Time to Move: The Denial of Tenants' Rights in Chicago's Eviction Court

April 1996

Unfortunately, only old scans of this report are available.

The housing market in Chicago grows continually hostile to tenants, particularly those with low and moderate incomes. As the affordable housing market shrinks, the stakes to maintain housing rise, as does the value of possessing an affordable unit. When a tenant loses possession of her home, she has lost something of significant value. When a landlord loses the value of his rental unit (the monthly rent), he has lost something of significant value. Laws have been passed by state and local legislatures to define and govern the important landlord-tenant relationship. These laws recognize the relationship as a contractual one, in which an exchange occurs: rent money in exchange for a habitable place to live. When one of the parties fails to meet his part of the exchange, the judiciary often is called upon to make a ruling about who has the superior right to possession of the premises.

Unfortunately, experience and anecdotal evidence over the years indicated that eviction court was largely a landlord's forum a place where landlords could count on securing relief often without regard to the merits of their claim, while tenants remained severely underrepresented and unable to enforce their rights. This in fact was the conclusion reached in Judgment Landlord: A Study of Eviction Court in Chicago, a report published in 1976 by the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, the National Lawyers Guild, Chicago Chapter, and the Chicago Council of Lawyers. Therefore, in the summer of 1995, Lawyers' Committee for Better Housing (LCBH) undertook a study of Chicago's eviction court to determine the extent to which pro se tenants (tenants without legal representation) are able to assert and defend their legal rights.

This study, funded in part by the Policy Research Action Group of Loyola University, Chicago, took place between June and November, 1995. The primary data collection methods used to gather information about forcible actions included: 1) court observations by trained interns; 2) brief interviews with tenants after they had appeared in and exited the court; and 3) review of court files to obtain information not readily identifiable in court. Each of these methods provided different information about the operation of eviction court. Overall, data was captured on over 2,100 cases from the court observations which took place over a six week period, almost 60 tenants were interviewed and over 250 files were reviewed.

The data collected indicates that tenants' rights continue to be routinely disregarded by the court, almost twenty years after Judgment Landlord was published. Many tenants are, in fact, improperly evicted by the court. Many of the tenants who are improperly evicted are at great risk of homelessness. It is the hope of LCBH that this study can serve as catalyst to bring attention to, and action on behalf of, tenants in Chicago who suffer improper and unjustified, evictions. The results of the study clearly indicate strategies that should be immediately implemented to address the problem of improper evictions.