Rental Assistance Grants Have Helped Thousands Across Chicago During The Pandemic

For Rent sign in Illinois
A "for rent" sign is displayed outside an apartment in Illinois on Oct. 15, 2020. Chicago's Department of Housing has awarded $23 million in rental and mortgage assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic and is preparing to provide another $80 million in grants. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press
For Rent sign in Illinois
A "for rent" sign is displayed outside an apartment in Illinois on Oct. 15, 2020. Chicago's Department of Housing has awarded $23 million in rental and mortgage assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic and is preparing to provide another $80 million in grants. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press

Rental Assistance Grants Have Helped Thousands Across Chicago During The Pandemic

Tiffany Henderson is a fourth grade math instructional assistant who lives in a rental home in Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood with her three children. When the pandemic hit, her after-school tutoring sessions dried up, and Henderson’s income decreased by $600 a month.

She dipped into her savings as bills piled up, which put her two months behind in rent.

Last November, Henderon applied for rental assistance from the city on a Tuesday. By Friday, she received $2,000.

“Not only did that get me out of the hole, it gave me a bit of excess,” Henderson said. “After I paid my carrying charge and late fees, I had maybe $250 leftover, and I put that in a fund and I’ve used it for groceries and toiletries and things like that.”

Tens of thousands of Chicagoans have fallen behind on their rent payments since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and the stay-at-home order uprooted life in March 2020. And landlords have been strained by the crisis. There’s been financial assistance and mediation, with more coming before Illinois permanently stops extending its eviction moratorium.

By mid-March 2020, the Chicago Department of Housing (DOH) shifted to coronavirus response and gave out money in a lottery to people like Henderson. The department also worked with numerous community-based organizations, like the Chicago Urban League, to find those renters.

Henderson was one of the lucky ones. Of the 100,000 people who applied, just 10,000 were selected. In all, the department last year distributed a total of $23 million in two rounds to help households affected by unemployment and loss of income with rent and mortgage assistance.

Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara said the money mostly went to the South and West sides.

“But, interestingly, we received applications from all 50 wards and all 77 community areas,” Novara said. “This was not something where the need was only felt in a couple of places.”

Now she’s gearing up for Round 3 with significantly more money. Last December, Congress passed a package that will give $80 million to DOH. Officials are currently working on how to dole out the money.

“We’re hoping to make a really big dent in lowering any potential evictions that may come down the road,” Novara said.

The city also funded lawyers to help with evictions — stopping illegal lockouts and helping renters negotiate settlements with landlords.

Advocates are gearing up, too, for what some believe will be an avalanche of evictions once Illinois ends its moratorium — a move that has helped many renters stay in their apartments even as they’ve fallen behind during the pandemic.

“I know that there are landlords out there that are hurting for rent money,” said Michelle Gilbert, legal director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing (LCBH.) “The solution isn’t to have a lot of people become homeless and a lot of empty units because the landlord doesn’t want to rent to the people who someone else just evicted.

“And housing destabilization hurts our communities, and it could lead people into foreclosure,” Gilbert continued. “This other way, where landlords and tenants should be on the same page, is to prevent the eviction and provide rental assistance instead.”

Meanwhile, month after month, Gov. JB Pritzker has consistently extended the state’s eviction moratorium. He hasn’t said when that will end. The LCBH predicts massive eviction filings in Cook County once the moratorium is finally lifted — 20,000 in the first month alone. That’s more than what was filed the entire year prior to the pandemic.

Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.