Welcome to LCBH’s Blog. Our blog delivers original articles written by our staff, interns and volunteers. We strive to provide informative stories about the work we do on behalf of Chicago renters and the issues renters face.
For this month’s Q&A, we sat down for a conversation with Noah Magaram, an LCBH staff attorney who focuses much of his work on eviction defense. A graduate of DePaul University College of Law, Noah came to LCBH in Fall 2011 as a volunteer, and has been a staff attorney since September 2012.
Q: What made you choose to work at a legal aid agency?
I resolved when applying to law school to enter a practice area that was oriented toward the public interest. I became interested in housing law specifically after writing a legislative history of the Fair Housing Act in undergrad.
Q: What program(s) do you work on at LCBH?
My time is spent mostly in the Tenant Advocacy Program. Most of my caseload is composed of eviction defense, with a minority of cases relating to affirmative lawsuits for illegal lockouts and Keep Chicago Renting Ordinance (KCRO) violation cases.
Q: How many cases are you working on at a time? How do you manage?
I usually have 30-40 open cases at any given time. I use our case management system and my calendar to schedule and document as many details of the cases as possible so that my mind is free to deal with the client in front of me.
We may not realize it, but many people are “one paycheck away from being homeless.” Unfortunately this is the reality for many of those we see at LCBH. They can pay for rent, utility bills, childcare costs, food, medicines, etc. only as long as their next paycheck lasts. For many individuals, a single paycheck can mean the difference between being housed and being homeless. At LCBH, the attorneys and social workers understand that being “at risk of homelessness” is rarely ever an isolated issue and is often related to greater issues of economics, mental health, familial stability, etc. Faced with situations in any of these areas, an individual can go from paying their bills on time to facing homelessness without the help of an external source.
Rachel Jones was on maternity leave when she arrived at LCBH with a 5-day notice for eviction due to non-payment of rent. Rachel is a mother to a happy-go-lucky nine-year-old son named Devon and recently gave birth to her daughter Grace. Together the family lives in a two-bedroom apartment that she has been renting for the last several years. Rachel’s top priority is taking care of her two children and her full-time job.
Amanda and George Fullerton have lived in Chicago all their lives. They had recently moved into a three-bedroom apartment, which costs $850 a month, on the Southside of the city with their adult daughter. George Fullerton makes a modest living as a truck driver and is the sole breadwinner for his family (his wife and daughter are not employed). The family lived peacefully in their home and paid their rent on time. This spring Mrs. Fullerton came to LCBH with a pending eviction case. She was confused, because she had recently paid rent and was unsure of why this case was being filed.
Apparently, George and Amanda had seen someone new around the property that had informed them that there was a “new owner” and that the previous owner had gone into foreclosure. The “new owner” assured the Fullertons that he would still be renting to them. That was the first and last time they ever heard from the new owner. An attorney at LCBH was able to access the case and explained to Mrs. Fullerton that she had not properly received the compliant and court summons. LCBH informed her that the case had been filed against unknown occupants by the purchaser at the foreclosure sale.
However, Mr. and Mrs. Fullerton had been known. They had signed a lease that was still valid until the end of October with the former landlord, their name was on the mailbox, and Mr. Fullerton had recently spoken to the new owner in March.
Edna is a funny, vibrant single mother of three small children. For five years she provided a wonderful home for her family in a building where she a great relationship with her landlord and property manager. Having a stable, decent and affordable place to call home gave her a lot of comfort and gave her the ability to focus on her job and her kids. She was looking forward to many more years in a neighborhood she loved and in a school that was great for her kids. That is until one day, it all changed – her landlord lost the building, including her home, to foreclosure.
Thanks to the hard work of many Chicago advocates, including LCBH, Chicago now has an ordinance that helps to protect renters who are scooped up in the foreclosure process through no fault of their own. When a landlord loses an apartment building to foreclosure, the new owner must either offer to renew (or extend) the existing tenants’ lease or offer to give them relocation assistance. Edna was relieved that the new owner of her building was going to work with her to keep her in her home rather than evict her.
Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing (LCBH) helps preserve the vitality and affordability of Chicago’s neighborhoods. The attorneys and staff at LCBH work with community partners to ensure those affected by unfair evictions, deplorable living conditions or foreclosure have viable and affordable housing options currently and in the future. The LCBH Supportive Services team is available for the most vulnerable LCBH clients and their families to avoid homelessness and achieve stable housing. This includes assessment of needs, assistance in locating alternative affordable housing, applying for emergency funding, screening for public benefits, and providing links to essential services. The multi-disciplinary and holistic approach that LCBH provides has proven an effective way to assist clients moving towards a goal of attaining more stable housing beyond the immediate crisis of eviction.
Last winter, tenants living in an 18 unit apartment building in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood found out the building they called home had a new owner. Shortly after they were informed of the new ownership, tenants received a letter with two options: either leave their unit in 30 days or re-apply to remain in the building. Most of the tenants had limited resources and were unable to move within thirty days. Most of the tenants took the option to re-apply as a genuine invitation to remain in their homes with no interruption to their lives. However, the so-called re-application process was only a disguise of goodwill when, in fact, the new owner’s plan was to remove all the tenants. The terms of the new rental application and rental agreement were designed so that none of the current residents could qualify. Frustrated and upset, and now threatened with eviction, the tenants contacted Centro Autonomo, a community based organization located in Albany Park for help. Centro Autonomo helped organize the tenants and they contacted LCBH to help form a tenants association. After much negotiation, the new owner responded to the formation of the tenants association and the threat of fighting the evictions in court and decided to negotiate with the tenants.
Following is a recent letter from a client describing her experiences living in a recently foreclosed apartment building and dealing with the new bank owners. Her words resonate in a way that ours cannot. We wanted to share her letter with you, as your support is what makes our interventions in these situations possible. Thank you!
I, and most of the tenants in my bank-owned building, would have given up our rights out of frustration and fear if it were not for the services of Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing.
We had known for some time that our building was in the process of foreclosure. But we were not worried because we knew the Keep Chicago Renting Ordinance (KCRO) required the bank to either renew our leases or pay a $10,600 relocation fee. However, our collective peace of mind began to crumble as we came to understand that the bank was neither equipped nor inclined to perform the basic duties of a landlord. Soon after, our anxiety rose even further, as the bank engaged in scare-tactics designed to persuade us to move out on our own accord (therefore circumventing the requirements of the KCRO).
Thus far, the bank has used two tactics. The first is a passive approach: they benignly neglect the responsibilities of building management. The second is more aggressive, entailing periodic eviction threats. The only reason these tactics are not working is because we are represented by Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing.
The housing landscape of many Chicago neighborhoods is changing quickly, especially in terms of affordability and stability. Buildings are being sold to developers, many times from outside Chicago, who increase rents and push out long-term residents. Humboldt Park is one of these neighborhoods. Tenants living in a 44 unit apartment building in Humboldt Park received notices informing them the building had a new owner and they had 30 days to move. As soon as the notices expired, the remaining 20 remaining tenants, who were unable to move, had evictions filed against them by the cash investors who purchased the building. LCBH attorneys tackled this matter head on in both eviction and building courts.
With the assistance of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization (MTO), a citywide organization that helps tenants organize to assert their collective rights, LCBH was able to form a tenants association to request more time and relocation assistance from the new landlord. These requests were ignored.
The Illinois First District Appellate Court recently issued an opinion in the case of Shadid v. Sims involving the Chicago Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance (RLTO) and whether attorneys are entitled to recover their fees for counter-claims in eviction court.
We sat down with LCBH’s Legal Director, Mark Swartz, to get an understanding of how the court’s decision impacts renters.
What was the original case that led to the appeal?
It was Shadid v. Sims, and it began as a typical eviction case for non-payment of rent. But as LCBH attorneys know too well, not all eviction cases are simply a question of “did you or did you not pay your rent?” In this case, the Sims, who were the renters, counter-claimed that the landlord had failed to maintain the premises free of bedbugs, cockroaches, and rats in violation of the RLTO. The judge agreed with the Sims, their rent was fully offset and they were allowed to stay in their home. LCBH, itself, has alleged any number of habitability counter-claims similar to the Sims.
This summer, Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing (LCBH) teamed up with the John Marshall Law School’s Pro Bono Program and Heartland Alliance to help a family in crisis get a fresh start. The Ali family had recently fled Syria during the civil war and escaped to the US where they hoped to establish a new life. They moved into an apartment building that had a bedbug infestation, and soon their small children suffered from bed bug bites that required ongoing medical attention. To make matters worse, the landlord refused to treat the infestation and had threatened the family suggesting he could interfere with their application for asylum.
The family did not speak much English and they were at a loss about how to best to protect themselves. Without steady income and paying for mounting extermination and medical cost, soon the Ali family found themselves in eviction court. For any family, facing a legal system can be very intimidating and foreign, even to those who have lived their entire lives here in America.