Blog: Sealing

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.

LCBH Executive Director Mark Swartz

The last two years have been difficult. Like many of you, I’ve found working remotely and being separated from my colleagues challenging. But as I sit here today, I must say that April 2022 has been one of the most momentous months in my 13-year tenure at LCBH. Several developments have lifted my spirits and they are made even sweeter arriving during Fair Housing Month.

First, Governor Pritzker is poised to sign legislation that will prohibit landlords from refusing to rent based on a tenant’s source of income. While this protection already exists for Chicago renters, this is a fundamental fair housing issue that deserves statewide enforcement. LCBH is proud to be a member of the Illinois Fair Housing Coalition that worked on the legislation. We celebrate the Chicago Fair Housing Alliance and multiple elected officials whose leadership made this victory possible.

Shiva Kooragayala

We recently sat down with Shiva Kooragayala, a volunteer from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP. Shiva told us how he helped LCBH clients remain housed during the pandemic. Thank you, Shiva!

How did you get involved with LCBH?

I connected to LCBH through Kaitlin Cutshaw. She knew that I have a long-standing interest in working on a variety of housing issues and particularly public and affordable housing policy. I’m trained as an Urban Planner and worked at the Urban Institute, where I researched local and national housing policy. When I got to Skadden, I knew I wanted to continue working in this space as an attorney.

Why is volunteering on matters related to housing important to you?

Housing is a platform for people to improve their lives. While at Northwestern for law school, I spent two years as a clinical advocate and worked on several eviction defense matters in tandem with Legal Aid Chicago. I typically took on cases for tenants who had vouchers or project-based assistance. It was a great experience. Housing is fundamental to everything else. If you lose your voucher, you can’t get back on the list, so you are functionally homeless. Getting access to housing, and keeping it once you have it, is so important.

Skadden attorneys have a long history of volunteering at LCBH. What are some recent examples?

Eviction Records Training

Combining its policy advocacy, direct service, and community engagement expertise, LCBH is taking the next step in implementing this spring’s historic eviction record sealing legislation. LCBH has created a chatbot document assembly tool in Rentervention and is organizing training for community organizations on the negative impact of eviction records and the mechanics of filing a motion to seal. Staff have designed training sessions to explain incomplete or unclear court records and equip community members with information on how to use LCBH’s chatbot, Renny, to file a motion to seal a previous eviction. The presentation will cover best practices on the sealing process and provide step-by-step instructions to create and file a motion to seal. People who attend the sessions will leave with a better understanding of the eviction sealing process.

Here are some questions that a training can help tenants and community-based organizations answer:

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.

Motion to Seal

On May 17, Governor Pritzker signed Illinois' "COVID-19 Emergency Housing Act," providing robust protections for Illinois renters and homeowners. The new state law greatly expands sealing of eviction court records for cases filed before and during the coronavirus pandemic and prohibits tenant screening companies from reporting sealed eviction records.

COVID-19 and related shut-down orders have created economic instability for many renters through no fault of their own. The sealing provisions are meant to prevent eviction case filings from becoming a barrier for renters in obtaining future housing, as described in a recent Consumer Reports article. The law requires automatic sealing of eviction records between March 2020 and March 2022. Unsealing will be allowed only when a judgment is issued and a case is unrelated to nonpayment of rent.

Michael: Without my LCBH Attorney, I Would Have Been Homeless

Our client, "Michael," worked hard throughout his career to save for retirement. He was enjoying his new home in a senior living facility and volunteering his services by working at his building's front desk.

Unfortunately, Michael began experiencing problems with a fellow tenant. Michael was eventually removed from the front desk volunteer position to reduce the potential for interaction but received a thank you letter from the building manager for his service. The tenant's complaints continued. However, after living through months of unprovoked conflict, Michael's health had begun to suffer, and he developed depression. Finally, through a lawyer, the tenant made false allegations against Michael to the senior living facility's management.

Without any meaningful investigation, Michael was served with a "notice to terminate" that offered him ten days to refute the claims made. He followed up multiple times to do so, but no one returned his phone calls. He asked his building manager, "Did you advocate for me?" The manager replied, "Michael, it doesn’t matter; no one listens to me."

Then Michael received a summons to eviction court.

He quickly turned to the internet to try to understand what was happening and how to proceed. After seeing statistics about eviction rates, Michael was petrified. When his search turned up information about the Lawyers' Committee for Better Housing's services, he called immediately.

Prejudged: The Stigma of Eviction Records

A new report by Housing Action Illinois and the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing (LCBH) explores how an eviction filing on the public record is a serious obstacle to finding housing for people whose cases did not result in them actually getting evicted. This is true even in cases where the tenant didn’t violate their lease in any way. Prejudged: The Stigma of Eviction Records shows that 39% of eviction cases filed in Cook County during the past four years did not result in an eviction order and/or other judgment against the tenant. The report recommends enacting state legislation that would hold eviction case records from public view until cases are completed to protect these individuals from unfair barriers to renting a home in the future.

"This is an issue that affects about 15,000 people in Cook County each year," estimates Mark Swartz, Executive Director of Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing. "There is no judgment against them, but there is a filing on their record. When they go to rent, prospective landlords too often reject them based on screening reports that don’t reflect the outcome of a case."

I Wouldn't Wish It On My Worst Enemies

In 30-plus years in the Logan Square area, Margie had only lived in four different apartments. When a new owner bought her building, she was going on her seventh year in the apartment she shared with her son. It was cramped to share a one-bedroom with him, and she wished they had a shower instead of a bathtub, but it was affordable. They both work hourly wage jobs—he’s been Employee of the Month time and again at a large retailer, and she loves the job at a restaurant where she has worked for more than a decade.

The property management company that took over Margie’s building informed her that their rent would spike from $700 to $1000 in just three months. When Margie told them there was no way she could afford the increase, they agreed that she could pay $800 per month for the next year. In return, they would leave her apartment "as-is" and not include it in the renovations they were undertaking in the rest of the building—which is located in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

Humboldt Park Building Falls into the Hands of Unscrupulous Developer

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.

Chicago apartment buildings

During a hot and sticky Chicago summer, Grace and Robert Merkel moved into a single-family home with their six children. Shortly after moving in, the Merkels encountered mold and mildew growing on the walls, ceiling, and carpets. There were roaches and bed bugs in the home, holes in the walls and ceilings, and leaky plumbing. During each of the three winters that the family lived in the home, there was also insufficient heat.

At first, Mr. Merkel attempted to resolve the heating issue himself. He paid to have the furnace fixed, and eventually bought space heaters for each of the bedrooms. Still, the temperature hovered in the 40’s, and the family was forced to wear their winter coats indoors. To address the mold and mildew issues, Robert bought various cleaning supplies but they did not help. The Merkels told their landlord of their issues and he refused to hire a qualified professional to remove the mold. In the meantime, several of the couple’s children developed chronic respiratory irritation due to the constant cold, mold, and mildew they experienced during the winter months. The landlord refused to hire an exterminator, so Robert bought sprays to deal with the bed bugs and roaches, but they repeatedly returned.