Revised COVID-19 eviction ban draws ire of Chicago housing activists

Chicago housing activists Ben Avis and Kathleen Roberts at an October protest in Hyde Park. Citywide, organizers are calling for rent to be forgiven amid surging COVID-19 cases. On Nov. 13, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker extended the statewide eviction moratorium another month, but some housing activists say it’s a weakened version that hurts tenants. (Courtney Kueppers/ MEDILL)

By Courtney Kueppers
Medill Reports 

When the coronavirus pandemic first began, Ivy Abid felt like she had to find a way to help people. So the 35-year-old high school teacher started answering calls on a hotline set up by Chicago housing activists for tenants in need.

In the spring, Abid and other Chicago Tenants Movement volunteers used a script for these calls that included telling renters about the statewide eviction moratorium enacted by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. 

When people learned about the ban, which makes it illegal for landlords to toss out tenants who cannot make rent payments due to the pandemic, “the relief was just immediate,” Abid said. 

However, that script has recently been rewritten. Since March, the governor has renewed the eviction moratorium on a month-to-month basis. 

Mostly recently, Pritzker extended the ban on evictions until Dec. 12, but he also added changes to the moratorium that angered housing activists like Abid. 

Among the new requirements: tenants must prove they are unable to pay rent because of the pandemic, and that they are trying to make partial payments, as Pritzker announced at a Nov. 13 press conference. 

“With input from smaller landlords and property owners, this new moratorium will ensure that the rents are paid by tenants who may have been taking advantage of the eviction moratorium but who are in, fact, able to make their monthly rent payments,” Pritzker said

Under the revised order, which comes as COVID-19 cases surge, tenants must sign and submit a declaration to their landlord that confirms they will earn less than $99,000 in 2020, that they are unable to pay rent because of “a COVID-19 related hardship” and that they are likely to become homeless if evicted. The newly mandatory paperwork is considered sworn testimony under the penalty of perjury.

Many housing activists in Chicago see Pritzker’s revised policy as a watered-down version of a moratorium they considered too weak to begin with. And the change has left Abid and other housing activists scrambling to make sure renters in the city know their rights. 

“The level of calls that we’re getting and the level of trouble that tenants are in means we’re at a time now when we need more assistance than ever to help people who are at risk of becoming unhoused,” Abid said. “We’re not getting it and the state is not stepping in to fill in the gap.”

Housing groups in Chicago have criticized the governor for working with landlords instead of tenants’ unions; placing more of a burden on renters; and not taking more sweeping actions to freeze rent altogether. Under the current policy, tenants have to pay back missed rent when the moratorium ends, a likely impossibility for many. 

The looming burden of having to scrape together multiple months of rent is what worries Chicago activist J.R. Fleming, who anticipates mass evictions when Pritzker stops renewing the ban.  

“Delayed defeat. I mean, I’m happy he (extended the ban) but he delayed defeat,” Fleming, who runs the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, said of Pritzker’s latest move. “Eventually the evictions are going to happen, and everybody knows it. We’re just buying time without giving people resources. 

Across the city, the game plan of many activists has been vocal opposition to landlords and getting organized, often in the form of banding together in tenants’ groups.

Last month, Kathleen Roberts and Ben Avis made the trip from Logan Square to Hyde Park in the interest of showing a little neighborly love. They both organize on behalf of tenants’ rights in the North Side neighborhood but wanted to show solidarity with housing activists on Chicago’s South Side.

“We’re excited about what’s happening in the city and excited to support each other,” Roberts said while wearing a “Black lives matter” mask.

Avis and Roberts are members of North Spaulding Renters’ Association, a group that has called for one of the neighborhoods’ major landlords, M Fishman & Co., to cancel rent amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

At the Hyde Park event in October, the duo carried a sign that read “Something Fishy going on? We are tenants here to help.” It’s their message to their neighbors and the sentiment of tenants’ groups across the city that see it as their job to help each other in ways they feel the government has failed to do.

“Our big concern for a while now has been that eventually the moratoriums are going to run out and there was never any actual rent forgiveness,” Roberts said recently. “So people are just facing down like insurmountable debt that landlords will leverage to to evict people.”

Avis and Roberts joined the Hyde Park organizers in a march through the neighborhood chanting, “Cancel rent, cancel cops, all evictions got to stop.”

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