Chicago Renters Facing Eviction Often Do It Alone | WBEZ
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Chicago Renters Facing Eviction Often Do It Alone

Lauren Perales, 27, is a nursing assistant who was almost evicted out of her apartment in the Marquette Park neighborhood last year.

For months, water had been leaking from the kitchen ceiling, but the landlord hadn’t fixed it, Perales said. Her husband skipped a rent payment in protest, and five days later the family received an eviction notice.

With help from an attorney from the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, a nonprofit that provides legal aid to renters, the family was not evicted.

“It was dismissed. And the landlord had to pay me money [for] suffering to move out,” Perales said. “What I learned from this experience was it’s hard sometimes because maybe you don’t have help or know someone to help you.”

New data and a report released Thursday by the LCBH shows that the vast majority of renters facing eviction in Chicago don’t have the help that Perales received — and that the assistance can have a major impact on the outcome.

On Thursday, the LCBH unveiled a new online portal that breaks down eviction filing rates by community area and ward.

LCBH Executive Director Mark Swartz said the main surprise was finding that renters facing eviction are much better off when they have attorneys. Landlords were seven times more likely to have an attorney than tenants, according to the nonprofit’s report.

“Renters will typically have an eviction order 60% of the time in eviction court,” Swartz said. “With with [a private] attorney it drops down to about 50%, and with a legal aid attorney it drops to about 25%.”

Between 2010 and 2017, Chicago saw an average of 23,000 eviction cases filed per year. In those cases, 79% of landlords had attorneys, while only 11% of tenants did.

The LCBH data also shows stark racial disparities in evictions facing renters in Chicago.

People in eviction court are primarily low-income African Americans, Swartz said. “While we understood that there were disparities — we see them in court every day — to see [it on the portal] is jarring.”

When ranking Chicago community areas by eviction filing rates in 2017, the 16 highest rates were found in majority-black community areas on the city’s South and West sides. Those black communities with the highest eviction rates also possessed some of the city’s highest levels of poverty — ranging from 27% to 63% of residents living below the poverty line, according to the LCBH data.

Collectively, in 2017, the eviction rate in majority-black community areas — 6.2 eviction filings per 100 households — was twice as high as the citywide rate of 3.1 filings per 100 households.

Additionally, the collective eviction filing rate for black communities was more than four times higher than the rate in majority-white communities (1.4 eviction filings per 100 households) and more than double the rate in majority-Latino communities (2.7 filings per 100 households), according to the report.

In South Shore, there were 8.6 eviction filings per 100 rental units in 2017, the highest rate in the city. A 2017 Chicago Reader investigation detailed South Shore as the city’s “eviction capital.”

Sixty percent of eviction filings end in eviction orders. An order can lead to a forced removal by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. “They can also result in the termination of Housing Choice Vouchers [commonly known as Section 8] or disqualify tenants from future federal housing assistance,” the report states. “A money judgment will have a negative impact on renters’ credit scores, thereby increasing other expenses, as credit scores are often the basis for interest rates on credit cards, loans, and utility deposits.”

Evictions can economically cripple families. In his landmark book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, sociologist Matthew Desmond shows how evictions mire renters in poverty and are connected to a host of other issues.

LCBH produced the eviction data portal and the report to bring local awareness. Swartz said the group considers that the citywide eviction filing rate of 3.1 eviction filings per 100 households is too high.

“I want people to understand the scope of the problem in Chicago at the community level,” Swartz said. “If policy makers see these disparities, maybe we can start addressing and targeting resources to those neighborhoods.”

In the report, the nonprofit notes that time and a dearth of civil legal aid attorneys contribute to the problem of tenants facing eviction without representation.

“Tenants are summoned to court for trial in as little as one week after receiving court papers,” the report states. “Tenants who know to ask may be allowed one additional week to seek an attorney.”

Citing figures from justiceindex.org, the report notes that in Illinois, there’s less than one civil legal aid attorney for every 2,000 individuals with incomes below twice the federal poverty line.

LCBH recommends several policy initiatives, including making sure homeless prevention funds from the state go toward people facing evictions. Swartz said renters facing evictions should have lawyers in court.

“There is an increasing consensus around the benefits of a right to counsel. Most notably, in 2017, New York became the first city in the country to launch a right to counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction. In 2018, voters in San Francisco approved Proposition F to provide legal representation to all tenants facing eviction regardless of income,” the report states.

Currently, an “eviction brief advice desk” is being piloted by Chicago law firms and legal aid clinics to help tenants without attorneys.

LCBH is sponsoring an eviction forum Thursday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. at Austin Town Hall, 5610 W. Lake St.

Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ's Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @natalieymoore.

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