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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
In Illinois, if a renter is taken to eviction court after the property is in foreclosure, the law requires that the court file be sealed. In fact though, as LCBH noted in its 2013 Annual Tenants in Foreclosure Report, Chicago’s Foreclosure Crisis: Community Solutions to the Loss of Affordable Rental Housing (http://lcbh.org/reports/foreclosure/2013), only 46% of foreclosure-related eviction cases were sealed from the public record in 2013. LCBH clients who were entitled to have their records sealed were reporting problems finding new housing due to having an eviction case on their record. Credit reporting agencies and landlord-tenant “blacklists” were not necessarily interested in the outcome of a case, but focused only on the fact that an eviction case had been filed.
After the 2013 foreclosure report was published, LCBH met with Judge E. Kenneth Wright, the Presiding Judge of the First Municipal District of the Circuit Court of Cook County, and shared with Judge Wright the experiences of LCBH clients.
This summer, Agnes Starling began receiving confusing notices relating to a foreclosure from someone she had never heard of before. Not knowing what to do Ms. Starling called the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing’s (LCBH) Tenants in Foreclosure Helpline for assistance. The helpline was established to provide renters and attorneys with legal information regarding renters’ rights during foreclosure, with the goal of preserving tenancies and avoiding unwarranted evictions. During the counseling, an LCBH staff attorney, looked up the foreclosure case, and provided Ms. Starling with information about her rights as a tenant in a building that had been lost to foreclosure. After a foreclosure, most Chicago tenants are entitled to continue renting at no more than 102% of what they had been paying or be asked to leave with a $10,600 relocation payment. Even if a tenant is asked to leave, the tenant can generally stay until the end of their lease or 90 days after receiving a written notice demand for possession, whichever is longer.
The landlord didn’t inform the tenants that the building was in foreclosure, or that a new owner was taking over the property. Ms. Starling learned about the foreclosure process, that the landlord had lost possession of the property, and that the landlord was no longer entitled to receive her rent.
The Reed Family had been peacefully living in the Chatham neighborhood since 2010 in a home they rented. Their lives were turned upside down late last year after their landlord lost the building to foreclosure and the foreclosing bank evicted them from their home.
The Reeds knew their building was in foreclosure and they had received the required 90 days’ notice to vacate, so they weren’t shocked or surprised when they were summoned to eviction court. As the Reeds had done nothing wrong nor had the plaintiff alleged any breach of their lease, the Reeds didn't feel they would need an attorney. They showed up to court with their lease in hand only to have the eviction court judge summarily enter an Order of Possession (eviction order) against the family.
Luckily for the Reeds, they were referred to LCBH. The Reeds had a valid lease, and LCBH confirmed that their lease provided them with the right to stay in their home until the end of the lease term. The LCBH legal team jumped into action and filed a motion asking the court to vacate (make void) the eviction order and to stay (put on hold) the execution of the eviction order until the court made a decision on the motion. Not only was the legal team able to reach an agreement that allowed the Reeds to stay in their home through the end of their lease, they also got the Reeds an additional month allowing them time to find new housing, got the case dismissed and had the court record sealed.