Mayor Johnson sets sights on enshrining right to counsel for Chicago tenants in eviction court

Despite a lack of data on the right-to-counsel pilot program, city officials and advocates say expanding it is a necessary step to help stem the tide of evictions in Chicago.

Abel Uribe for Injustice Watch

Colleen Peters, 52, stands outside her apartment building in Oak Park, Illinois, on Oct. 27. Peters’ landlord twice filed to evict her, but an attorney from the Law Center for Better Housing helped her reach a settlement allowing her to stay in the unit until April.

In March, Colleen Peters was in Cook County eviction court for the second time in less than a year.

The 52-year-old had lost her job as a United Airlines flight attendant in 2020 and fell behind on rent in the two-bedroom apartment she shares with her 17-year-old daughter in Oak Park. The first eviction case, in July of last year, was dismissed because she had been approved for rental assistance. Like the vast majority of tenants in eviction court, Peters represented herself.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” she said. “I was having panic attacks, stressed thinking the policeman was going to come put me out on the sidewalk. I was depressed and anxious. It was a horrible time.”

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By the start of this year, Peters still hadn’t found a new job, and she fell behind on rent again. Although her landlord agreed to apply with her for rental assistance again, he filed an eviction case before the application was approved. The landlord argued she had already used her one chance under the law to pay back rent to stay in her unit.

This time, Peters was referred to lawyers from the Law Center for Better Housing, one of several legal aid organizations that provide free representation to tenants in eviction court.

By the time her lawyer, Michelle Gilbert, joined the case, Peters’ rental assistance had gone through. Gilbert argued by accepting the rental assistance money, the landlord had agreed not to evict her. Eventually, she was able to secure a settlement that gave Peters until April to move out.

Peters’ landlord could not be reached for comment.

“What would have happened if the tenant had gone in alone? Obviously, I can’t know,” said Gilbert, who is the legal and policy director at the Law Center for Better Housing. “I have seen many articulate unrepresented tenants try to get up and try to present an argument and still end up evicted. I feel if she had not had an attorney, it is unlikely that she would have prevailed on her own.”

To help tenants who would otherwise be left to navigate the complexities of eviction court on their own, Chicago launched a pilot program with the Law Center for Better Housing and other nonprofits last year to give free representation to low-income tenants. The three-year pilot program, known as right to counsel, was funded with $8 million in federal Covid-19 relief money.

Just over a year into the pilot program, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson is moving to make it permanent and expand it to all low-income tenants facing eviction in Chicago.

Under the ordinance proposed by Johnson in September, anyone facing eviction who makes less than 80% of the area median income — about $88,000 for a family of four — would have access to at least a brief legal consultation and the possibility of free ongoing legal representation.

Advocates and city officials said the right-to-counsel pilot has already helped hundreds of tenants stay in their homes longer or avoid a permanent eviction record. More than 1,000 households received free legal counsel through the program in its first 14 months, according to the city, though that’s a fraction of the nearly 20,000 eviction cases filed in the city last year.

City officials and the nonprofits that run the pilot program have failed to provide evidence the program has improved outcomes for tenants in eviction court. A promised evaluation of the program by Stout, a global investment bank and consulting company that has analyzed several similar programs across the country, has not yet been completed. And the Law Center for Better Housing, which runs the program on behalf of the city, said it doesn’t have data that shows whether tenants who received assistance from attorneys fared better than those who haven’t.

Instead, officials point to the success of right-to-counsel programs in other cities and previous research showing the benefit of having legal representation in eviction court. A 2019 report by the Law Center for Better Housing found having a legal aid attorney decreased the chances of a tenant getting an eviction order by about 25%.

“There is certainly enough evidence that having a lawyer makes a difference to tenants facing eviction, and it’s worth moving in this direction,” said Daniel Hertz, director of policy, research, and legislative affairs at the Chicago Department of Housing.

More than a year after the pilot program started, eviction filings and sheriff-enforced evictions are climbing to near pre-pandemic levels, while more than 90% of tenants still appear in eviction court without a lawyer by their side, according to an Injustice Watch analysis of county court data.

Gilbert said eviction court “is so much better than it used to be” for tenants, which she credited to the right-to-counsel program, rental assistance, and other court-based reforms. But she acknowledged legal assistance on its own won’t address the severe lack of affordable housing in the city.

More than 14,000 eviction cases were filed in Chicago through September, putting the city on pace to nearly match last year’s total. The number of evictions enforced by the Cook County sheriff is also increasing. In the first half of 2023, the sheriff evicted 3,500 households, compared to 4,800 in all of 2022.

City officials said they haven’t figured out how much it will cost to expand the right-to-counsel program to all low-income tenants citywide. The proposed ordinance gives the city council until July 1, 2027 — after Johnson will face reelection — to sort out the details.

“What is pending is the scope, learning the unique characteristics of our city, and, based on that, com(ing) up with a budget allocation,” said Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th Ward, who chairs the council’s Housing and Real Estate Committee. He said alderpeople are still being briefed on the proposal, and he plans to bring the ordinance up for a committee hearing in the coming months.

How right to counsel makes a difference

An illustration showing a lawyer holding a tenants hand as they navigate a thorny tree with symbols of the court system — an judge, an eviction notice, paperwork — all around them.

Illustration by Verónica Martinez

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson has proposed expanding the city’s right-to-counsel program to provide legal representation to all low-income tenants in eviction court.

Right-to-counsel initiatives have been cropping up across the country as one solution to the housing and eviction crisis that has continued to grow since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. At least 17 cities, one county, and four states have enacted some right-to-counsel measure for tenants in eviction court in the past four years, according to the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, which advocates for such laws.

In Philadelphia, which launched a right-to-counsel program in two ZIP codes last year, represented tenants saw slightly lower rates of default judgments and lockouts and higher rates of their cases being withdrawn than tenants without lawyers, according to an initial evaluation. In Cleveland, about 75% of right-to-counsel clients in 2022 avoided an eviction judgment or an involuntary move. In Connecticut, which passed a statewide right-to-counsel program in 2021, three-quarters of tenants whose goal was to avoid a formal eviction were able to do so, according to an evaluation by Stout. (Some tenants’ goal is just to secure more time to move out.)

Advocates say right-to-counsel programs level the playing field between landlords and tenants. Nationwide, 83% of landlords have attorneys, on average, compared to only 4% of tenants.

Before the right-to-counsel program in Philadelphia, tenants would sometimes agree to payment plans they knew they couldn’t keep up with to avoid getting evicted, said Catherine Anderson, a housing attorney at Philadelphia Legal Assistance. But those agreements would lead to worse outcomes later when tenants couldn’t come up with the money.

“Having more attorneys there … helps tenants get better outcomes for themselves, as opposed to tenants being just kind of scared and saying anything that they think will keep them in their homes,” she said.

Under Philadelphia’s right-to-counsel program, nearly 40% of tenants in the two pilot ZIP codes received free attorney representation.

Research by Stout in other cities also suggests right-to-counsel programs can save cities money in the long run. Between 2020 and 2022, Cleveland and the surrounding county spent $4.5 million on its right-to-counsel program but saved between $11 million and $14 million in costs related to housing social safety nets, health care spending, and out-of-home foster care placements. Stout estimated Connecticut saved at least $5.8 million in 10 months of its right-to-counsel program last year.

Why right to counsel might not be enough

In cities where right-to-counsel programs have been most effective at reducing evictions, it’s because they have been paired with other eviction court reforms and robust rental assistance funding, advocates suggest.

In Philadelphia, which saw one of the most significant drops in eviction filings of any major city last year, most landlords must participate in a 30-day mediation program with their tenant before they can even file an eviction case. The city saw a 24% reduction in eviction filings in the first half of this year compared with the first half of 2019, according to data compiled by Philadelphia Legal Assistance.

Cook County’s equivalent of eviction diversion is the circuit court’s early resolution program, which provides mediation services and limited legal assistance to landlords and tenants to encourage them to settle eviction cases. However, unlike Philadelphia, landlords aren’t required to participate in mediation, and the program doesn’t start until after the case has been filed.

Chicago advocates also said the city, county, and Illinois should continue to invest in rental assistance programs after pandemic-era funding dries up. Currently, tenants across the state who are in eviction court can qualify for up to $25,000 in rental assistance through the Illinois Housing Development Authority’s court-based rental assistance program. Advocates said they’re working with elected officials at all levels of government to ensure rental assistance continues after federal pandemic relief funding for it runs out in 2025.

Sigcho-Lopez said the mayor and city council allies also want to push for other policies, including advancing a “just cause” eviction ordinance that stalled in the city council last year, which would prevent landlords from evicting tenants without reason.

“[Right to counsel] is a policy that, on its own, is not a silver bullet” but has to be part of a “comprehensive approach” that includes building more affordable and public housing, Sigcho-Lopez said. “We understand that everything is not going to be solved overnight.”

Emily Benfer, a professor at George Washington University Law School and visiting research collaborator at Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, said cities have to invest heavily in rental assistance and other safety-net programs, strengthen protections for tenants in eviction court, and raise the threshold for landlords to file for eviction while also working to build more affordable housing.

“It’s going to take a very significant overhaul of the system to actually address the eviction crisis that’s been plaguing the country for a very long time,” she said.

For Peters, the immediate crisis is behind her. She’s been working full time as an insurance agent since July, and she’s caught up on rent. Although she has until spring to move out of her apartment, she doesn’t intend to stay there until then. She said she’ll start apartment hunting after the holidays.

“I think I’m gonna be OK now,” she said. “It just seems like everything is falling into place.”

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