In a time of economic and public health crisis when additional tenant protections are desperately needed, it is incredibly frustrating that one of the most essential tenant laws continues to go unenforced. Anti-eviction advocates hope that increased public awareness and pressure around illegal lockouts will force the city’s lawmakers to enforce its municipal code.
In a June interview with the Tribune, Obama CBA Coalition organizing member Ebonée Green discussed how the fight against the “violence of displacement” parallels the fight against police violence, and how both are an integral part of the Movement for Black Lives. In an interview with the Weekly, Javier Ruiz of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization elaborated. In terms of evictions, said Ruiz, the violence of displacement comes in three main forms: standard evictions through the court system, “invisible evictions,” where landlords serve thirty-day notices to force month-to-month tenants out without using the courts, and “illegal lockouts,” in which landlords remove tenants by changing the locks, shutting off utilities, throwing out personal property, or other forceful methods.
Governor Pritzker recently extended the state of Illinois’ moratorium on evictions through August 22, but landlords are challenging it in court. Nevertheless, illegal lockouts continue—Ruiz said that throughout the pandemic, MTO has constantly been getting calls from tenants who were subjected to such tactics. As MTO reported to the Sun Times, from mid-March to mid-June, the organization has received roughly double the normal monthly averages for calls about illegal lockouts. In addition, invisible evictions have continued during the pandemic, and as the Weekly reported in June, even for government-subsidized tenants who were supposed to be protected under the federal CARES Act.
While the legality of invisible evictions has been defended by landlord advocates like Richard Magnone, an attorney whose firm runs the blog ChicagoEviction.com, there is no question that lockouts are illegal. Chicago municipal code § 5-12-160 provides, “It is unlawful for any landlord or any person acting at his direction knowingly to oust or dispossess or threaten or attempt to oust or dispossess any tenant from a dwelling unit without authority of law,” by changing locks, interfering with utilities, removing property, using force, etc. The municipal code tasks the Chicago Police Department with investigating calls about illegal lockouts, and if landlords are found to have violated the code they are subject to fines ranging from $200-$500 for each day that the tenant is locked out, and possibly even arrest, according to Ruiz.
However, he and MTO’s clients have found that the police have been enabling landlords to conduct lockouts by failing to take action against those who violate the municipal code. Ruiz said that police typically don’t take these violations seriously because they are technically a civil matter, which raises the question of why the police are tasked with enforcing this code, and many other civil and criminal matters, in the first place. Demonstrating their true role in upholding whiteness as property, in the words of University of California Los Angeles School of Law Professor Cheryl I. Harris, the CPD had no problem with making multiple arrests when it came to protestors who were occupying the space outside the Daley Center to demand the cancellation of rent and a stop to all evictions for the duration of the pandemic throughout the week of August 17. “Our state is well equipped to arrest peaceful protesters on public property, but utterly ill-equipped to keep families housed in a pandemic,” said Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) Executive Director Jawanza Malone.
Ruiz also said that increased public awareness is essential because many tenants just assume that landlords are within their property rights to conduct lockouts and invisible evictions. He said that, “People think, when they get the thirty-day notice, that they are being kicked out the thirty-first day,” no matter what, and that most people aren’t aware that the landlord can’t evict them without going through the entire court process. Further, most people do not have the resources to hire an attorney, or they are not aware of the free legal aid that is available.
In addition, the demand for legal aid services for civil issues like eviction in this country far outpaces the supply—the Legal Services Corporation’s most recent “Justice Gap” Report found that “[Seventy-one percent] of low-income Americans experience at least one civil legal problem per year, yet [eighty-six percent] of them receive either minimal or no legal help to deal with it.” According to the Lawyer’s Committee for Better Housing (LCBH), in Chicago between 2010 and 2017, seventy-nine percent of landlords had attorneys in eviction court, while only eleven percent of tenants did.
There was an average of 23,000 cases filed per year, and tenant access to counsel made a significant difference—by having an attorney, tenants decreased their chances of getting an eviction order by almost twenty-five percent. Consequently, LCBH and other tenant advocates and elected officials are pushing for Illinois and Chicago to implement a “Right to Counsel” for tenants in eviction court.
Stacey—who preferred not to share her real name for fear of retaliation during or after ongoing negotiations with her landlord—said that:
I’m a tough person and I will research the law to figure out what my rights are, but a lot of people are not gonna do that. So I actually saw people with bags leaving in the middle of the evening, so some of those conversations [with landlords] probably didn’t go too well because people probably don’t know what their rights are. People were pressured to leave. One tenant [was] leaving with her kids, I felt really bad. I almost wanted to say to her well you don’t have to do that, you need to get a lawyer and try to get some help, but I think some people just don’t know. So when you have management walking around knocking on doors saying “Hey can you leave?” People feel uncomfortable and they feel pressured.… You’re not supposed to do that. There were actually some landlords saying “Hey we’re gonna waive April/May [rent] and we know what everyone is dealing with.” Cagan was the exact opposite.
While Stacey did fall behind on rent, she fortunately was able to remain in her apartment while negotiating with her landlord, Cagan Management, after she contacted MTO and was helped by Ruiz. But she only found out about MTO by calling 311 after figuring out that Cagan had illegally disconnected her electricity in May, after months of texts and apartment visits from Cagan employees pressuring her to pay up or move out. Stacey was also one of the 78,000 Chicago renters who were denied relief in the city’s completely inadequate housing grant lottery program. But Stacey was fortunate that while she fell behind on rent and lost income due to the coronavirus pandemic, she was able to replace some income relatively quickly through the state’s unemployment insurance system—which was overwhelmed with record claims numbers—and now the federal expanded unemployment insurance program has expired.
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While the continued extension of the eviction moratorium is urgently necessary, without further tenant protections like the Just Cause eviction ordinance or State Representative Delia Ramirez’s rent cancellation bill, many thousands more people will be forced from their homes whenever the eviction moratorium expires. While it is important for tenants to have adequate moving time if they choose to move out, the recently-passed fair notice ordinance is wholly inadequate to the crisis at hand, much like the voluntary and unenforceable “housing solidarity pledge.” Mayor Lightfoot’s non-binding version of Just Cause will not prevent people from being displaced.
Even before the current pandemic, the housing crisis in Chicago required at the very least the implementation of rent control and the construction of thousands of units of social housing. The city currently has a deficit of around 182,000 affordable housing units according to Jawanza Malone in a recent interview with the Weekly. Further, because coronavirus cases are once again rising in Illinois, it is now even more imperative that we ensure that all people have a safe place to stay. The effects of a surge in evictions, like the effects of another surge in coronavirus cases, would all but certainly be disproportionately felt by Chicagoans of color. Much more must be done to prevent that from happening.
Bobby Vanecko is a contributor to the Weekly. He is a law student at Loyola University Chicago. He last wrote about his conversation with police torture survivor Mark Clements.