Ellen Hao

Filed Away

For the second year in a row, realtor advocates hold up eviction-sealing legislation

The first thing to understand is that an eviction filing is not an eviction order. Think of an eviction filing like an arrest—a legal action that in no way indicates guilt. An eviction order, on the other hand, is the result of a court’s decision in favor of the landlord who filed the eviction. Thousands of evictions are filed in Cook County every year, and yet over one third do not result in an eviction order.

This is a distinction that some landlords in Illinois either ignore or fail to grasp. Every year, over 15,000 households face a new eviction filing on their record, despite having no judgement ruled against them. Consumer rating agencies—which landlords rely on to screen prospective tenants—penalize households that have an eviction filing on their record, making it more and more difficult for these households to secure affordable housing.

For the second year in a row, a bill that would address this issue has failed to pass.

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The latest iteration of the bill—House Bill 2299, sponsored by state Representative Delia Ramirez, a Northwest Side progressive who was sworn in earlier this year—would require circuit court clerks to immediately impound eviction files until the court can rule on the eviction action. Under current law, when a landlord files a residential eviction action, the court file is public record, meaning that anyone can see the court file. The proposed bill would impound these court files until a judge can determine the validity of the claims. An impounded court file can only be viewed by the plaintiff (the landlord), the defendant (the tenant), and their respective legal counsel. Anyone else would require a court order to view the eviction file.

In cases where the court does not file an eviction order—the court finds in favor of the tenant, the complaint is dropped, or the tenant and landlord come to an agreement—the eviction filing would remain impounded. In cases where the court finds in favor of the landlord and the court files an eviction order, the court file would be un-impounded and available to the public. During this time, any member of the public could view the eviction order and associated court files—including prospective landlords and consumer reporting agencies. However, after five years, these court files, too, would be sealed, and thus only viewable with a court order.

The bill would also allow judges to impound court files even if they find in favor of the landlord and an eviction order is filed. The bill lays out examples where the judge could order a discretionary impoundment of the court file, including cases where the judgment for the landlord is $1,000 or less, the tenant has a reasonable defense, or if the landlord and tenant reach an agreement allowing the tenant to remain in the property. The court file would also remain impounded in a foreclosure-related eviction or not-for-cause eviction. This protects tenants who are evicted because their landlord is foreclosed upon or in cases where the landlord decides not to renew a tenant’s lease.

Finally, the bill would prohibit consumer reporting agencies from disclosing sealed or impounded court files to prospective landlords. Eviction files are frequently used in assessments of prospective tenants that consumer reporting agencies provide landlords. Consumer reporting agencies frequently keep their own records of eviction filings. This means that if a court file ever existed on the public record, consumer reporting agencies can keep a record of the court file—even if the court file is later sealed or impounded. Consumer reporting agencies can then use these sealed or impounded eviction files in their assessment of prospective tenants. The proposed bill would prohibit the disclosure of sealed or impounded court records, meaning that consumer reporting agencies could not use the sealed or impounded court records in their report to landlords.

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The bill passed the House’s Judiciary-Civil Committee’s Commercial Law subcommittee in a five-to-two vote—the subcommittee’s two Republicans voting against—but the Judiciary-Civil Committee failed to call the bill to a vote in the allotted amount of time, resulting in it being referred back to the Rules Committee, where bills can remain in limbo for the rest of the session. Having passed the deadline to be heard this session, the bill is in dire straits. “We came back with amendments to hopefully neutralize opposition in the committee,” Ramirez said. “However, after many meetings with the opposition…we weren’t able to come to an agreement.”

A similar bill sponsored by state Representative Theresa Mah, who represents parts of the South Side, also failed to pass last session. The current iteration of the bill included “substantial revisions and concessions to the bill from last year,” Ramirez told the Weekly. Still, the two sides were unable to agree to terms that would allow the bill to move forward.

Ramirez expressed frustration with realtors and landlord advocates, who she says feel pressured to make hard stands against eviction filing and rent control bills that were proposed this session. “Nothing that we could have done on that bill would have gotten through negotiations,” Ramirez said. “It’s actually been quite frustrating—how many negotiations and how many meetings went nowhere.”

Bob Palmer, the policy director of Housing Action Illinois, which helped draft the bill along with the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing, remains optimistic that progress on the bill is still possible. “We just need more time to make sure we have the votes to pass the bill and see what additional changes we can make to address concerns, while still providing meaningful reforms to expand access to sealing tenant eviction records,” he said.  

Ramirez and Palmer hope to keep working the bill over the summer and reintroduce a revised version next session.

In the meantime, tenants with eviction filings on their records continue to struggle to find housing, as the Weekly’s Nicole Bond wrote in an essay about her experiences in the 2018 Housing Issue. “It’s not unusual for bills to take multiple years to pass the General Assembly. We plan to keep working on the issue,” Palmer said. “However, we know that the longer it takes us to pass reforms, the more people will be harmed due to having an eviction filing on their record.”

A March 2018 report by the two groups sheds a light on the magnitude of the issue, estimating that “15,091 people each year ended up or will end up with a public eviction record despite having not eviction order or other judgement against them,” and that “landlords often presume culpability from the existence of an eviction filing on the public record.”

Many landlords may not understand the difference between an eviction filing and an eviction order, and often rely on consumer reporting agencies to assess prospective tenants. And relying on eviction records can give a misleading impression of the prospective tenant, as the online court records that landlords and consumer reporting agencies rely on are often incomplete or difficult to interpret, according to Housing Action Illinois.

To make matters worse, the tight low-income housing market makes it even harder for low-income renters to find affordable accommodations. Demand for affordable housing vastly outstrips the available supply in the Chicago area, and recent trends indicate that the problem is only getting worse. In this climate of scarce affordable housing, it can be near-impossible for a low-income household with an eviction filing on their record to find appropriate accommodation.

Low-income families often face the choice between low-quality affordable housing and paying rents that are above their means. Either choice creates an environment which can lead to disputes with landlords.

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Consumer reporting agencies may be partially to blame for the problem. The reports they aggregate for landlords are often generalized scores that do not provide a complete picture of the prospective tenant.

Consumer reporting agencies use a variety of factors to assess prospective tenants, including credit scores, background checks, and eviction filings. Often, a prospective tenant is penalized even for the existence of an eviction filing, regardless of the context of the case or whether the an eviction order was ever filed. When a landlord receives the recommendation, this information is often aggregated into an overall score, and the details—including the judgement of the eviction action—is buried in the details of the report, or not reported at all.

Consumer reporting agencies pull from online public records. But this information can be difficult to interpret. “[It’s] hard to tell the difference between what a eviction filing is and what an eviction order actually is,” said Palmer. “Some companies make a recommendation to the landlord based on a variety of factors including a eviction judgement or an eviction filing. Maybe the prospective landlord isn’t looking at an actual record—they’re just getting a recommendation from some company that compiled online data without any context or details about the case.”

This problem is compounded when consumer reporting agencies keep a private records, based on the information they pull from public records. This can lead to problems when their records include out-of-date information, which may not update when eviction records are sealed. “Certain [consumer reporting agencies] cannot be trusted to report accurately on the data,” Palmer said. “We know that a lot of companies don’t update their records.”

HB229 would prohibit consumer reporting agencies from disclosing impounded or sealed eviction files or from including using these eviction files in their assessments of prospective tenants.

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Landlord associations argue that the proposed bill would make difficult to screen prospective tenants. “Evictions are a costly and time consuming process,” said M. Jane Garvey, of Chicago Creative Investors Association, a local real estate advocacy group. “Knowing about a tenant’s past history with evictions is critical for landlords.”

Garvey argues that eviction filings are still pertinent information for many landlords. “Many eviction cases do not go to judgment. This does not mean that they are cases filed without cause. They still cost the landlord a lot of money, time, and aggravation.”

Even an eviction filing often indicates that “there was an interruption to the income, or disturbances that were creating enough of a problem for the landlord to take an expensive and time consuming action,” Garvey said.

Furthermore, Garvey argues that the bill could hurt all renters, just because of a few bad actors. “If the cases are sealed, all tenants will pay the price for the increased risk. Tenants who have a series of repeat evictions will not be as easy to detect, so they will continue their damaging behavior.”

Other landlord advocates say that sealing eviction records would enable “serial evictees,” who jump from landlord to landlord, leaving before their eviction record catches up to them.

Such complaints are “far-fetched scenarios about the worst tenant you could possibly imagine, which doesn’t reflect the vast majority of people,” says Palmer. “If a tenant is going from building-to-building then they’re going to have a rental history that reflects that they keep moving. That’s something that the landlord could take into consideration.”

In fact, Palmer said there are a variety of different methods that landlords could use to screen prospective tenants that do not rely on eviction filings. “They could do a credit report, they could do direct landlord references, they could do home visits. There are a whole variety of things to screen a tenant.”

However this issue is resolved, it is clear that thousands of renters are being locked out of access to affordable housing that they need. Tenants who are evicted for legitimate reasons must, of course, be held accountable. But eviction filings are, at best, an imperfect indicator that landlords and consumer reporting agencies continue to misuse when screening prospective tenants.

“We understand that landlords have an interest in having good tenants and reviewing the suitability of people to live in their building,” Palmer said. “If somebody is being evicted for nonpayment, we certainly understand that that’s part of the public record and landlords need to take that into consideration…We just feel like having an eviction filing without the judgment is not fair to the vast majority of people who have that eviction filing against them.”

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Ian Hodgson is a contributing editor at the Weekly.

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