As Chicago joins the world in confronting the COVID-19 pandemic, low-income and jobless residents are at the highest risk of losing the stability of their homes. While city and state officials have introduced some relief initiatives for overburdened renters and homeowners, advocates say that more needs to be done to ensure the security of the most vulnerable populations.
On Friday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the city is issuing one-time $1,000 grants to residents impacted by the economic fallout of COVID-19. The Department of Housing will dip into $2 million of in-lieu fees from developers who opted out of constructing affordable housing, as mandated by the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance.
The application is online in multiple languages at www.chicago.gov/coronavirus until April 1st at 11:59pm. Applicants will be entered into a lottery, while nonprofit organizations based throughout the city will distribute funds using their existing networks. The application asks for proof of financial impact and does not ask for immigration status. Ald. Carlos Ramírez-Rosa’s office is offering help to Spanish-speaking residents.
The Department of Family and Support Services has a rental assistance program for households at immediate risk of homelessness due to a documented crisis that is “beyond their control.” This could pertain to temporary loss of work, a fire or flood, a court-ordered eviction or foreclosure (which are currently not being enforced), or domestic violence. One setback for applicants is that they have to apply in person at one of six organizations mentioned at the city’s rental assistance website. Immigrants are eligible to apply if they have an ITIN number.
Anyone currently behind on their light and gas bills—and any debt with the city, such as traffic tickets—will not be sent to collections until after April 30 and will not accrue interest, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Comptroller Reshma Soni announced in mid March. Back in November, Lightfoot had said the city would stop shutting off water service on people who are overdue on their payments. “Water is a basic, basic human right,” she said during her campaign for mayor.
Additionally, Lightfoot announced that five Chicago hotels would be making 2,000 rooms available by the end of March for patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 or people who have somebody in their household who have tested positive, as well as those who are at high risk for the disease and housing insecure.
“We applaud the mayor for some of the immediate help to the especially vulnerable population, but we need to do more,” said Maxica Williams, a formerly homeless cancer survivor and member of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “There are about 86,000 people who are homeless in the city of Chicago and we estimate that the city needs to provide about 2,800 units of isolated housing and support services for those who are living on the street and in shelters. If there is a stay-at-home order, then we must be sure to make it a priority to provide all populations with a safe place to stay.”
The YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago has also stepped up to provide more than 400 beds for homeless people currently living in close quarters.
The Cook County Sheriff’s Office is not enforcing eviction orders after Chief Judge of the Circuit Court Timothy C. Evans canceled all court operations in non-emergency cases and suspended all evictions in the county (that had been filed and approved) for a thirty-day period.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, the only legal aid agency in Chicago that has been advocating solely for renters since 1980, said they are “relieved” the county has joined Seattle, San Francisco, and other jurisdictions in not entering or executing eviction orders during the coronavirus pandemic.
In a statement to the Weekly, executive director Mark Swartz said, “Renters should keep in mind that even though the courts may not be hearing eviction cases, they should still be responsive to any lawful notices (five-day or ten-day notices) so that they can remain in their homes after this public health crisis passes.”
Cook County Commissioner Alma Anaya said in a teleconference there would also be a moratorium on the final judgments and executions of ruling regarding mortgage foreclosures: “Our goal is to push back and make sure that we have an addition or an expansion beyond April 15. We know that this crisis isn’t going to be cleared within a few weeks. It may impact the way that we live even up to eighteen months so we need to figure out how we expand on that end.”
Homeowners will have more time to submit property tax appeals and apply for exemptions, as those deadlines have been extended, according to Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi. His staff is working remotely but will continue to review property appeals and exemptions online.
On his end, Governor J.B. Pritzker—praised for his swift response to the pandemic—is also suspending evictions and utility shutoffs and expanding unemployment benefits for Illinoisans. “I’ve made calls personally to CEOs and leaders of our largest utilities across the state, as well as employed our Interstate Commerce Commission, and we have succeeded in getting the utilities to agree to a moratorium on shutoffs during this time period. Some of them for a relatively lengthy period, I may add,” he said in a press conference.
Both ComEd and People’s Gas are suspending service disconnections for customers who are unable to pay and they are waiving late charges through May 1st. CEDA, the organization that administers federal funds for utility debt relief in Cook County, is not accepting applications at this time.
Comcast also announced it would not disconnect internet service or charge late fees until May for customers who are eligible.
Following in Lightfoot’s footsteps, Pritzker (whose family owns the Hyatt hotel corporation) is partnering with various hotels to open up some 20,000 rooms for medical workers, first responders, and people needing isolation.
State Representative Delia Ramírez, herself a housing advocate, said she has asked the governor’s office and the Illinois Department of Human Services to replace and supplement the beds that have been lost when social distancing guidelines were implemented at local shelters.
“Hotel rooms are not the only option,” she said. “I know that places like the Chicago Housing Authority have 2,000 units right now that are vacant, so we could work with the city to try to figure out if that’s a way to be able to house people.”
The CHA reported about 1,885 vacant housing units in a report from late 2019.
“We have a number of schools and places that are not being currently used that have washing machines, lockers and showers, so we are working nonstop with the city and state to identify places immediately, in addition to providing support to the shelters,” said Ramírez.
Ramírez-Rosa, Ramírez, and Anaya are joined by a list of elected officials and organizations like United Working Families and the Chicago Teachers Union who are proposing a “Right of Recovery” agenda meant to provide public relief during the COVID-19 epidemic for the most dispossessed communities in Illinois.
Since the Chicago City Council and the State of Illinois legislative sessions are cancelled during the state of emergency, progressive politicians are calling on the state, county, and city to “modernize our legislative sessions… so we are able to virtually legislate” and pass vital relief measures like paid emergency leave, an end to ICE check-ins, free COVID-19-related treatment, and weekly stimulus payments to workers who have been impacted, they said.
There should also be an indefinite moratorium on evictions and foreclosures and a waiver on all rent, mortgage, and utility payments for the duration of the pandemic, according to a statement signed by Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, Ald. Rossana Rodríguez Sánchez, Ald. Byron Sigcho-López, Ald. Jeanette Taylor, Ald. Daniel La Spata, State Sen. Robert Peters, and State Rep. Will Guzzardi.
“This of course is a working document based on the experiences of people on the ground, people who are suffering the consequences of disinvestment and certain measures that for far too long have affected our communities, especially the most vulnerable,” Sigcho-López said via teleconference.
The Democratic Socialists and progressive officials are also pushing for a legally binding moratorium on water and utility shut offs, the restoration of services previously cut off due to outstanding debt, payment plans based on a household’s ability to pay, and a utility debt forgiveness program for the neediest families. The proposed legislation also seeks to screen access to senior housing and provide quarantine support in high density buildings.
Said Rodríguez Sánchez, “We are putting forward a set of demands that are not radical … in a moment of an unprecedented public health crisis.”
This article was last updated on Saturday, March 28, 8:41am.
Jacqueline Serrato is the editor-in-chief of the Weekly. She last wrote about Metropolitan Water Reclamation District board candidate Eira Corral Sepúlveda.