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Chicago told landlords to ‘show grace.’ Organizers say that’s not enough.

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Housing advocates are demanding local leaders enact a freeze on rent, mortgage, and utility payments

A group of downtown high-rise buildings from an aerial perspective. Shutterstock

When most tenants in Andrew’s building lost their jobs, his landlord suggested they borrow money from family or get jobs at an Amazon warehouse. Ethan moved to Chicago from California to find more affordable housing and was laid off from his three part-time jobs—and because he’s new to Illinois, he hasn’t been able to get unemployment. Autumn lost her job working for a children’s theater company and owes $1,600 in rent with only $400 in her bank account.

These are just some of the frustrations dozens of renters in Chicago shared during the Autonomous Tenants Union town hall on Wednesday.

The housing advocacy organization is demanding an indefinite freeze on rent, mortgage, and utility payments, which aims to help residents through the coronavirus crisis. A rent freeze would also benefit undocumented residents who either don’t have access to the same set of government resources.

Organizers are also asking the city to immediately house residents experiencing homelessness and to issue a measure that automatically grants lease extensions to tenants unable to move during the crisis. Organizers have also requested that the courts to close all filings for evictions and foreclosures—while there is a moratorium on enforcement, landlords can still file the paperwork.

“I’ve been looking at the docket, and landlords are actually filing evictions. There’s been about 13 in the past week. So, once the courts are active again, people will have these evictions over their heads,” said Jesse Connor, an organizer with the Autonomous Tenants Union.

Chicago has created an emergency grant for those who can’t pay rent or mortgages—that program is only a one-time payment of $1,000 that will be distributed through a lottery system to 2,000 residents. In recent press conferences, the mayor has advised landlords to “show grace,” and even forgo April rent.

The Autonomous Tenants Union argues that these relief efforts don’t address the issue of back rent and a possible bottleneck of evictions after the postponement is lifted. Compounding these problems, Illinois recently extended its stay-at-home order until the end of April. This means businesses like restaurants, bakeries, and theaters will be required to stay closed for that time.

“We are at a dire moment. We’ve been making these demands for a really long time. Now that we have a pandemic and now that we see what it looks like when we don’t have the safety net now that we realize how is it possible we’ve been living in this way for so long,” said 33rd Ward Alderwoman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez during the town hall.

Currently, Mayor Lightfoot isn’t able to enact a rent freeze because of state legislation that bans rent control. Activists have asked Gov. Pritzker to repeal the law, but according to Rodriguez-Sanchez, he has said that it isn’t within his power.

“We keep hearing we need to stay home to save lives. Yet people right now are losing their homes because they’re unable to pay rent. They fear getting 5-day notices, 30-day notices from landlords. This is a lesson—if we had lifted the ban, if we had listened to working people, we’d have the tools right now to enact the rent freeze that we need,” said 35th Ward Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa.