WOODLAWN — Despite a nationwide eviction moratorium meant to protect renters from being cast out of their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, problems continue behind the scenes that have both renters and homeowners feeling pressure.
According to the Aspen Institute, one in three Illinois households is at risk of eviction by the end of the year—and some landlords are finding ways to advance the agenda by pestering their tenants with threats and other illegal measures. Housing insecurity is plaguing tenants on the South and West Sides in a variety of uncomfortable ways.
We spoke with residents from three different neighborhoods—Austin, Pilsen and Clearing—about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their housing, and whether local, state and federal protections are actually working for them.
Battling COVID and displacement
As COVID-19 swept across the nation, Janette Lopez had only 15 days to find temporary housing. A fire down the block had caused damage to the lifelong Pilsen resident’s building and her landlord needed her out to make repairs. As the news reported more and more COVID-19 cases, Lopez became increasingly anxious. Securing a two-week rental for her children, her mother and her dog wouldn’t be easy.
“A week in I got COVID,” Lopez remembers. “While I was in the hospital [my landlord] kept asking me how the search is going.”
As her deadline to move out approached, she received text after text from her landlord as she battled the virus in the hospital and her mother took care of her sick children in their apartment. Finally, with absolutely no time to spare, Lopez says her family moved a block away into a friend’s place as a temporary fix. However, Lopez’s situation grew even stickier as her landlord continued to put off the date she could return, and her friend looked to move in a new tenant.
“At the end of August, my landlord was like ‘you’re gonna have to permanently move out,’” she says. “It was stressful. I had a nervous breakdown. We’ve lived there for so many years.”
Lopez looked for places in Pilsen, but the rent was simply too high. She had already dipped into her savings to afford her friend’s place and commuting back and forth from the refuge she had found in Blue Island was difficult. Now Lopez is staying with her brother in Back of the Yards, a bit closer to where her home was.
For people like Lopez, the eviction moratorium simply wasn’t enough. She wishes the city had emergency resources for families in need of temporary housing. She sighs on the other end of the phone as she reflects on her displacement. “That was the only affordable apartment we had because we were there for so many years,” Lopez says. “My kids went to school there. My little one is still in that school [but] I can’t afford that.”
‘It’s a pandemic every day‘
“How do you ask a person to pay rent continuously during a pandemic?,” asks Ray Watson, a longtime Austin resident. “I don’t get that.”
Watson waits outside of the Illinois Secretary of State facility on West Lexington Street in a line that’s almost two blocks long. He rocks a royal blue hoodie, a black fitted hat and loose jeans. He speaks nostalgically about life pre-pandemic almost as if separated by decades and not months from a time when people were unafraid to embrace a neighbor, spark up a conversation with a stranger or go to work.
“A lot of my family members couldn’t go back to work because our family’s so big,” he says from behind a blue surgical mask. “We didn’t want to bring what’s going on outside into our household. But they have to go make a living.”
Watson says he’s lost two cousins already to the COVID-19. The first passed away just after the statewide shelter-in-place went into effect. Watson says it was a result of “having to be sociable and interact with people” at work. “That’s the way he earned a living,” Watson remembers. “In the midst of it, he got sick. They sent him home and COVID took him.”
The other cousin he mentioned passed away just three weeks before Watson’s visit to the Secretary of State. “It hurts to see everybody’s hurting from this stuff in some type of way,” Watson says. “Man, it’s rough out here. It is rough and the pandemic is making it no better.”
Austin has been one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in Chicago with more than 140 COVID-19 related deaths. Watson says that in some ways the pandemic doesn’t feel like anything new for West Siders who’ve had to endure decades of systematic disinvestment and over-policing.
“We always had a crisis with health care and problems with paying rent and bills, so the pandemic is nothing new to us,” he says. “We have always had to make a way—the best way—out of a little. It’s a pandemic every day; the West Side of Chicago has always been a pandemic-stricken place.”
Watson lives in a building his grandma owns, which gives him more stability. But he doubts a government that allowed for more than 200,000 COVID-19 deaths would do much to stop people from falling through the cracks. “Some people are gonna get lost in the shuffle,” Watson says. “Some people are gonna lose their homes. Some people are going to be evicted. Some people are being evicted now.”
“It’s like there’s no shame in people losing their livelihood,” he continues. “They bailed out the banks. They bailed out the auto industry—bail out Americans. We the ones that keep this place going. Bail us out.”
Despite all that, Watson remains hopeful. “My children OK, my grandchildren OK. As long as my grandma breathing, I’ma be alright,” he says. “You got to keep on pushing. You got to keep on moving.”
No safety net
Like most college students, Brenda* now attends classes online. After Northeastern Illinois University joined the nationwide shift to remote learning this spring, she returned to her family’s home in Clearing on the Southwest Side. City Bureau is using only her first name to protect her family’s identity.
“I decided the best choice was to move back home to help my parents out with my siblings,” Brenda says.
Her two younger sisters both attend Chicago Public Schools, which extended remote learning for over 350,000 students through the fall, which means all three are e-learning on the same, unreliable internet connection. Brenda says she sees that long hours in Zoom classes overwhelm her sisters, who are in fifth and eighth grade. They’re not alone. A recent petition to shorten the CPS school day to four hours has gotten more than 40,000 signatures.
Brenda also works remotely as a school department’s office assistant, answering emails and calls from students and professors. Like many Chicagoans, Brenda’s family faced financial challenges when the pandemic started—her mom was laid off for months from her job at a cleaning service. Her dad, who owns a construction company, received fewer work requests. Eventually, he lowered prices to attract clients during the pandemic.
Despite these challenges, her parents had enough savings to cover three months of rent for their home of eight years. Their landlord also allowed them extra time to pay. “He’s been very understanding, and we’re so grateful for that,” she says.
Brenda’s parents, who are undocumented, don’t qualify for unemployment benefits or federal stimulus checks that have helped others stay afloat during the pandemic. She says that while her family and others knew about the city’s rent relief program, they hesitated to apply because of their pride and uncertainty about the fine print.
“They’re scared to go out there and be told that they’re not eligible,” she says. “When we’re going to have to do our taxes, will we have to pay that money back?…They’re giving out money. But what are the consequences?”
The Chicago metro area is home to the seventh largest undocumented population in the country. While some government support for undocumented communities does exist, Brenda says that important resources, like community health clinics and the city’s outreach about these resources to qualifying residents, often fall short of the great need. She says that she wants the city to allocate more resources to better support undocumented residents like her parents with rent and other necessities.
Brenda reflects on the past few months, both acknowledging the difficulties of the present moment but also staying hopeful.
“It’s been a bit hard to handle,” she admits, “but it hasn’t been impossible.”
Have you been evicted or faced pressure to move out during the pandemic? If you want to share your story with City Bureau, please go to citybureau.org/housing.
This report was produced by City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Bronzeville. Learn more and get involved at citybureau.org.