By Claire Cowley
City officials have enacted a second launch of online submission dates for its rental assistance program, based on extreme need among vulnerable populations due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. People have until Sunday, Nov. 15, to apply.
The Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) launched the first online application for rental assistance in July. It received 1,936 submissions.
Quenjana Adams, DFSS director of public affairs, said original funding applied to the first round of applications; when the City launches the portal again, funding will go to a new group of applicants.
In the past, the City made applications available only at community services centers instead of online, Adams said.
“When the pandemic started, the Public Health department advised everyone to not have congregate gatherings, so we had to shift the availability of the rental assistance program online,” Adams said, noting the shift allowed people to access the application anywhere while the stay-at-home order was in effect.
DFSS obtains rental assistance funding from the Federal government through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“It’s a homeless prevention program,” Adams added. “The essence of it is for people who are facing eviction and facing homelessness to get this assistance and maintain staying in their home.”
Adams said that, when a person goes to the portal and fills out an assessment of his or her current situation, the algorithm will recommend various programs run by the City or State.
“That’s one of the very cool things about the portal,” Adams said. “Based on your needs, it will match you to the programs,” and, if a person cannot apply online then he or she can call one of the community services centers and ask personnel to mail an application. Phone numbers for the centers are listed on the City’s DFSS rental assistance website listed later in this article.
“If you can’t reach anyone, my first recommendation would be for you to leave a voicemail,” Adams said.
Also, a feedback form can be found at https://webapps1.chicago.gov/eforms/contactUsForm.
Adams said that, for any City resource, residents should call 311, tell the responder about the aid needed, and the responder will point the caller to the right department.
Ebony Scott, partnership director of the Family Independence Initiative (FII), said her organization has partnered with the City since 2018. When COVID-19 became a problem, FII had an opportunity to deploy the $2 million the Department of Housing had in its emergency housing program.
“When COVID hit, the City wanted a way to pivot from their normal approach,” Scott said.
Scott noted FII leaders strongly believe most of that money should go directly to families and households as opposed to funding programs and services which, she believes, families never asked for, do not necessarily align with families’ specific needs, and take choice and control away from families.
“It creates situations where you have experts insert themselves into communities and try to access and determine what that community or those individuals need rather than trusting that those families are smart, strong, capable, value driven people who can solve problems for themselves,” Scott said. She added that what these families lack is cash because of poverty and the city’s wealth gap.
“We say why not treat the root cause and provide people cash instead of funding over and over and over these programs and services that, frankly, the data shows you don’t work,” Scott added.
Chicago on cutting edge
She cited Chicago as being on the cutting edge with its rental assistance programs during COVID and before, because around the country few such programs pay the tenant directly.
“They all operate on the premise that the tenant can’t be trusted and we will only pay the bank or the landlord,” Scott said.
That’s problematic for a few reasons, she said. “No family is going to intentionally create housing instability for themselves, and we know because of our work with these families. They always take care of business and do what they need to do.”
The way they use the money might not look the way the program or case manager would want it done, however, Scott said.
“I think the City has been pleasantly innovative in their approach because trusting people is not the norm,” Scott said.
The government, non-profit, and social sectors do not trust Black and Latinx people and assume they do the wrong things, Scott added.
“I hear time and time again, if you just give people money they’ll stop working, they’ll go buy Jordans and liquor,” Scott said. “You’d be amazed how many people tell me all Black people buy gym shoes.”
Scott said that is a lie rooted in racist and classist thoughts people have about the poor.
Scott also said some landlords do not want the money from a cash investment or rental assistance program.
“It’s coming with the caveat that you can’t evict or you have to hold off on evicting,” Scott said. “They don’t want to waive their right to do that.”
Scott said some landlords have been impossible to reach and do not complete their half of the application.
“The tenant had done everything they were told to do, and now because this landlord won’t respond to an email or a phone call and fill out their half…the money is stuck in limbo,” Scott said.
Scott also said she thought what was remarkable about the City’s approach is that it is not merely a rent payment figured down to the penny.
“The reason this direct cash assistance and the rental emergency space is important is because it’s not just your rent that goes into maintaining stable housing,” Scott said. “It’s other things that come with the cost of that,” she explained, noting tenants are behind on utilities and may be borrowing money from friends and relatives to keep the lights on or make rent payments.
“By having this flexible cash it allows people to take care of their housing costs that makes sense for them according to their specific situation,” Scott added.
Kudos for City
Jawanza Brian Malone, an organizer for the Lift the Ban Coalition, said he has heard some horror stories from people who have applied for State aid, but not for the City aid. The Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA) runs the State rental assistance program. The coalition is working to repeal the State’s rent control ban.
“This is a huge problem,” Ma-lone said of people having trouble paying their rent. “I think everybody is underestimating exactly how catastrophic an issue this is.”
Elected officials are not doing nearly enough to address it, Malone added.
“Whatever the second rollout looks like, unless it captures the tens of thousands of more people, whoever they are who have since ran into trouble, it’s not even putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound,” Malone said, noting he would like to see Governor JB Pritzker to use his emergency powers to have the State help people economically, including debt cancellation.
“That’s going to be most effective, and for us means the debt people are just incurring every single month needs to be canceled,” Malone added.
“We wouldn’t be in as bad a situation if rents were affordable in the first place.” Malone said. “If you’re paying 50% to 70% of your income on the first of every month and you got nothing to cover your other household expenses, let alone to save, it’s easy to see how we can end up in this problem.”
Allison Bethel, clinical professor of law at the University of Illinois Chicago and director of Fair Housing Legal Clinic, said renters knew under the moratorium on evictions they were not going to be evicted because the courts were not processing lawsuits in Illinois.
Bethel said her office has seen renters not paying their rent when given money.
“When they were giving it to the renters directly…I hate to say it, but they were not necessarily paying their rent.” Bethel said. “They were paying other pressing bills.”
Bethel gets why renters are doing it, but noted that is not helping the situation because the landlords need the money too.
“I get people who have bills and not enough money…I think if it was going to the landlords directly then at least we’d know that situation was being addressed,” Bethel said.
However, Bethel said she does not think the money DFSS is giving applicants is too much and renters could use more.
“I realize this is hard to do, but I think they need to find some ways that can be tailored to the person’s circumstance right,” Bethel said. “Some people may need more than three months and some people may need less.”
If renters do not have a way of going forward, “then I would rather see us use those three months to help someone else or to put renters in a position where they can be more stable,” Bethel added.
“If they’re going to get kicked out anyway…maybe there’s a better approach,” Bethel said. “Maybe that means moving to cheaper housing or alternate housing.”
Dan Schneider, executive director of the American Conservative Union, said the government needs to act right now because it is the government who has told businesses they must shut down.
“As a consequence, people have lost their jobs because of government mandates and that is a form of takings of property under the U.S. Constitution,” Schneider said.
Look for the new application dates and other assistance options at the City’s DFSS rental assistance website at http://Chicago.gov/fss/RAP. To reach the FII, call (773) 680-9848 or log on to www.fii.org.
For the American Conservative Union, log on to conservative.org. For Bethel, email email@example.com. For the IHDA rental assistance program, log on to www.ihda.org/developers/rental-assistance/. For the Lift the Ban Coalition, log on to www.ltbcoalition.org or call (312) 805-4326.