For tenants in Cook County, eviction is a high-stakes but often-bewildering legal process. And unlike landlords, tenants typically lack attorneys to help them navigate it. Between 2010 and 2019, an average of just 11% of Chicago tenants facing eviction lawsuits had legal representation each year, compared to 81% of landlords, according to the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing.
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Programs introduced in the Cook County Circuit Court during the Covid-19 pandemic aim to change that. Where tenants could previously get an eviction judgment at their first court appearance, a countywide Early Resolution Program now provides an automatic continuance for renters at their first court hearing and connects them to resources — including legal aid and rental assistance —that could help them avoid an eviction judgment.
The city of Chicago also recently launched a right-to-counsel pilot program with $8 million from the federal stimulus package. Cities including Cleveland, Philadelphia, and New York City already guarantee attorneys for low-income defendants in eviction cases. While Chicago’s pilot program isn’t fully operational yet and won’t cover everyone facing eviction, the city says it hopes to eventually double the number of tenants with representation.
To access help, it’s critical that tenants show up to court, said Michelle Gilbert, legal and policy director at the LCBH, one of four legal aid groups providing services through the right-to-counsel pilot program.
“You can get hooked up with an attorney who can give you advice. And the way to do that is by going to court,” Gilbert said. To apply for rental assistance, tenants facing eviction should contact Cook County Legal Aid for Housing and Debt as soon as they receive a court summons.
Injustice Watch is continuing to cover eviction court and the efforts to keep Cook County residents in their homes. Here’s what you need to know about navigating eviction proceedings.
Illustrations by Verónica Martinez
1. Reasons for eviction
In Cook County, eviction can be initiated when:
- The tenant falls behind on rent
- The tenant violates the lease
- The landlord wants the tenant out
Without rent control and “just cause” eviction laws, no reason is needed to raise rents or to refuse to renew a tenant’s lease. If a tenant refuses to leave, their landlord can then file for eviction.
Within the City of Chicago, the landlord must give “fair notice” before raising the rent or deciding not to renew a lease — 30 days for month-to-month tenants, 60 days for tenancies of six months to three years, and 120 days for more than three years. In most of suburban Cook County, the landlord must give 60 days’ notice.
2. Landlord gives notice
The landlord delivers notice to tenant instructing them to:
- Pay late rent within five days.
- Remedy a lease violation within 10 days.
- Find a new place within 30 to 120 days, depending on their length of residency.
If the tenant complies with the notice — or if the landlord failed to give proper notice — the eviction shouldn’t proceed.
3. Landlord files eviction case
Nearly 30,000 evictions were filed in Cook County in 2019.
New eviction filings decreased during the pandemic eviction moratorium but have now rebounded. As of July 31, more than 16,000 evictions had been filed in Cook County this year.
4. Tenant served court summons
Sheriff’s deputies try to deliver summons in person to someone 13 years old or older at the unit.
If that fails, the landlord can use a private company to deliver the summons or, with the judge’s permission, post a summons at the courthouse and mail a copy to the tenant.
5. First court appearance
Most hearings continue to happen virtually, with the option to go to the courthouse in person. Zoom links for Cook County courtrooms are available online.
At the first hearing:
- Tenants without lawyers are referred to legal aid, rental assistance, and/or court-appointed mediation.
- The case is continued for 14 days, even if the tenant does not appear. If the tenant appears, the case is usually continued for 28 days.
6. Second court appearance
At the second hearing in an eviction case, there are a few possible outcomes:
- Case dismissed — if the parties resolve the dispute through rental assistance, a payment plan, a move-out date, or other agreement.
- Case continued — if the parties agree to more time.
- Case sent to trial — if the parties cannot reach an agreement, the judge sets a trial date.
- Default judgment for eviction — if the tenant fails to appear again, the judge issues an eviction order.
Most eviction cases in Cook County are heard by judges; requests for a jury trial should be filed before the second court date. After the judge or jury hears evidence, the case can resolve several different ways:
- The tenant agrees to move out — often to avoid eviction.
- The tenant can stay — if they secure rental assistance, reach an agreement, or successfully present defenses. In Chicago and most of suburban Cook County, tenants also have a one-time “pay and stay” right to pay all the rent due, plus court costs, to get a dismissal.
Judgment for landlord
- Judge typically orders a stay of the eviction to give the tenant time to move out. The amount of time is up to the judge; a tenant can also ask for more.
- As of 2019, an average of 60% of eviction cases in Chicago each year ended in eviction judgements, including default judgements.
A judge can order the eviction file sealed, if the tenant and the landlord agree.
8. Eviction by sheriff
Once the stay expires, the landlord files an eviction order with the sheriff.
From 2017 to 2019, the median time for the sheriff to carry out an eviction was 48 days, but many tenants move out before then. Evictions continue in the winter, except for around Christmas and New Year’s Day, or when temperatures drop below 15 degrees.
Legal resources for people facing eviction
If you’re a Cook County resident facing eviction or other housing-related issues, a number of organizations offer advice and legal help.
Cook County Legal Aid for Housing and Debt
Call hotline at 855 956 5763, Monday-Friday from 9:00 AM -4:30 PM.
Or visit https://www.cookcountylegalaid.org/
Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing
Call 312 347 7600 for intake or referrals
Or visit https://rentervention.com/
Metropolitan Tenants’ Organization
Call hotline at 773-292-4988, Monday-Friday from 1:00-5:00pm
Or visit https://www.squaredawaychicago.com/