Despite city, community response, eviction threat persists


Illustration by Catherine Buchaniec

Local organizations and the city have worked to provide rent assistance and educate residents on tenant protections. But concerns remain over a potential eviction crisis as unpaid rent continues to pile up.

Joshua Irvine, Reporter

Eight months after the United States began COVID-19 shutdowns, Evanston is taking new measures to combat the looming threat of mass evictions when state and federal moratoriums expire in December. But the city’s preparations may not be enough — tenants’ rights advocates, nonprofit leaders and Evanston’s top housing official expressed concern about the scope of the forthcoming housing crisis.

Earlier this month, City Council approved a prioritization scheme to distribute around $500,000 in federal aid funding to residents at risk of losing their housing for nonpayment of rent. Eviction moratoriums passed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are set to expire in the coming months, with Pritzker’s order renewed through Dec. 12, and the latter active until the end of the year.

The city has also distributed funding to residents through its General Assistance Program and Emergency Assistance Fund, and funneled federal dollars to local nonprofits providing housing assistance.

Calculating how many residents are behind on rent has proven to be a challenge. The city estimates around 10 percent of Evanston renter households – about 1,168 – are rent insecure, based on American Community Survey and US Census data.

Philip DeVon, an eviction prevention specialist at the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, said “well over 80 percent” of calls taken by the organization from Evanston renters concern unpaid rent.

“Almost all of the calls are about the inability to pay and the landlord wanting them out,” DeVon said. Though landlords cannot currently evict residents for not paying rent, DeVon said some landlords have locked out tenants anyway or filed lawsuits on related grounds.

National and local reporting earlier this year projected a drastic increase in eviction cases. The majority of tenants’ rights advocates and nonprofit leaders who spoke to The Daily in May stuck to that assessment when asked again in recent weeks.

The $450,000 from the city is expected to assist some 50 to 70 households through rent assistance paid directly to landlords. Under the prioritization index City Council approved in November, that money will be targeted toward census tracts in the city’s 5th and 8th Wards, which have been disparately affected by the pandemic and include high percentages of low-income residents, public assistance residents and residents of color.

The city estimates up to 202 households could potentially receive rent assistance through programs with the Illinois Housing Development Authority and Cook County.

But the city’s Housing and Grants Manager, Sarah Flax, said even with assistance from city, county and state programs, it’s unlikely all residents’ needs have been met.

“There’s potentially a huge number of people who are not current on their rent,” Flax said.
“There’s a whole lot of potential for people to lose housing.”

Resources outside of city assistance are also limited, as many local organizations have found their funding drained as the pandemic drags on. Connections for the Homeless, an Evanston-based nonprofit providing assistance to those experiencing housing insecurity, put a hold on applications for eviction prevention support beginning Nov. 1. The organization instituted the hold after distributing more than $700,000 in federal, state and local grants to over 300 households since the beginning of the year, according to a news release.

Connections currently has a backlog of 75 to 100 households on a waitlist for funding support, which is expected to exhaust funding for one-time direct rent assistance. Despite funding shortfalls, Associate Director of Development Jennifer Kouba said residents can continue to apply for utility support. Kouba later told The Daily in an email the city would be providing additional support to Connections. In November, the city also approved an ordinance allocating $80,000 to Connections to provide meals to homeless residents temporarily housed by the nonprofit.

Even with the combined efforts of city officials and local organizations, Flax said a comprehensive solution is outside the grasp of local entities.

“The state and municipalities really don’t have the capacity to address these issues on this kind of scale,” Flax said.

She said resolving the city’s housing issues would likely require the intervention of the federal government, citing the $3 trillion package passed by the House of Representatives in May, which has since stalled in the Senate, as a failed source of support.

In the interim, tenants’ rights organizations have continued to shore up their defenses, working to educate residents on their rights and encouraging landlords and renters to seek solutions outside of eviction court. The city hosted a renter’s information webinar with MTO and the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing last week, and DeVon said they will host one this Thursday for landlords.

Megan McClung, a lawyer with the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, said legal aid attorneys are trying to educate as many at-risk renters as possible, as as the legal community has concerns they will not be able to provide support for all renters needing representation in eviction court.

“We won’t be able to represent everybody, so it’s a matter of getting information into peoples’ heads who need it,” McClung said.

For now, Pritzker has continued to renew the state’s eviction moratorium, though his most recent renewal limits the order’s impact to individuals with annual incomes of less than $99,000, as well as those subject to a handful of adverse economic conditions.

Evanston aldermen have considered issuing a moratorium on eviction notices, though they tabled a recent effort to do so to avoid confusion with the comprehensive parameters of the state and CDC moratoriums.

But without comprehensive rent relief, financially burdened tenants will continue to face the threat of eviction.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @joshuajirvine

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