Tenants and advocates call for Just Cause Ordinance to end no-fault evictions

An ordinance that has stalled in the Chicago City Council would protect renters from being evicted through no fault of their own and require landlords to provide relocation assistance.

A group of older Black people in coats stand outside a white brick building with signs that read Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and Lugenia Burns Hope Center. One woman stands in front with a puffy blue coat and a mask.

Grace Asiegbu

Carolyn Hardwick (center), Donna Mayfield (center-right) and other tenants of 4351 S. King Drive hosted a press conference Oct. 21 to demand financial assistance after PIP Realty, which manages the building, gave them no-fault termination notices over the summer. An ordinance pending in the Chicago City Council would protect renters from no-fault evictions and require landlords to provide relocation assistance.

When Donna Mayfield moved into her third-floor unit in a white brick building at the corner of 44th Street and King Drive in 1994, it felt like a homecoming. Mayfield, 66, had been living in Uptown for five years, after moving out of Stateway Gardens in 1989. She loved being back on the South Side, where she felt at ease, she said.

Mayfield raised her two sons in her two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bathroom apartment and lived there for 27 years without issue, always paying her rent on time, she said. So she was shocked and confused when she came home to a notice on her door in July from a new management company saying that she had two months to find a new place to live or face eviction.

“It was like, ‘What is going on? This is unreal,’” she said. “It was like someone punched me in my gut.”

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Mayfield soon learned that the management company, PIP Realty Group, had served similar notices to all the building’s residents. The notices came just a few months after a limited liability company registered to a health care executive in Ohio bought the 18-unit building for $1.9 million, according to public records. PIP Realty and the building’s owner did not respond to attempts to reach them.

Evictions such as this, when the tenant has done nothing wrong, are called no-fault or no-cause evictions, and they are legal in Chicago as long as the landlord gives the tenant enough notice. Advocates say no-cause evictions speed the pace of gentrification and price out longtime renters such as Mayfield, leading to further neighborhood destabilization and more demand for an insufficient supply of affordable housing.

The patchwork of state, local, and federal Covid-19 rental assistance programs do not offer protections from this kind of eviction or provide relocation assistance for those who have been pushed out of their apartments. With the lifting of the state eviction moratorium earlier this month, advocates are worried that landlords will use no-cause evictions to clear out buildings, so they can raise rents.

“During the pandemic, the combination of a booming housing market and a population facing more adversity than ever has meant that no-fault evictions act as a deadly force,” said Sam Clendenning, a community organizer at the Metropolitan Tenants Organization.

An ordinance introduced in the Chicago City Council last year, known as the Just Cause Ordinance, would protect renters from no-cause evictions and require landlords to provide relocation assistance when they move to evict renters who are not at fault. The council’s housing and real estate committee had a hearing on the bill in September, but it has since stalled.

Supporters of the Just Cause Ordinance say it’s long past time for the city to act to protect renters from no-fault evictions, which like all types of eviction, disproportionately affect low-income renters of color such as Mayfield and many of her neighbors. Groups representing property owners have pushed back on the Just Cause Ordinance, saying it infringes on the property rights of landlords.

“Just cause would not prevent the clearing of buildings, but it would ensure those residents have the financial security to remain in the neighborhoods they call home and the financial safety net to avoid periods of homelessness,” Clendenning said.

No-fault evictions account for about one-quarter of the 24,000 eviction cases filed in Chicago in an average year, according to estimates from the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, a nonprofit that tracks evictions. But researchers suggest that thousands of more renters are pushed out each year like Mayfield and her neighbors were — without a formal eviction ever being filed.

Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st Ward), a member of the council’s Progressive Reform Caucus and one of the ordinance’s co-sponsors, said he’s seen no-fault evictions displace “hundreds if not thousands of Latinos” in his Northwest Side ward, which includes parts of Logan Square and Humboldt Park. He said the Just Cause Ordinance is fundamentally a racial justice issue, since evictions are disproportionately filed against Black and Latino renters and Black women in particular. Six of the 10 neighborhoods with the highest numbers of evictions in Chicago are at least 80% Black.

“It is a commonsense thing that you should not be able to be put out of your apartment without cause,” La Spata said. “This really is a foundational issue and ordinance if we’re going to be serious about racial justice in the city of Chicago.”

A campaign for ‘just cause’ 40 years in the making

Tenants-rights advocates have been pushing for legislation that would ban no-fault evictions for decades. The Metropolitan Tenants Organization was born out of a 1981 campaign for a solution to the city’s affordable-housing crisis, which included calls for a just-cause ordinance, a tenants’ bill of rights, and a fair-rental ordinance that would limit arbitrary rent increases. The city council passed the Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance five years later, but there’s been no real movement forward on a just-cause ordinance until now.

The Just Cause Ordinance that’s currently pending in the city council would establish seven “just grounds” for ending a tenant’s lease, including nonpayment of rent, disruption to neighbors, or damage to property. The bill also recognizes other reasons that a landlord could want a tenant to move out, such as to move into the unit, rehab it, or take it off the market entirely. But in those instances, the landlord would have to provide the renter with ample notice and five times the city’s median monthly rent to help them find new housing and move.

The ordinance also would create a rental registry and would require all landlords to pay an annual registration fee, with the goals of increasing transparency about the owners of rental properties in the city and making it easier to address problems.

Last year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced her support for a just-cause ordinance in a speech at the City Club of Chicago. But a few months later, she introduced a “fair notice” ordinance, which increased the amount of time that a landlord has to give a tenant before terminating a lease or raising the rent, but didn’t ban no-fault evictions.

A spokesperson for Lightfoot was noncommittal about whether the mayor would back the bill in its current version.

“The administration supported the subject matter hearing as a productive step to publicly discuss this proposal, as well as the various issues raised by aldermen, small, and nonprofit property owners,” the spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement. “There are still concerns related to the relocation payments, as well as questions about how a rental registry would be funded and staffed.”

Kristopher J. Anderson, director of government and external affairs at the Chicago Association of Realtors, said the Just Cause Ordinance presents a “great impediment to the private property rights” of building owners. He gave the example of a hypothetical tenant who “disrupts the harmony of the building” by “always complaining or making life hard on their neighbors” but whose behavior isn’t criminal.

“Under just cause, you could not ask that person to leave anymore, or you’d have to go to court to show a material breach of the contract,” he said.

He also said the fair-notice ordinance passed by the city council last year already addressed many of the issues caused by no-fault evictions.

But Annie Howard, the equity and operations organizer at the Chicago Housing Justice League, a coalition of organizations lobbying for the Just Cause Ordinance, said landlords paying for relocation costs is the crux of the issue.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t do a ton of good for someone to have just a few more months to move out of an apartment if they can’t afford to move,” she said. “Fair notice doesn’t really solve that fundamental problem.”

Residents in Bronzeville call for relocation assistance and more time

Finding housing in the current market can be difficult, even for those who are financially secure. But it’s even harder for someone such as Mayfield, who lives on a fixed income and whose rent is subsidized with a housing voucher from the Chicago Housing Authority. Mayfield was born with sickle cell anemia, and complications from her condition have made it hard for her to work and also made it difficult to travel all over the city looking for new housing.

“I had reserved in my mind that I was going to be homeless,” Mayfield told Injustice Watch, fighting back tears. “And at the time, I had nothing. I didn’t know what I was going to do. They made me feel like, ‘Get out; you don’t belong there.’”

Mayfield and other residents of 4351-4359 S. King Drive hosted a press conference with advocacy groups last week to call on PIP Realty to provide relocation assistance and more time to find new housing.

Mayfield, wearing a blue surgical mask and two vests in the windy weather, said she was so afraid when she got the eviction notice that she couldn’t eat or sleep.

Carolyn Hardwick, another longtime tenant in the building, said what the management company was doing was “not right,” a phrase that the residents standing behind her echoed as if she was preaching.

“Landlords should not be allowed to do this to people,” she said.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) facilitated a meeting between the tenants and PIP Realty after the press conference. The management company has given some residents more time to move out.

In an unexpected stroke of luck, Mayfield was able to secure a new place — only it’s back on the North Side in Cabrini Green, far away from the home that she’d spent nearly 30 years cultivating in Bronzeville. Her new place is a smaller one-bedroom, one-bathroom, so she had to downsize, leaving behind things such as the armoire where she kept family photos and her beloved deep freezer where she stored meat, vegetables, and frozen dinners, which kept her from having to go to the grocery store weekly.

Since moving into her new apartment Oct. 17, Mayfield has been trying to adjust to her new normal, but she said it’s been difficult to let go of her old home. She’s grateful to be housed, but the stress of facing an eviction has taken its toll on her.

“I loved my place. I had no thoughts, intentions, or anything to move. I never thought I would be in this situation and the way it came about. I just want to walk away because I’m not happy here,” she said. “I feel like I just want to disappear.”

Correction (Nov. 1): Due to a clerical error on the city clerk’s website, a previous version of this story misidentified the city council committee where the Just Cause Ordinance is pending.

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