Rent moratorium creates anxiety on both sides

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Tracy Crawford has been struggling. In April last year, the Chicago resident lost her job at Brown and Momen, a construction company. She had to turn to unemployment benefits for help with mortgage and car payments.  

During the pandemic, a statewide eviction moratorium has served as a shield against being evicted for missing monthly rental and mortgage payments for people like her. But as the state plans to roll back on that protection, advocates and renters say it might be too soon. Some landlords say August isn’t soon enough.

In May, Illinois Gov. JB  Pritzker announced the state-wide evictions ban would be phased out by the end of August.  To Crawford, that will only make things more uncertain for those who are already struggling..

“You already have people who’ve been evicted prior to the pandemic, people who are homeless,” she said. “And now you want to evict more people? Where are they going to go? Who are they going to stay with?”

Eviction moratoriums issued at the federal and state levels have aimed to slow the spread of COVID-19 by allowing people to stay in their homes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The moratoriums have been repeatedly extended throughout the pandemic. The current statewide ban is set to expire July 24. After this ban expires, it will be expanded in Chicago for 60 days. The federal ban is set to expire at the end of July as well.

There are approximately 414,000 Illinois households having trouble paying rent and utilities, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services. About 60,000 of these households are vulnerable to eviction in 2021. People of color, low income renters, disabled renters and veterans are at the greatest risk.

Some have struggled to pay rent due to losing a job. Others struggled due to a reduction in work hours. Tiffany Smith went from working eight-hour days to three-hour days from March last year to January. That made it difficult to keep up with the bills for her apartment in Englewood, placing her behind on rent payments.

For months, she said she had to lean on her family members for financial support. It’s been a challenge, but her four children kept her going, she said.“I had to stay strong for the kids and not let them know that I was stressed, upset and sad,” she said. “My little ones kept me saving face and being able to push through.”

But while many renters like Smith have struggled to pay the bills, so have landlords. Landlords rely on rent to pay for janitor services, utilities, garbage removal, property taxes and mortgages, according to the Neighborhood Building Owners Alliance in Chicago, which advocates for housing providers in the city.

Chicago housing providers have lost about $1 billion in unpaid rent during the pandemic, according to a NBOA survey. Andy Scholnik, president of the Southside Builders Association, said as a result of the moratorium, landlords, especially smaller mom-and-pop landlords, have suffered.

“Some of the margins are very thin on some of (my) buildings between real estate taxes, humongous water bills, mortgages,” said Scholnik, who has about 250 tenants in Woodlawn, Chatham, Marquette Park and other areas on the South side. “So basically you’re losing money on a monthly basis until this moratorium disappears.”

Though most of his tenants have figured out ways to pay their rent, some “have clearly abused the system,” he noted, not paying their rent despite having the ability to.

“I’ve had people look me in my face and with a smile say ‘I’m not going to pay you because I don’t have to pay you,’ then they walk away. And there’s nothing I can do.”

That’s why the moratorium should have ended months ago, he said. And tenants should have been handled on a case by case basis rather than issuing “a blanket policy.”

“If they want to focus on people that have serious, specific problems, then sure. But doing a blanket policy that nobody needs to pay rent and nobody needs to be evicted is a formula for disaster,” he added. “I don’t minimize the plight of the tenant. I’m just saying you need balance.”

Pritzker adjusted the moratorium in November and early June with measures aiming to provide more protections for landlords. Now, the moratorium applies to those who provide landlords with a declaration. It must show an individual is unable to make a full rent payment due to COVID-19-related hardship like a loss of income. Individuals must also have earned less than $99,000 in annual income for 2020.

Additionally, law enforcement agencies can enforce eviction orders against those that existed before March 20, 2021. The Cook County Sheriff’s office began enforcing evictions this month. The sheriff’s office did not respond to requests for comment about how many eviction orders are being enforced in the county.

The adjustments to the moratorium haven’t made much of a difference on the ground, Scholnik said. “Just additional paperwork,” he said.

Meanwhile, Dixon Romeo of United Working Families, said local governments need more time to distribute rental assistance to those in need before the moratorium is lifted.

“We don’t need to see a lifting of the eviction moratorium any time soon,” said Romeo, campaign director of the political organization advocating for affordable housing, quality jobs and public education.

In Chicago, a total of 26,843 people requested emergency rent relief during the most recent round of applications held three weeks in June, according to the city’s Department of Housing. Of those, 12,687 were from tenants, 9,899 were from landlords and 4,267 were from both. A total of $137 million in aid was requested. That breaks down to $113 million in rental assistance and $24 million in utility assistance. However, the city only has $80 million in funding for the program. Another round is slated for later this year.

Though this relief will be helpful to some, that doesn’t warrant lifting the moratorium in August, Romeo said.

“It’s going to take a while before enough relief is given out, before we know folks are getting it and before we know folks can withstand (lifting the moratorium),” Romeo said. 

Bob Palmer, policy director at Housing Action Illinois, said he believes state and local governments are doing their best to distribute the funds. But come August, he thinks people will still be waiting for their applications to be processed.

“There will be lots of people waiting on rent assistance applications that they either already submitted or will soon submit that would be subject to eviction if the Governor sticks to his proposed timeline,” Palmer said. He said the amount of time taken to process applications varies but sometimes they can be months-long. One factor contributing to the time is whether the correct documents were submitted with the application.

He said to mitigate this, Pritzker could issue an executive order to prevent renters with pending applications from being evicted.

The U.S. Dept. of Justice put out a letter of recommendations for court systems to consider similar measures. One of the recommendations includes requiring landlords to apply for rental assistance before filing for eviction. Another recommendation is to extend time in pending cases to allow people to apply.