Chicago housing activists help tenants prepare for winter amid the pandemic

Activist John Hieronymus marched for tenants' rights with a bullhorn in one hand and a banner in another that read, “eviction is death.”
Tenants United’s John Hieronymus marches against illegal evictions with a small group of activists in Hyde Park. (Courtney Kueppers/MEDILL)

By Courtney Kueppers
Medill Reports

Yvonne Williams went to Hyde Park for a Saturday afternoon lunch, but she left with much more.

The 48-year-old mother of four is out of work and said her landlord is threatening to evict her from her South Shore apartment, despite the statewide eviction moratorium that’s been in place since the coronavirus pandemic began.

“Times are hard,” Williams said Saturday as big tears rolled down her face. But despite the hardship, on Oct. 24, she “got a blessing.”

After a friend treated her to lunch at Nando’s Peri-Peri, the fast-casual chicken chain, Williams happened upon a group of activists with tables set up along Hyde Park’s 53rd Street.

When Williams approached the tables lined with gift bags, cups of soup and a stack of winter coats, the local housing activists sprang into action. Grassroots groups including Tenants United organized the event to raise awareness about substandard living conditions in Chicago and educate renters about their rights.

“We know that things are going to get rough in terms of illegal evictions, landlords neglecting their buildings illegally,” Tenants United’s John Hieronymus said. “We want to get prepared for this winter.”

For Williams, that meant she left with new coats for her family and a small space heater for their apartment — where she said the heat, which is included as part of her rent and controlled by management, has been inconsistent so far this year.

“The landlord isn’t doing anything and the heat cuts on and off,” Williams said. “I have to use the oven and keep the dryer running just to keep the heat rolling.”

Williams and other tenants in similar situations are forced to find ways like this to heat their homes when dealing with broken heating systems and unresponsive landlords. That’s despite the fact that the city’s heat ordinance mandates that from Sept. 15 through June 1, the temperature inside rental properties be at least 68 degrees from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. and at least 66 degrees from 10:30 p.m. to 8 a.m.

Activist Faye Porter wears a yellow and orange flame hat and spoke to people walking by.
Activist Faye Porter informed tenants of their rights and addressed passerby through a bullhorn in Hyde Park on Oct. 24. (Courtney Kueppers/MEDILL)

When Williams began to cry on Saturday, activist Faye Porter put her hand on her shoulder and said a prayer. Porter said being able to help her neighbors like this “soothes her.”

“That could be me,” said Porter, who helped organize the event. “Sometimes it is me. But just because that’s me sometimes, doesn’t mean I can’t help anybody.”

Porter, who is in her 50s, has worked to advocate for South Side tenants for years, but she is especially concerned about this upcoming winter. As the coronavirus pandemic continues in Chicago and beyond, a large number of residents are out of work and having a harder time making ends meet.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker recently extended the statewide eviction ban another month. But activists worry not only about what will happen when it is lifted, but also about what the conditions look like within people’s apartments right now. Their mission is to try to make sure everyone is housed this winter in a space that is livable. That’s why Porter and others want residents like Williams to know their rights regarding things like working heat.

Under the city heat ordinance, landlords who don’t provide sufficient heat can face fees of $500 per day, per violation, but Porter knows firsthand that plenty of tenants are still cold in their own homes.

At last Saturday’s event, she addressed passersby with a bullhorn, while wearing a yellow and orange foam hat in the shape of a flame.

“If you need help, we are here for you,” Porter said in her booming voice. “We’re here because we are your neighbors. We’re here because we don’t want you to live in the same conditions that some of us have. Tenants, if you hear me, we have the power.”

As the rally wound down, Porter and Hieronymus led the small group of about a dozen activists in a march down the street. Hieronymus had a bullhorn in one hand and a banner in another that read, “eviction is death.”

Courtney Kueppers covers social justice at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @cmkueppers.