines on how to write a letter with your fellow tenants while also keeping everyone safe. Some best practices are wearing a mask when knocking on your neighbors’ doors and standing six feet back while you speak. If you’re not comfortable with door-knocking, you can leave a letter with your contact information in the building’s foyer or at a neighbor’s doors and then use platforms like Zoom to meet virtually. “The first step is always to contact as many neighbors as possible and see what their needs are,” Sarti says. “More likely than not right now, at least a few of your neighbors are going to be in a similar situation as you.” 

Talk to a Lawyer  

Charlie Isaacs is a tenant rights trainer with Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC), a legal aid clinic that provides free advice to low-income and incarcerated people. Isaacs says its critical for anyone worried they’ll face eviction when the courts reopen to speak with a lawyer now. And while that advice may seem counterintuitive — how exactly do folks who can’t afford rent afford a lawyer? — Isaacs says they should contact a legal aid office like UPLC or a nonprofit doing anti-eviction work that can connect tenants with free legal counsel. These groups help renters better understand their legal options and, in some cases, will connect folks with a lawyer who’ll represent them in eviction court at no cost to the renter. “Tenants are at a structural disadvantage against landlords,” Isaacs says. “If a tenant doesn’t have a lawyer, they could be facing really difficult odds against them.” 

The Lawyers Committee for Better Housing (LCBH) highlighted this in a report looking at Chicago eviction cases between 2010 and 2017. Overall, landlords won cases 60% of the time. LCBH found a “vast imbalance” in the rates of legal representation between landlords and tenants; landlords had legal representation in 79% of cases, while tenants only had legal representation in 11% of cases. In that same report, LCBH found that tenants with attorneys tend to fare better than tenants without legal help.  

graph justin.PNG

Results of Eviction Cases 2010-2017 Based on Tenants’ Legal Representation

Image via Lawyers Committee for Better Housing report

If you do happen to find yourself in eviction court without a lawyer the first thing you should do is ask the judge for a continuance to find legal representation. Requesting a continuance can buy you more time to find a lawyer or at least receive legal advice, so that you’re better prepared to defend yourself in court and hopefully stay in your home. Ultimately, the best way for anyone to protect themselves from eviction, according to Isaacs, DeVon, and several other lawyers I spoke with for this story, is to ask for help from a legal aid office and ask for it as early as possible. 

“One thing that’s really important for tenants to know is that if they can’t pay rent, they still have options,” Isaacs says. “There’s all sorts of things they can do to stay in their homes.” 

This story was produced by City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Chicago.

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