Observations on the Mayor's Poverty Summit by Mark Swartz

Mayor's Poverty Summit

I had the privilege to attend Mayor Lightfoot's Chicago Solutions Towards Ending Poverty (STEP) Summit on February 20, 2020. The Summit convened academics, researchers, artists, grassroots community activists, business leaders, and government officials to launch a year-long movement to address poverty and economic hardship affecting Chicago residents. Among the many thoughtful panel discussions, a few remarks stood out to me. Dr. Luke Shaefer, from the University of Michigan, stated, "we can also intervene to make sure people have more money so that they can pay more of their rent." LCBH couldn’t agree more!

One of the key findings our Chicago Evictions Data Portal revealed is that 82% of Chicago eviction cases filed in 2010-17 made claims for back rent. In 18%, the rent owed was less than $1,000, and an additional 44% were under $2,500. LCBH's new Court-Based Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program provides eligible Chicago renters with supportive services, free legal aid, and access to State Homelessness Prevention Funds—up to $5,000—for back rent and or security deposits as a means of resolving unpaid rent claims.

Dr. Ariel Kalil, from the University of Chicago, highlighted that "for young children, this [eviction] is particularly deleterious to their mental health and their emotional well-being." Dr. Kalil’s insight brought to mind a new partnership this year that LCBH has developed with George Leland Elementary School to run school-based clinics offering brief advice to parents on issues such as tenant rights and assistance with landlord disputes. Through the clinics, we hope to prevent children and families from being uprooted from their homes, school, and community.

While much of what I heard at the Summit affirmed that LCBH is on the right track, I realized that Chicago still has a lot of work left to do to ensure justice and equity in eviction court. Dr. Luke Shaefer, got it right when he said that "If I’m looking at policies directly on eviction, I like Right to Counsel a lot." So does LCBH!

Right to Counsel means that a renter in eviction court has the right to an attorney. Our data revealed that between 2010 and 2017, Chicago saw an average of 23,000 eviction cases filed per year. In those cases, 79% of landlords had attorneys, while only 11% of tenants did. When renters do not have an attorney, 36% lose their case the first time in front of the judge; with an attorney, that likelihood is nearly eliminated (3%). The benefits of having an attorney are profoundly more significant when a civil legal aid provider represents the tenant. 50% of cases where private attorneys represented tenants resulted in eviction orders. Legal aid representation resulted in eviction orders, only 22% of the time!

Fortunately, this idea seemed to catch the Mayor’s attention as well. In her closing remarks, she said, "I heard someone say today to give more people lawyers in eviction court. Amen to that." She then went on to acknowledge the legal aid attorneys in the room working on this. LCBH hopes that Chicago will soon join New York, Newark, San Francisco, and Cleveland in passing Right to Counsel legislation.

I’m proud that these statements and discussions from the Summit aligned with the direction LCBH is moving towards to address the eviction crisis in Chicago as it is a primary driver of displacement, racial and gender inequity, and poverty.

Mark Swartz