By Louise Macaraniag and Anh Nguyen Hong Le
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, affordable housing in Chicago was already difficult to find. Low-income households have been spending more than half of their income on rent, leaving many renters to sacrifice other necessities such as food and healthcare to be able to afford their housing.
Although the housing crisis in Chicago is by no means an unprecedented impact caused solely by the pandemic, experts say the problem has been exacerbated by the various impacts of COVID-19. The rapidly changing conditions in Chicago and across the nation — from heightened joblessness to rising COVID-19 deaths and cases — have overall intensified housing insecurity in Chicago.
“Many of our clients pre-COVID were paying, in some cases, 50 percent or more of their income toward rent,” said Allen Hailey, Director of Development and Communications of the Lawyer’s Committee for Better Housing (LCBH).
“So, you can imagine for a family that’s having a problem making rent from one month to the next might have to make difficult choices between paying for medicine, paying for childcare, or other disruptions to their income or loss of a job because of the pandemic.”
This is especially the case of Black and Latinx communities, who have historically been at the brunt of the eviction crisis. Based on the LCBH’s 2018–2019 Chicago Eviction Data report, the eviction filing rate in Black communities is five times higher than in predominantly white neighborhoods, while the filing rate in Latinx communities is twice as much as those in white areas. This trend has been consistent from 2010 to 2019, which shows a clear racial disparity in eviction filing even before the pandemic.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has just really laid bare deeper systemic issues in terms of the need for more affordable housing in Chicago and statewide,” Hailey said.
Additionally, before the pandemic, many Chicago residents had been experiencing evictions across the city. According to a report by the LCBH, Chicago averaged more than 22,500 eviction filings per year. This number plummeted from a peak of 26,000 filings in 2012 to roughly 1,500 cases in the first two months of 2020 due to the rent moratorium.
To relieve a potential surge in homelessness, the city of Chicago has put a rent moratorium on evictions. On the City of Chicago’s COVID-19 Eviction Protection Ordinance, the moratorium requires that tenants prove their inability to make a full rent or housing payment due to a COVID-19 related hardship.
However, the moratorium is just another temporary bandage over the rental housing market crisis since it doesn’t entirely help relieve tenants from their due payments.
Facing these challenges, many residents lost the ability to pay rent on time, and, thus, faced the possibility of being evicted. Once the eviction process is filed, it stays on the tenant’s record for an extended period of time.
“The filing can appear on one’s credit record up to 7 years and can affect your future ability to find houses,” Hailey said when asked about challenges tenants face, “And the pandemic has made the situation worse.”
To address this problem, the city of Chicago has stated that landlords who file an eviction without trying to settle with the tenant will automatically have their case dismissed. More than that, the City of Chicago has updated materials and training for police officers on how to handle calls about lockouts. Moreover, a STOUT report shows that approximately between 203,000 to 247,000 evictions could be filed in Illinois after the CDC eviction moratorium is lifted at the end of the year.
“In partnership with Loyola, we used a statistical model to predict that there can be as much as 21,000 evictions or roughly during the first month after the moratorium is lifted,” Hailey said.
The rent moratorium does not relieve the responsibility to pay rent from the tenant. All unpaid payments shall be due at a later time. Renters are likely to leave the pandemic with major debts and financial losses that can take them years to recover from. Mary Coleman, a local organizer at Lift the Ban Coalition, believes that the city of Chicago should have a better system for rent aid.
“We have this eviction moratorium, which stops people from being evicted on paper, but there’s no good rent relief program or rent debt right now,” Coleman said, “Chicago has a rental system program, which is a minefield to navigate.”
Chicago residents and tenant organizers have already been anticipating the housing crisis due to rising rent prices caused by rampant gentrification across the city way before the pandemic.
“I’ve heard people say that it was easier to move than to go through with the program to get funds,” Coleman said, “There’s no canceling rent and mortgage on the horizon, which leads to self-eviction.”
The accessibility and affordability of housing have been an issue for decades, especially among low-income Chicagoans of color. With the moratorium in effect, some Chicagoans are voicing their concerns over these negative implications on low-income households of color.
“The city of Chicago has given itself grounds and ammunition to forcibly kick people out of their homes if they cannot pay,” said Jonathan Wilson, a member of the Chicago Teachers Union’s housing committee. “The city has definitely used the pandemic and all of this uncertainty around the pandemic to launch this attack of displacement.”
Wilson, a Chicago native, teaches 11th and 12th grade at Harper High School. Additionally, Wilson does various organizing work around housing rights with organizations including United Working Families and the Chicago Tenants Movement. He highlighted the impacts of the Obama Center, claiming that gentrification is guaranteed to occur in its designated neighborhoods. The placement of the Obama Center will most likely affect communities of color and low-income families in finding affordable housing because of the lack of rent control policies in Chicago.
This graphic shows neighborhoods with the highest eviction filing rates in Chicago in 2019. South Shore has the highest rate, while North Lawndale has the lowest. The rate is calculated by the number of eviction filings per 100 rental units.
Since 1997, the Rent Control Preemption Act has banned rent control policies from being implemented in Illinois. Chicago residents and organizations have made efforts to mitigate the housing crisis by campaigning to lift the ban on rent control. One of the organizations is Lift The Ban (LTB) Coalition, which consists of tenants, community members, small landlords, and organizers who are fighting to repeal the act in order to prevent rising housing costs. Talking about the movement’s significance, Coleman claims that lifting the ban on rent control is crucial to alleviate housing insecurity in Chicago.
“Communities do not have control over their own housing markets, and lifting the ban and putting rent control in place will give communities control over how they want their neighborhoods to be,” Coleman said.
Aside from the inability to access affordable housing, tenants also face a multitude of issues regarding their housing conditions. A group of affected renters that are also affected by these ban of rent control and the moratorium is college students.
Amy Bustos, a college student at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a recent renter in Rogers Park, said that many functional issues arise in her apartment. More specifically, the heating and water would stop functioning periodically, and her landlord is very tardy in addressing these issues.
“It’s just so frustrating because I am paying for rent, which includes heat and water,” she said. “And, we’re not getting heat. So, why are we paying a thousand dollars when we’re not getting one of the main utilities?”
Bustos and her partner have consulted the Autonomous Tenants Movement in order to address her issues regarding her landlord and housing conditions. However, Amy claims that she is too preoccupied with other aspects of her life in order to fully advocate for herself and her partner during this time, and resources that she has approached have been overall inaccessible.
“I know that tenants have rights in Chicago, so we can be taking action about it,” she said, “but that is a lot of time that I don’t have, especially as a student.”