Blog

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.

Dealing with a credit reporting agency

In our system of justice, we often take for granted the idea that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately, this fundamental idea of fairness is not exhibited in our credit reporting and tenant screening systems, particularly in regard to evictions. When a landlord files an eviction case against a tenant in Cook County, that information is public and often filed with reporting and screening agencies prior to the case being heard. The problem with this, of course, is that many eviction cases are dismissed and most foreclosure related evictions are by no fault of the tenant, yet the negative report appears in the records of these reporting and screening agencies.

Rejected

In 2009, Veeda, a teacher with two children, was living in an apartment building that went into foreclosure. During the foreclosure process, the landlord, dealing with his own financial problems, allowed the conditions of the building to deteriorate. Veeda found herself living without heat or hot water and mice had infested her unit. After several weeks of unsuccessful attempts at contacting her landlord to have the problems fixed, she began to withhold rent.

LCBH accepted Veeda’s case in November of 2009, and our diligent legal team settled Veeda’s case the following January. The agreement we reached waived all back rent (the rent Veeda had withheld), and stated that as long as Veeda moved out of her apartment by February 15th, the eviction case would be dismissed.

Unfortunately for Veeda, the eviction and back rent already appeared up on her credit report. As a result of this negative information, several prospective landlords would not rent to Veeda, and it took her a long time to find new housing. Most people know that a good credit report is needed to get a mortgage, take out a loan for college or a new car, or apply for a credit card. Yet many do not realize is that landlords often perform credit checks as part of their tenant screening process.

Since welcoming our first three interns in 2006 into our Supportive Service program, LCBH has been host to dozens of students, including the ten interns working with us this year. One factor that makes LCBH’s Supportive Services program so successful is the partnerships we have developed with social work internship programs in Chicago and the greater Midwest.

Our first partnership began seven years ago with the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration (SSA) program. Since then our internship partnerships have expanded to include the Masters in Social Work (MSW) program at the University of Illinois at Chicago as well as undergraduate programs in social work or sociology at schools such as North Park University here in Chicago and Valparaiso University in Indiana. We also partner with two “immersion” programs: the Chicago Center for Urban Life and Culture and the Associated Colleges of the Midwest Urban Studies Program. Students participating in these programs come from colleges and universities throughout the Midwest to live and study together as a cohort in Chicago. Part of their experience requires an internship at an agency that serves low-income people.

CAFHA

The Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance (CAFHA) is a consortium of fair housing and advocacy organizations, government agencies, and municipalities committed to the value of fair housing, diversity, and integration. CAFHA works to combat housing discrimination and promote integrated communities of opportunity through research, education, and advocacy.

LCBH has a longstanding partnership with CAFHA; Kathy Clark, retired LCBH Executive Director, formerly served on the board and now current LCBH Executive Director, Cheryl Lawrence, serves as board treasurer. LCBH Buildings Administrator Patricia Fron worked for CAFHA as the John Lukehart Public Policy Fellow throughout 2012, where she and a team of several other CAFHA members published reports on housing issues including segregation, land banking, and voucher discrimination.

Recently, CAHFA has been in the midst of conducting a year-long research project, the culmination of which will be a regional analysis of impediments to fair housing which is due to be released in early 2013. Through this report CAFHA aims to highlight the fair housing issues prevalent in the region and develop strategies to mitigate the impact of segregation.

Ending Housing Voucher Discrimination in Cook County

LCBH, working with a host of other housing advocates throughout Cook County, is supporting an amendment to the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance (CCHRO) making it illegal to discriminate against Housing Choice Voucher holders.

CCHRO currently protects people from discrimination based on their source of income but exempts those with Housing Choice Vouchers from protection. This allows landlords and other housing providers to refuse renting to otherwise qualified individuals and families solely because their rent would be subsidized. Source of Income protection in the CCHRO explicitly excludes voucher holders, thus the proposed amendment is to eliminate that exclusion.

The Housing Choice Voucher program within the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) assists very low- income families, the elderly, and the disabled with affording decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market. Housing assistance is provided on behalf of individuals or families (defined as having children present in the home) and participants are able to find their own housing in the private market, including single-family homes, townhouses and apartments. In Cook County, the program is administered by the Housing Authority of Cook County and serves over 13,000 families.

Tackling Housing Discrimination Head-On

Leta Young resided in her apartment for five years before the building went into foreclosure, “I was forced to hurry up and get out because the new owners were investors and wanted me out in 30 days. That’s when I sought help.” Soon after the new owners informed Leta that she had to vacate her apartment in 30 days she found Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing.

Patricia Fron, LCBH Building Programs Administrator explains, “We did foreclosure counseling and found that the building was sold through a short sale. We negotiated directly with the new owner to get Leta more time to stay while she searched for new housing. Leta also participated in the Housing Choice Voucher program and we worked with the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) to make sure she did not lose her voucher.”

“Patricia really got the ball rolling and was really there for me,” says Leta. “She listened to my story and told me the things I needed to do. A lot of people were not accepting Housing Choice Vouchers and I was fairly new to the voucher program so I thought I was doing the right thing by being upfront with landlords.” Even with the help of LCBH, 35 out of 45 landlords turned Leta down because of her voucher and it took her months to secure new housing.

1. A landlord doesn’t return a voice mail from an African-American applicant interested in renting an apartment, but does call a white applicant back.

2. A property manager tells a family with children that they can’t rent the only available apartment because it is on the third floor with a balcony and that would be dangerous for their young children.

3. A veteran in a wheelchair is told that he can’t rent an available apartment in a four-flat because there are stairs and no ramp.

Discrimination? Yes, no, or maybe?

Scenarios like this are offered in trainings on housing discrimination laws, provided throughout Chicago by the Fair Housing Education Consortium (FHEC), a project funded by the Department of Housing and Economic Development.

Now completing its fourth year, FHEC has completed 140 trainings, reaching 500-600 people annually throughout the city. Information is given on who and what is protected under city state and federal fair housing laws. Attendees include community organizations, immigrant groups, landlords and tenants alike.

The formation of the consortium was initiated by LCBH, which continues to coordinate the project. Other member agencies include Access Living, Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the John Marshall Fair Housing Legal Support Center.

An Evening at the Fair

LCBH was thrilled to take part in the 19th Annual Chicago Bar Association (CBA) Young Lawyers Section’s (YLS) Pro Bono and Community Service Fair, hosted at the law offices of Kirkland and Ellis LLP. LCBH was among 50 other Chicago-based legal aid and community organizations offering pro bono opportunities to new and seasoned legal professionals.

The LCBH table was a popular spot during the fair, with a steady stream of attendees stopping by for information. LCBH staff and Young Professionals Board members were available to answer questions and to discuss the many different ways to support LCBH’s work.

Over 20 individuals signed up for more information on pro bono opportunities with LCBH and many more stopped by with questions about LCBH in general.Between the Pro Bono training sessions held at the LCBH office on October 26th and November 15th, we hosted 16 prospective volunteers eager to jump into housing advocacy! We look forward to working with all of our new volunteers over the coming year.

Thank You

In September, Eunice (see volunteer spotlight this issue) won a great victory for one of her clients’ and for LCBH. The clients were a couple whose landlord had filed an eviction against them for nonpayment of rent. They explained that they only started withholding rent payments when the landlord ceased to maintain their building

The landlord’s neglect rendered the building uninhabitable. It was infested with mice and bedbugs, the electricity was unreliable, and the hot water worked only late at night. There was mold throughout their unit; some of the windows were broken and were never repaired. The landlord refused to fix any of the conditions despite repeated requests both by the couple and the City. Upon review of the case, Eunice also discovered there were security deposit violations.

In response to the eviction, LCBH filed defenses and counterclaims against the landlord based on his mismanagement of both the building and the clients’ security deposit. Initially, the landlord wanted to go to trial but soon discovered it would not be successful. Eunice negotiated a very nice settlement for her clients and was also able to get the eviction case sealed to protect her client’s credit rating. Thanks to Eunice’s hard work and sharp negotiation skills, her client was able to use that money to move into a new apartment and have a fresh start!

Eunice Lee (left) with Pro Bono Coordinator Samira Nazem

Last October, we at LCBH had the good fortune of Eunice Lee stumbling upon our table at the Kirkland & Ellis Pro Bono Fair. She recalls meeting LCBH Legal Director Mark Swartz and listening to a persuasive sales pitch and promise that if she came to LCBH she would be in court litigating in no time.

As a recent law school graduate looking to gain courtroom experience, the offer sounded intriguing and Eunice signed up to volunteer. Now, one year later, Eunice has dedicated over 600 hours of her time to helping renters through serious housing problems. She says that the friendliness of staff and volunteers and the flexible office environment have kept her coming back.

Looking back over the last year, Eunice says her favorite part of working at LCBH is talking to clients and hearing their stories. “It’s easy to take your comfortable living situation for granted,” she says, but working at LCBH has opened her eyes to individuals and families whose situations are far more tenuous. She was shocked to learn how easy it is for landlords to take advantage of families who do know they have legal recourse, but is glad that they have somewhere to turn. “I’m glad LCBH is here to help. There is nothing like direct representation for empowering a family in crisis.”