This story has been updated to reflect new orders from Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the state Supreme Court.
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As many as 60,000 households statewide are vulnerable to eviction this year, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services. With moratoriums expiring and rental assistance slow to reach those who need it, tenants may be at a loss to understand their options.
Last Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court rolled back an extension of the Biden administration’s federal eviction ban.
The two-month extension, originally issued Aug. 3 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had covered people in counties with especially high Covid-19 rates and would have expired in early October.
Last Friday, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker said he would extend for a second time in as many weeks a statewide pause on eviction enforcement as Covid-19 cases linked to the delta variant continue to climb. State protections originally set to phase out next week will now continue through Oct. 3. And on Monday, the Illinois Supreme Court issued an order that will suspend hearings for most eviction cases through Sept. 18.
“There is such a patchwork of protections at the local, state, and federal level that have constantly been shifting and changing,” said Michael Robin, an organizer with Autonomous Tenants Union, in an email to Injustice Watch. “Local authorities have not mounted a sufficient public education campaign on tenants’ rights.”
To better understand how tenants can navigate the current set of protections, Injustice Watch talked to housing attorneys and advocates about some of the most common points of confusion. Here’s what we learned.
Are Cook County courts currently processing evictions?
But hearings are limited to “emergency” suits. Landlords file emergency suits when they allege that a renter poses a health and safety risk to others.
Cook County landlords have still been able to file and receive hearings for matters unrelated to Covid-19 hardship throughout the pandemic. Landlords have also had the power since July 31, when more robust state protections began phasing out, to file eviction cases against tenants with unpaid rent.
But filing a suit is just the first step in the eviction process. Under the latest Illinois Supreme Court order, courts must typically wait until after Sept. 18 to hold trials against tenants who have signed and returned a declaration to their landlord indicating that their annual income is below $99,000 and that they are unable to make rental payments because of a Covid-19-related hardship.
Robin cautioned that landlords can sometimes abuse the process by getting emergency hearings on the pretext of health and safety issues. There’s also an exception for tenants who already had a hearing scheduled before the pandemic. They must show up to court or risk receiving an eviction judgment against them.
Does the federal eviction moratorium apply in Cook County?
On Aug. 26, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Biden administration’s moratorium, blocking an order issued through the CDC in early August that had banned evictions in counties experiencing “substantial” or “high” Covid-19 transmission rates through Oct. 3, a description that fits every Illinois county, according to the CDC’s Covid Data Tracker.
But the federal order wasn’t very robust, to begin with, said Michelle Gilbert, legal director of the nonprofit Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, or LCBH. The order only shielded tenants from being physically removed from their homes — the final stage in the eviction process that is carried out in Cook County by the sheriff. That left a lot of gray areas for local courts and judges to interpret.
“I’m confused, and this is all I do for eight to 10 hours a day,” Gilbert said. “It has to be more than extremely confusing for tenants.”
What should tenants do if they’re behind on rent?
As mentioned above, courts have to wait until Sept. 18 to hold trials against tenants who have signed (and notified their landlord of) a declaration attesting that a Covid-19-related hardship has kept them from affording rental payments. And Illinois renters and landlords can still apply for rental assistance through the IDHS.
Tenants can also seek help from Cook County Legal Aid for Housing and Debt. The program provides free legal aid and mediation services to those facing eviction and other debt-related issues. All Cook County residents are eligible for the program.
Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans said in an Aug. 2 press release that taking tenants to court should be a landlord’s “last resort.”
Can tenants be evicted if they are waiting to receive rental assistance?
Nationwide, 89% of federal funds for emergency rental assistance have yet to be distributed, according to reporting by The New York Times.
In Illinois, more than 70,000 people applied for emergency funds through the Illinois Housing Development Authority, or IHDA. To date, the agency has paid out about $220 million to cover the unpaid rent of 25,500 approved applicants, according to data available on its website.
More than half of the applications were missing required documentation. Some common types of missing documentation include a government-issued ID or proof of address, according to IHDA. People with incomplete applications have until Aug. 31 to submit all paperwork.
In theory, tenants waiting on rental assistance should not face eviction, unless it was ordered prior to the pandemic. Landlords who applied for funds through IHDA had to sign a declaration that they would not file eviction papers against their tenant.
Before the Cook County Sheriff’s Office will enforce an eviction, it requires landlords to submit a form verifying that they have not received or applied for funds to cover a tenant’s unpaid rent.
“We have not received any court orders for evictions for cases filed after the August 1 expiration of the moratorium,” said Matt Walberg, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office. “We are currently enforcing emergency orders for eviction, evictions filed or ordered prior to the pandemic, as well as a small number of residential evictions not covered by the government moratorium.”
Only the sheriff can evict tenants in Cook County. It’s illegal for landlords to change the locks, remove renters’ belongings, or otherwise force them out without a court order. Tenants can call 911 to report an illegal lockout, according to LCBH.
Will the moratorium be extended?
Michael Mini, vice president of the Chicagoland Apartment Association, told Injustice Watch that the organization was “hopeful” that Pritzker would not extend the Illinois moratorium again.
“We believe that it’s a responsible thing to do,” Mini said of ending the protections. “We believe there are lots of safeguards in place.”
While Pritzker has not yet issued an updated executive order, a spokesperson told Injustice Watch that he planned extend the state’s ban on enforcement once more to Oct. 3, the date the federal moratorium was slated to end.
Statewide, roughly 414,000 households are experiencing housing insecurity, according to IDHS.
In the meantime, Illinois tenants concerned about an eviction filing can visit EvictionHelpIllinois.org. They can also call (855) 631-0811 for free legal aid, landlord-tenant mediation services, and connections to rental assistance programs.
Do you have other questions about housing and eviction protections or a story to share? We want to hear from you. You can fill out this questionnaire, or email our housing reporter Grace Asiegbu directly.