Did pandemic relief avert an eviction crisis in Chicago? The full picture remains murky.

A court order filed this week will grant Injustice Watch access to previously unavailable eviction data during the pandemic.

On June 1, a notice posted on Blanca Beltran’s door warned that she and her family were about to be removed from their Logan Square apartment.

“By receiving this letter, you have received notice that the property you are occupying can be evicted AS SOON AS 6/2/2022,” the paper from the Cook County Sheriff’s Office read.

But by that point, Beltran was already packing up to move herself and her three children into her brother’s home in Rockford, Illinois. After a prolonged dispute with her landlord, he had filed suit and obtained a court order for Beltran’s eviction earlier this year. Rather than subject her family to forcible removal by the sheriff’s office, she opted to relocate temporarily and continue her housing search on her own timeline.

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Losing her housing was traumatic all the same, and finding a new place to live that wouldn’t uproot her children was difficult. “I came across apartments that were $2,400 [per month],” Beltran said. “The situation is really hard in Logan Square, Avondale, and Humboldt Park. It’s a situation that can’t sustain itself.”

When Illinois ended its eviction moratorium in October 2021, housing advocates warned of potentially dire consequences for struggling renters such as Beltran. Foreclosed homeowners, who can be removed through eviction suits, were also vulnerable. But Cook County officials say emergency rental assistance and legal aid programs have helped avert a feared eviction avalanche, touting a drop in the number of people removed from their homes by the sheriff’s office.

Yet Beltran’s situation underscores that eviction doesn’t just refer to the sheriff showing up at a tenant’s door — that’s the final step in a long and complex process. And because of changes in the availability of eviction court data in Cook County during the pandemic, the full toll of the end of pandemic protections on tenants remains unclear.

The number of eviction cases filed in Cook County Circuit Court plummeted while state and federal protections were in effect but has now returned to pre-pandemic levels. There were 2,493 evictions filed in June 2022, compared to 2,301 in June 2019, according to the Office of the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, which provided Injustice Watch with the number of monthly circuit court filings.

The key difference, according to an April press release from the chief judge’s office, is how the cases resolve. As of that month, fewer than 10% of post-moratorium eviction cases had ended with the sheriff removing a tenant, compared with nearly 25% of the eviction cases filed during the same period two years earlier. The county attributes that decrease to the success of new court-based programs that aim to help resolve tenants’ cases before the sheriff shows up at their door.

“I am happy to see that efforts by legal services providers and volunteers, plus rental assistance, are helping to prevent evictions in Cook County and keeping people in their homes during these challenging times,” said Chief Judge Timothy Evans in the April press release.

But that rosy picture may not tell the whole story, given that tenants such as Beltran often move out after a judge orders their eviction but before the sheriff’s office enforces it.

In January, Injustice Watch made a request to Evans’ office for data on eviction cases filed during the pandemic, including the number of eviction orders issued by the courts. The chief judge’s office initially denied the request, citing a 2021 state law that sealed eviction cases filed between March 2020 and March 2022. The Covid-19 Federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program Act, intended to shield pandemic-impacted renters from long-term consequences, allows for the release of sealed files for “scholarly, educational, journalistic, or governmental purposes” via a court order. Earlier this month, Injustice Watch filed an application with Judge Kenneth Wright, who presides over the First Municipal District, for such an order granting access to the sealed eviction files. The application was granted July 20, and Injustice Watch is awaiting delivery of the data.

In the meantime, it remains unclear how many renters are being ordered out of their homes each month. And with the possibility of rental assistance programs winding down, it’s also uncertain how long any drop in evictions will last.

“Many people are experiencing economic hardship due to the pandemic and other factors,” the chief judge’s office responded by email this week when asked about the outcomes of eviction prevention efforts. “That includes both landlords and tenants. All evictions cannot be prevented.” But a countywide legal aid initiative, the office said, “has helped thousands of people, both landlords and tenants, get help.”

Evictions by the numbers

A sign reads,

(Photo via the Chicago Tenants' Movement)

A Chicago Tenants’ Movement assembly in July 2021, three months before Illinois’ eviction moratorium expired.

Beltran moved into her home with her partner and children in October 2018. Even though there were issues that made the apartment nearly “unliveable” — cockroaches, leaky pipes, and a prolonged heating outage, according to Beltran — it was a stable home in a rapidly gentrifying area. Then her partner abruptly left in October 2021.

“We separated about four months after we moved in, but he stayed for a while as a roommate, essentially,” Beltran said during an interview conducted in Spanish. “He paid the rent, and I paid the light and internet bills. In October, I came to Rockford with my kids to visit my brothers, but when we came back, he was gone.”

When the landlord told Beltran that she would now be responsible for the rent, she demanded repairs.

“I told him I’d pay him his rent, but I told him he needed to fix the apartment because I couldn’t keep living like that,” Beltran said.

Beltran said the unit had no heat in the winter, a violation of Chicago’s Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance that can entitle tenants to withhold rent or terminate their leases. Her children would spend extra time at school to do homework and stay warm. Despite promises to make the repairs that she’d been asking for, such as fumigating the unit for cockroaches and fixing leaky pipes, the landlord never completed them, Beltran said.

On March 17, Beltran’s landlord served her a notice, saying she had five days to come up with five months’ rent or face the immediate termination of her lease. Such five-day notices are one of the first steps in the eviction process, after which landlords can proceed with an eviction suit.

Beltran is active in Palenque LSNA, a community organization serving Logan Square that provided Injustice Watch with copies of the landlord’s and sheriff’s notices that she received. Beltran and Palenque LSNA said that, because of broken mailboxes in the apartment, she did not receive notice of her court dates or have an opportunity to defend herself. After Beltran moved out to avoid eviction by the sheriff, Palenque LSNA launched a fundraiser to help her secure a new apartment.

From January 2009 to December 2019, nearly 23,000 households were taken to eviction court annually in Chicago, according to an eviction tracker created by the Chicago nonprofit Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing (LCBH). On average, 60% of those cases ended in eviction orders.

The number of evictions ultimately enforced by the sheriff is typically lower. For cases filed between 2017 and 2019, judges in Cook County issued about 9,500 eviction orders per year on average, according to LCBH’s data. The sheriff’s office enforced an average of about 7,400 evictions per year during that same period, according to data from the office. The median number of days between an eviction order and the enforcement of that eviction by the sheriff was 48 days.

LCBH began tracking and making eviction data publicly available in 2017, according to Executive Director Mark Swartz.

In addition to showing the disparate impact of eviction in different communities, the tracker helped break down eviction outcomes beyond the number of cases filed, Swartz said.

That put advocates in a better position to inform policymakers. “It’s hard to challenge what somebody is saying — even if it’s anecdotal — if you don’t have the data,” he said.

“I’d go into these legislative hearings, and people would be announcing, ‘Evictions take six months to go to completion.’ Well, that’s not true. But if that’s what you believe, then you’re going to amend the law accordingly,” he added.

The tracker project paused during the pandemic because of the moratorium and the law sealing eviction filings. Swartz said advocates supported the move to seal eviction cases, which can negatively impact tenants’ housing prospects in the future. Landlords are more likely to reject an applicant with an eviction case on their record, even if the tenant ultimately wins in court.

“The culture judges people so harshly who have an eviction on their [rental] record, and we know that happens at the filing stage. So people are being painted with a scarlet letter ‘E’ just because somebody filed something,” Swartz said.

The sealing of the cases provided a safety net for tenants, but now the inaccessibility of what was once easy-to-get data proves troublesome. Swartz said his organization’s tracker is now missing about two years’ worth of information.

“It is problematic that we can’t get access to the data,” Swartz said. Without comprehensive data, it’s hard to really know what’s happening. “It’ll be interesting to see where things fall after this two-year gap. Is it just going to be as it was before, or have there been some changes? We don’t know. There are so many unknowns.”

A new day in court

To blunt the impact of the pandemic on tenants, the federal government has provided billions of dollars in rental assistance to state and local governments. Cook County’s Emergency Rental and Utility Assistance program has distributed close to $139 million to date, including $33 million for applicants facing eviction, according to the county’s dashboard. During the last two years, Cook County and the city of Chicago have run several rounds of rental assistance programs to which either tenants or landlords could apply for help with overdue rent.

With all rounds now closed, the only way for tenants to access rental assistance is through the courts, after an eviction case had already been filed against them.

Cook County also launched a new initiative in 2020, Cook County Legal Aid for Housing and Debt, to provide free legal assistance and counseling through an Early Resolution Program available to tenants facing eviction, homeowners with defaulted mortgage payments, and other residents with consumer debt issues.

In July, a revamping of the Early Resolution Program changed how eviction cases progress through the court. Where tenants could previously show up to court and receive an eviction judgment against them on the same day, they now receive a continuance and referrals to rental assistance, legal aid, and court-appointed mediation at their first court date. If an agreement is reached, or the tenant qualifies for rental assistance, the case may be dismissed.

Dennericka Brooks, director of Legal Aid Chicago’s Housing Practice Group, said this approach can help both tenants and landlords who missed out on earlier rounds of rental assistance.

“You’re also helping landlords, especially small mom and pop [landlords] to continue to pay their mortgages and to pay their bills, whereas they may not be able to get those funds in any other way,” Brooks said.

Javier Ruiz, an eviction prevention specialist at the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, another local housing nonprofit, remains skeptical of the narrative that an eviction crisis has been averted. Even during the moratorium, informal or outright illegal evictions continued via illegal tactics like landlords changing the locks and turning off utilities, Ruiz said.

In May, the group circulated a graphic showing that it had received more than 2,000 calls about eviction to its tenants’ rights hotline so far this year.

“Government officials could make the argument that, yes, legal court evictions aren’t high, but that doesn’t dismiss unofficial evictions that go on like rent increases, notices to vacate, or landlord harassment,” Ruiz said. He emphasized that these unofficial evictions are “often overlooked” and says the city of Chicago is slow to enforce disciplinary actions against landlords who engage in illegal tenant practices.

“Just because [a case] doesn’t make it to court, doesn’t make it less of a problem,” Ruiz said.

Carlos Ballesteros contributed reporting for this story.

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