Kathleen Roberts and her girlfriend are restaurant servers who pay $1,100 a month for a studio apartment. They are a month behind because of the precariousness of the industry.
Ben Avis pays $945 monthly for a studio in an old art deco building. He has seen his seasonal outdoor positions shortened.
For Lillie Therieau, the future feels uncertain about rent. Her roommate is currently unemployed.
These are all Logan Square residents on Chicago’s Northwest Side. They’re also members of newly-formed tenants unions established to put in protections for renters as the coronavirus pandemic rages on.
The economic fallout from this public health crisis has left many people unemployed — and unable to consistently pay rent, if at all. Illinois currently has a statewide moratorium on evictions. But renters worry what happens when the moratorium is lifted.
“We started organizing as a building to ask for a break on rent since so many of us had lost work,” Roberts said.
And they got a free month of rent. Soon after that, the renters in her building started talking to people fresh out of work because of the pandemic in other buildings owned by the same landlord, M. Fishman & Co.
They decided to form a tenants union to share information, provide each other with support and to better protect themselves. They’re consulting with other tenants groups to determine what legal protections they have and how best they can negotiate terms with their landlords to stay in their apartments.
Their tenants union doesn’t require dues. It’s not formal or hierarchical. To become a member, a tenant just sends an email. And if they choose, members can attend weekly virtual meetings, show up at demonstrations or participate in call-ins.
Therieau lives in a building with a different owner, A. Saccone & Sons. She said the demand now is about nixing late fees on rent and addressing repairs. The fear is whenever the moratorium is lifted, a flood of evictions will crush tenants.
“As people get further and further behind on rent, the amount of debt that people are amassing is pretty insurmountable,” Therieau said. “For some people it’s $5,000 to $6,000, which isn’t something you can pay if you’ve had no job for seven months.”
Neither building owner made anyone available for an interview.
For decades, Logan Square was a mostly Latino, working-class community on the city’s Northwest Side. It’s now a gentrified neighborhood after waves of young, higher-income white professionals have flocked there in recent years, and that’s a fact not lost on this trio of organizers — each of whom is white.
“The only way to really fight back against landlords and capitalists, in general, is to build dual power and organize as ordinary working people,” Avis said.
Tenants unions have been around for a long time locally and nationally — from Autonomous Tenants Union to Los Angeles Tenants Union. They focus on housing as a human right and fight against evictions and gentrification.
Experts expect to see more tenants unions form as the prospect of evictions loom with COVID-19. Renters in various Chicago neighborhoods are doing similar work to the ones in Logan Square.
Anti-eviction lawyers say 500,000 Illinois renters are at risk for eviction. In the meantime, they are protecting the tenants who have faced illegal lockouts or evictions by their landlords.
But if landlords don’t collect rents, they, too, can’t pay their bills. Bonita Harrison finds herself in that bind. She owns properties in Englewood and Auburn Gresham on the South Side. She said her tenants are the working poor.
“I work with a very delicate pool of tenants and those tenants may work two or three jobs and they don’t really make enough money to create any type of savings, but they don’t qualify for any subsidies,” Harrison said.
Her rent collection rate was 100% before the pandemic; now, it’s 60%, Harrison said. She’s had to borrow money from her family to make ends meet.
For months, landlords have criticized the state’s eviction moratorium. They say it robs them of a critical tool they need to stay afloat. The Neighborhood Building Owners Alliance is a coalition of landlords that own 65,000 units in Chicago. In a recent survey released about September rents, owners said collection is down more than usual. A third said they’re losing money. And half said they have tenants that refuse to communicate with them.
The deep struggles of both renters and property owners during the pandemic is partly why the current crisis is unique — and why the fallout could be so devastating.
“This is probably one of the scariest times I’ve seen,” said Jawanza Malone, who worked for many years on housing causes from rent control to preserving public housing as the executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. “If there aren’t structural fixes to this problem, it’s going to be infinitely worse than the foreclosure crisis.”
The fix Malone wants is for banks to defer — not cancel — loan payments from property owners without penalties. If landlords don’t have that debt, then they won’t be in a bind with renters who can’t pay.