Mark's Musings – June 2021 Edition

LCBH Executive Director Mark Swartz

Summer's finally here and it feels like things are slowly starting to get back to normal again. I was elated to go to the Justice Entrepreneurial Project's graduation - my first in-person work event since the pandemic. Congrats to the JEP grads.

As things continue to normalize, I hope that the eviction court will evolve into a place where resources are adequately distributed before a rush to evict. With the judicious use of emergency rental assistance coupled with legal assistance in court, nonpayment cases don’t need to end in eviction. And once we return to normal, we still must contend with the ongoing housing crisis: there is not enough affordable housing and too many tenants are severely rent-burdened, with more and more of their income going to just covering rent.

For the past 15 months I have been anxious about what will happen when eviction courts reopen. The governor recently announced he will phase out the eviction moratorium in August, with some non-pandemic cases allowed to proceed after June 25th. Since the influx of rental assistance and other interventions— like the county’s Early Resolution Program—I’ve been somewhat optimistic that much of the eviction court backlog would resolve itself. But when eviction court goes back to normal this August, I can only hope that the court will allow time for any additional rounds of emergency rental assistance to be distributed.

While the Chicago Emergency Rental Assistance portal has closed to individual tenants and landlords, it remains open to delegate agency processors. I am excited to report that LCBH's supportive services team has been trained as direct processors for the Chicago Emergency Rental Assistance program. As court reopens, LCBH's Court-based Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program case managers will assist renters in accessing rental assistance in court. LCBH clients may be eligible for up to 15 months of assistance to cover past due rent from the previous 12 months, future rental assistance for the next three months, and unpaid utilities up to $25,000. Click here for information on how to apply for LCBH’s services, including rental assistance.

As court reopens, LCBH is also participating in Cook County's Early Resolution Program (ERP) offering renters in eviction court free legal aid and connections to other resources, such as rental assistance. The Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice Eviction Form Subcommittee, which I currently chair, has fast-tracked several agreed eviction settlement forms to help facilitate ERP settlements. See my blog post, New court forms for renters help you avoid an eviction on your record. For cases that do not settle through the ERP, LCBH will take referrals to defend renters in eviction court through a grant under the city of Chicago's Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP).

Some of the policies that LCBH has advocated for over the years to reduce eviction (such as rental assistance), or to mitigate the damage wrought by eviction court (such as eviction sealing legislation and right to counsel protections) have garnered interest during the pandemic. I’m happy to report that on May 17, 2021 the COVID-19 Emergency Housing Act was signed into law to protect renters being evicted during the pandemic and its aftermath. The Act requires the sealing of all residential evictions filed between March 9, 2020 and March 31, 2022, with limited unsealing only if a judgment is entered and the eviction was not simply for back rent. Additionally, through July 31, 2022, the COVID-19 Emergency Housing Act allows the landlord and tenant to agree to seal the eviction as part of the Agreed Order. So, even if the eviction was not filed between March 2020 and March 2021, while the emergency housing law is in effect, Agreed Orders in eviction court may include eviction sealing as a binding term of any settlement.

I’m disappointed to report a setback in our litigation to enforce the Keep Chicago Renting Ordinance (KCRO) protections for renters in living in buildings in foreclosure. An appellate court has struck down the KCRO as unlawful rent control. The Rent Control Preemption Act of 1997 is being used to limit any regulation of unreasonable rent increases by purchasers of foreclosed properties. While the appeal process has not concluded, the city is already proposing an amendment to the KCRO to remove the problematic language. For more perspective on why the KCRO is important, check-out this month's this alumni profile featuring Charles Nicholls and Rachel Blake.
Finally, I want to take a moment to honor the passing of a great colleague, Maria Elena Sifuentes, who was among the leading community organizers at Albany Park Neighborhood Council (APNC), now Communities United, who advocated for the passage of the KCRO. Maria Elena was taken from us and her five children by COVID-19. Reading coverage of Maria Elena, I see that she was involved in so many important campaigns to work toward equity in our communities. She was a powerful advocate and will be missed.