When Illinois’ eviction moratorium expires in August, thousands of tenants with unpaid rent will once again be at risk of losing their homes. Among them is Sharon, a 54-year-old Hyde Park resident whose landlord filed for eviction against her in February.
Sharon, whose case is sealed under the moratorium and declined to give her last name out of fear of retaliation, fell behind on rent after losing her customer service job in the convention industry and running out of savings. She said she notified her landlord and signed a tenant declaration form indicating that she met the requirements under the moratorium. But her landlord still filed a case — what her lawyers are arguing is a violation of the state eviction ban, according to Michelle Gilbert of the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, or LCBH, who is representing Sharon.
“They said I lied about the moratorium” and continued to issue her five-day notices demanding payment, Sharon said.
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When the state gives landlords the official go-ahead to file evictions again on Aug. 1, researchers from LCBH and Loyola University Chicago predict a backlog of roughly 33,500 eviction filings in Chicago alone. That includes already-filed cases such as Sharon’s awaiting their day in court, as well as a flood of new filings. Black and Latinx communities, where eviction filing rates are routinely higher than Chicago’s majority-white areas, are likely to bear the brunt.
To prepare for this surge, on July 15, the Illinois Supreme Court announced a month-long “triage” period during which no eviction judgments will be made against renters who qualify as “covered persons” under the moratorium until Sept. 1. That includes everyone making less than $99,000 who is unable to make rental payments because of a Covid-19-related hardship. The order makes an exception in cases where eviction defendants present a direct threat to the health and safety of other tenants.
That’s a step in the right direction, but tenant advocates are skeptical that it will be enough to avert an impending disaster. Millions in federal rental assistance funds have been slow to reach tenants, and structural barriers may have prevented many from applying for the help in the first place. Add that to an ongoing housing affordability crisis and weak enforcement of tenant protections during the pandemic, and advocates worry that opening up courts too soon will create a perfect storm for an eviction crisis. While they’re urging an extension of the federal eviction moratorium, implemented by the Centers for Disease Control, that order is so far also set to expire July 31.
“I think more time is needed,” said Mark Swartz, executive director of LCBH. He hopes that as the triage period comes to an end, “the parties will look at and reassess the situation and see if there’s a need to amend the order.”
A patchwork of protections
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker first implemented an eviction moratorium as part of a statewide stay-at-home order last March. While it’s been set to expire many times, Pritzker has always extended it — until now.
That doesn’t mean that evictions have completely stopped for the last year-and-a-half. LCBH tracked 1,240 eviction filings, including evictions against covered and noncovered persons under the moratorium, from Jan. 1 to May 8 of this year. After May 8, Illinois’ Covid-19 Housing Emergency Act required the sealing of residential eviction filings until August 2022 to protect tenants from a black mark that could make it more difficult for them to find future housing.
Informal evictions have also proceeded through illegal tactics such as lockouts, harassment, and intimidation, according to advocates.
Still, the moratorium offered crucial, if incomplete, protection. On Aug. 1, landlords will be free to begin filing cases against those previously protected under the moratorium. Courts will also start proceedings again, but judges will delay eviction orders until Sept. 1. There’s an exception if a defendant doesn’t show up for their initial court date; that’s when a judge can proceed to order an eviction.
During the month-long triage period, judges will focus on referring landlords and tenants to a number of early resolution programs and rental assistance programs, according to an email statement from Christopher Bonjean, communications director to the Illinois Supreme Court.
If a tenant has still not received the assistance that they need by Sept. 1, it will be up to the individual circuit judge to decide whether to enforce an eviction.
“The judge will likely consider whether they have completed the application and done all that’s asked of them and are just waiting,” Bonjean wrote in an email to Injustice Watch.
“The only thing I can do is pray”
It’s unclear whether the extra month will be enough time to get help to those most in need. Across the country and in Illinois, a patchwork of multiple rental assistance programs has been slow to reach tenants. In Cook County, 67% of federal aid received through the Coronavirus Relief Fund in 2020 has yet to be spent or was reallocated, according to the Center for Public Integrity and the Associated Press.
The main statewide emergency rental assistance program is the Illinois Rental Payment Program, administered by the Illinois Housing Development Authority, or IHDA. Applications for the program opened in May and closed last Sunday for tenants. Landlords have until Aug. 15 to complete their portion of the application.
Sharon’s landlord initiated the application, and she completed it as required in May. But she has yet to hear whether she will receive the assistance, she said.
“With each passing day, I don’t know, I could not tell you,” she said. “The only thing I can do is pray and continue to fill out these applications. Pray and pray.”
It can take up to 60 days for an applicant to be approved and receive rental assistance, said Amy Lee, communications director at IHDA.
One obstacle that delays approval is that applicants sometimes fail to upload all of the required documents. So far, IHDA has completed an initial review of 80% of the nearly 70,000 applications that have come in from May 17 to June 14 of this year, according to an email from Lee to Injustice Watch. Of those reviewed, approximately 57 percent were missing one or more documents such as a government-issued ID, proof of income and address, and evidence of past-due rent. Lee wrote that applicants will have until August 31 to provide any missing documents.
But Antonio Gutierrez, a co-founder of the Autonomous Tenants Union based in the city’s Albany Park neighborhood, said many people who need assistance may not know how to apply for it. The process assumes that tenants know how to use a computer, have access to the internet, and are able to fill out the forms online.
“I’m talking about non-English speakers, immigrants, people that might not have a high level of education — they might not know how to navigate these systems that exist for them,” Gutierrez said.
More than 95,000 Illinois renters and landlords have completed applications, but just over 24,000 — or 26% — have been approved to date, according to data updated weekly from IHDA.
Paul Arena, a board member of the Illinois Rental Property Owners Association, said it’s in landlords’ best interest to avoid evictions. “It’s very expensive, it’s a significant loss of revenue, and it takes a long time for a unit to generate enough revenue to recover from an eviction,” he said. Arena told Injustice Watch that the landlords who will file evictions come Aug. 1 are those whose tenants were ineligible for rental assistance or failed to apply.
Michael Mini, executive vice president of the Chicagoland Apartment Association, thinks enough backstops and assistance programs are available that the surge of filings won’t actually materialize. Asked whether the month-long triage period is sufficient, Mini said he thinks it’s a “reasonable time period to implement the programs and reassess at the end of that period.”
Leslie Corbett, executive director of the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation, worries that there’s still simply not enough money to go around. In addition to direct rental assistance, funding for legal aid and mediation is needed to prevent the surge of cases filed from turning into an avalanche of evictions.
Federal Covid-19 relief funding is appropriated to Illinois for its various housing assistance programs. In the latest round in May, Illinois received an additional $1.5 billion for housing assistance, but more is still needed.
The American Rescue Plan Act is the next federal Covid relief package that is expected to provide more housing assistance aid for states. “We’re all waiting for the [American] Rescue Plan dollars,” Corbett said. “They’re not in the state coffers yet, which is more of a reason to delay evictions.”
Corbett thinks it’s a “missed opportunity” to announce the triage period without knowing when the next round of rental assistance will be made available. Having the triage period run in parallel with when the rental assistance applications are open would have been ideal, she said.
When asked what she might want to tell readers of this story, Sharon said: “I want to tell people that this is hard — that we’re up against it — but not to be consumed in fear. … Please try to get help because you can be paralyzed in fear not knowing what to do.”
If you or someone you know is concerned about an eviction filing, visit EvictionHelpIllinois.org, or call (855) 631-0811 for free legal aid, landlord-tenant mediation services, and connections to rental assistance programs.