By Igor Studenkov
As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic swept through Illinois in March, Governor J.B. Pritzker issued several executive orders not only to slow the spread but to address some of the consequences of the State’s stay-at-home order. Knowing that, with declining income, people would have trouble paying rent, he issued a moratorium on evictions.
The State has extended the moratorium several times since then, most recently to Saturday, Aug. 22. The City of Chicago has implemented its own measures, which kick in when the State order expires.
Several landlord organizations have expressed opposition to the moratorium, arguing it makes it harder for them to pay their own bills and interferes with their ability to remove troublesome tenants. Several aldermen, including Ald. Jason Ervin (28th Ward), have expressed concerns that, as it stands, the moratorium hurts smaller “mom and pop” landlords who have less money to fall back than larger building owners and management companies.
Pritzker’s original order billed the moratorium as a way to address the consequences of having all businesses but those designated as essential shut down, leaving many residents unemployed or earning less than before. It also noted that, at the time, shelter in place directives asked residents to stay home as much as possible, so throwing tenants out would contradict that goal.
The Near South-based Metropolitan Tenants Organization (MTO) on March 13 issued an open letter calling for the moratorium.
“There are roughly 80,000 homeless people living in Chicago alone and they are ill-equipped to deal with a highly contagious disease,” it stated. “Each eviction places already vulnerable seniors and people with health issues—their families and everyone they come into contact with in the court system—at further risk…Where will people quarantine if they contract this virus, and lose their home? We need an immediate moratorium on all evictions.”
Pritzker’s order stopped enforcement of residential evictions, though it did make exceptions for tenants who “pose a direct threat to the health and safety of other tenants, an immediate and severe risk to property, or a violation of any applicable building code, health ordinance or similar regulation.” It also specifically said tenants still must pay rent and follow lease terms, although, given that the ordinance bans most evictions, nothing currently compels them to do so.
The State extended this order several times, even as it lifted some of the stay-at-home restrictions, and the State and City allowed “non essential” businesses to reopen with capacity restrictions and restaurants to open with limited sit-down dining. While these moves have created bounce-back in hiring, the economy is far from recovered.
The Aug. 22 extension aims to tide tenants over until the State Emergency Rental Assistance Program kicks in, providing $150 million in grants, with tenants eligible for up to $5,000—enough money for up to 30,000 renters throughout the State. The program will run through the end of the year.
Homeowner mortgage help
The State also is launching the Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program to help homeowners struggling to make their payments. Only property owners with income less than 120% of the area median income would qualify, which rules out many larger landlords.
Moritoria on evictions did not just stop new evictions. It also paused any evictions in progress as of March 14, when the order took effect. Any landlords who started eviction proceedings in March or earlier had to request an extension; otherwise, such eviction orders lapsed automatically.
The Chicago City Council on June 17 approved an ordinance creating additional protections for tenants who lost income due to the coronavirus. The order would take effect once Pritzker’s moratorium expires and will last for 60 days.
Unlike the governor’s order, it does not stop evictions, although it alters the eviction procedure. Landlords still can file notice giving tenants five days to pay any past-due rent before they begin eviction proceedings. Under the new City ordinance, tenants now can file a Tenant Notice of COVID-19 Impact showing that, due to COVID-19, they no longer can pay rent. Tenants and landlords then have seven additional days to negotiate some other way to pay rent by, for example, agreeing to a payment plan or agreeing to use the tenant’s security deposit to help pay off rent.
If negotiations fail, landlords can file an eviction but must show the court they negotiated in good faith. Tenants may present any evidence that suggests otherwise.
During the June 17 meeting, Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) said that, while she supported the ordinance’s intent, she worried about how it would affect owners of two- and three-unit buildings, who often live in one unit and rent out the rest.
“In the community where I live, it’s mostly two- and three-flat homes,” West Sider Mitts said. “And to have the neighborhood that’s been already dis-invested in, to have the landlords forgo, not being able to get their rent, and not being able to get their mortgage paid, I’m very concerned.”
Several other aldermen share Mitts’s concerns.
Ervin votes no
Ervin agreed with Mitts, saying many properties the 28th Ward faced the same issue. The City Council approved the ordinance 37-12, with Ervin the only alderman within Gazette Chicago’s coverage area to vote “no.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot described it as an important way to provide stability.
“The impact of COVID-19 has been felt across our city, but it’s been especially devastating to our many residents and communities who were already struggling every month to pay their rent and stay in their homes,” she said. “This important ordinance will not only provide critical support to our tenants struggling as a result of this unprecedented crisis, it will also strengthen protections long needed before COVID-19 to promote true housing stability and allow every Chicago family a chance to build, grow, and thrive.”
Several landlord advocacy organizations, such as the Neighborhood Building Owners Alliance (NBOA), have pushed back against the ordinance, saying that, while they sympathize with tenants who could not pay rent due to the coronavirus, the moratorium prevented them from evicting problem tenants.
Ibn Abney makes his income from a 9-to-5 job and some rental properties, most of which are located in Bronzeville, Kenwood, and neighborhoods further southeast. He said that “about ten percent” of his tenants had challenges paying rent because of the pandemic, and in all cases, they were able to work out arrangements in which the tenant either agreed on a payment plan or he agreed to lower their rent temporarily.
“One thing I would like to say, and I think it goes to all landlords as I do have networks of different investors, I never heard of landlords evicting a good tenant, even if they fall on hard times,” Abney said, explaining that, given how long the eviction process takes, it simply makes sense to try to work something out instead.
The problem is tenants who violate their leases, he said. He mentioned a female tenant in a four-unit building who let a man with alleged gang ties move in, and alleged gang members started gathering by the building. As the result, another female tenant, who lived above that unit, moved out.
“And you can’t blame her,” Abney said, so “I just lost a tenant, and I got one unit that’s not paying rent.”
For landlords like him, he said, that loss is not trivial. About 90% of the income they receive from rent goes to paying mortgages, property taxes, utilities, and insurance. Abney said he’s had to dip into his own savings to try to cover the loss and that evicting the tenant would be nearly impossible.
He agreed that not all landlords may be as willing to work with tenants affected by the pandemic, and felt that a good compromise would be to allow evictions if the tenant violates lease conditions, other than failure to pay rent on time.
Abney also said he wants more government support for landlords that, up until the pandemic, paid their mortgages and property taxes on time.
Ultimately, he argued that it was in the City’s and State’s best interest to make sure landlords can pay their bills.
“You’ll also have an impact on property taxes and utilities,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of economic impact as well, not just on tenants, but for businesses that rely on landlords such as banks, insurance companies, utility companies.”
Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th Ward) supported the State moratorium and the City ordinance to extend it. He said, “If we ask people to stay home, we have to provide conditions” to let them, noting that eviction “is a scary prospect, especially when the City is doing so little for emergency housing and affordable housing. The need for affordable housing and emergency housing was already dire. Now, with pandemic, we’re in an even worse situation.”
The alderman also pointed at the fact that moratorium applies to rented retail spaces – which is important, given that many small businesses are struggling to pay rent.
The MTO recommends both tenants and landlords consult the Can I Be Evicted? chart issued by Legal Aid Chicago to determine what conditions and actions could lead to eviction.
Call Alderman Ervin at (773) 533-0900. For the MTO, log on to www.tenants-rights.org or call (773) 292-4988. Call Alderman Mitts at (773) 379-0960. For the NBOA, log on to nboachicago.com.