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What Chicago renters need to know during the coronavirus pandemic

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We’ve compiled resources and answers for renters and homeowners most urgent concerns

A view of apartment windows with sunlight on them. Getty Images/iStockphoto

The rent is due and millions of Americans could have trouble paying it for the next few months. If you’re worried about what will happen when you can’t make next month’s payment—there are a few concrete actions you can take.

The first step is talking to your landlord—it’s important to have a realistic conversation about your circumstance. And know that evictions can’t be enforced during the stay-at-home order (lockouts by your landlord are illegal, too). There is also emergency assistance from the city where renters can get help.

Curbed has information on all of that right here. While there’s a lot of uncertainty right now, we’ll keep you updated on resources, financial assistance, and how things are changing.

Are there any resources to help pay rent?

Yes, the city currently has a rental assistance program that was in place before the coronavirus pandemic. In order to apply, you’ll need to submit a physical application. Call one of the city’s community service centers to request the forms by mail.

In the first week of April, the city also distributed emergency $1,000 payments from the COVID-19 Housing Assistance Grant to 2,000 applicants for housing costs. The administration is working on raising money for a second round and all applicants who did not receive funds will still be considered.

The Chicago Housing Authority is giving thousands of its tenants a bit of break by deferring April’s rent until the end of the month, too. Mayor Lightfoot asked other landlords in the city to do the same.

It’s important to remember that landlords can’t remove tenants, even during this crisis, says Philip DeVon, Eviction Prevention Specialist with Metropolitan Tenants Organization.

“If you have been given notice to vacate, but you can’t move out, you might be worried the landlord will come change the locks or remove your belongings. Remember that landlords can not just kick people out, even if they don’t leave at the end of their lease. If they try to do it, they can be arrested. Lockouts are illegal,” DeVon says.

What will happen if I don’t pay rent? How do I talk to my landlord?

The lease agreement means your landlord can’t kick you out without just cause, according to Morgan Schumann, the staff attorney at the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing. If you fall behind on rent then you might start getting 5-day or 30-day notices. Not paying rent without talking to your landlord first means that if you do end up going to court over an eviction, it’ll make your defense weaker. It’s important to be upfront with your landlord and get conversations in writing.

The federal CARES Act also provided some protections for tenants if your landlord has a mortgage that’s backed by certain lenders.

“[It put] a moratorium on filing eviction cases until July 25 for non-payment of rent and prohibiting late fees for tenants living in properties with a federally backed mortgage (Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and other situations). But, this is a bit tricky because tenants may not know if their landlord’s mortgage makes them subject to the CARES Act.”

Schumann advises that tenants should apply for unemployment, getting rental assistance through the city’s emergency programs, or delaying payment of utilities to free up cash for rent.

“If there is just no way for someone to afford rent, the best thing to do is to talk to the landlord and try to work out a payment arrangement with the landlord to try to avoid an eviction filing,” Schumann says.

Can I be evicted right now?

Under the stay-at-home order, the state won’t allow evictions, according to Gov. Pritzker. In Chicago, the sheriff’s office won’t enforce evictions or foreclosures until after May 18.

“There is a common misconception that landlords cannot file eviction cases right now due to the moratorium, and that’s not actually the case. Landlords can still file eviction cases,” says Schumann. “However, tenants are damaged as soon as a case is filed against them because it becomes a matter of the public record.”

Even if you can’t make rent, it’s illegal for your landlord to lock you out, remove your belongings, shut off utilities, or kick you out. Evictions must be filed with the court and enforced by the sheriff’s office.

“No judges are ordering evictions in eviction court, and the Sheriff is not carrying out eviction orders in the streets. But, this does not stop a landlord from filing an eviction against a tenant. So it’s still in the tenants’ best interest to come to an agreement with their landlord. And always put it in writing,” says Devon.

MTO and other community and legal organizations work on eviction issues. Staff can give tenants guidance as they navigate the coronavirus crisis. MTO will also provide sample letters and agreements about rent payments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What should I do if I’m worried about an illegal lockout?

Schumann and other advocates at the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing have noticed that eviction filings seem slightly lower than normal. That isn’t surprising though with the moratorium, she says.

“However, we are concerned that this will lead to an increase in ‘self-help’ evictions (lockouts) by landlords that want to skirt the legal process. Of course a lockout involves changing the keys to prevent a tenant from accessing their unit, but it can also include things like disconnecting utility services, removing a door or window, or removing personal belongings,” Schumann says.

If this does happen to you, call the police who will be able to give you access to apartment again. Under this special order, an officer should let you into your apartment despite the landlord’s objections. Those who are worried about a situation like this should carry a copy of their lease or utility bill to show proof of tenancy.

Will my heat or electricity be shut-off if I can’t pay utility bills?

The Illinois Commerce Commission ordered all public gas, electricity, water and sewage utility companies to stop service disconnections and waive late fees until May 1, or until the state of emergency is lifted. While ComEd and Peoples Gas are private, both of these companies have also agreed not to shut-off service or charge late fees until May 1.

Should I organize a rent strike?

In Chicago, a group of tenants in a Hyde Park apartment building have asked their landlord to cancel rent—so far Mac Properties hasn’t agreed and renters rallied on Sunday demanding that rent be waived for those who couldn’t afford it, according to the Hyde Park Herald.

“We have seen an increase in calls from people who are being told they must pay rent no matter what. Many landlords, like MAC Properties, have been sending out mass emails telling tenants preemptively that they need to pay rent, or else,” says DeVon.

However, a rent strike isn’t a good idea for everyone. It’s even possible to do more harm than good if the plan isn’t well executed or have the support of everyone in the building, Devon says.

“​​This is a very difficult question to answer because we know so many tenants are struggling to pay rent due to reduced incomes at no fault of their own. A rent strike can feel like a way for tenants to come together in solidarity with each other. However, tenants should understand that they are taking a significant risk by participating in a rent strike,” says Schumann.

For those who are considering such a measure, it’s best to get advice from a trusted community source or through some of the free legal aid resources. A few of those include the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing, the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, and Uptown People’s Law Center.

Will a rent freeze happen in Chicago?

Thousands of residents have signed a petition that calls on local and state leaders to enact a rent freeze. It means officials would halt the collection of rent, mortgage, and utility payments throughout the coronavirus pandemic. The freeze would mean that both residents and landlords aren’t penalized.

“It’s hard to say how likely the city or state is to enact a rent freeze, however, there is growing support for putting a pause on rent and mortgage payments (among other things) that would help protect renters and landlords from the financial fallout of this crisis. So, it’s possible,” says DeVon.

However, according to a report from the Chicago Tribune, Mayor Lightfoot isn’t able to enact a rent freeze. Chicago passed a ban on rent control, and that legislation also restricts the city from using such a measure. Organizers with the Autonomous Tenants Union (ATU) are now asking for Gov. Pritzker to repeal the Rent Control Preemption Act.

Is it safe to move?

The good news here is that movers are considered essential services—so if you’ve hired a company to help, they are still allowed to do that. Hardware stores are also still open if you need supplies like boxes and packing tape.

“If you must move, take extreme precautions, including gloves, masks, and sanitizers. Practice social distancing is very important, which is why we are also urging landlords to postpone apartment showings, and work with tenants in the case of emergencies where entry is necessary. We are getting too many calls from tenants who are shocked that their landlords want to show apartments during a pandemic,” DeVon said.

Can I ask my landlord to extend my lease if I don’t want to move?

Yes, this is an option. If you are worried about moving into your new place, or can’t find a new apartment, it’s a good idea to talk to your landlord now.

“Practical advice we would give tenants with leases that are ending is to open communication with their landlord. Landlords may be willing to offer short-term lease extensions, particularly because the demand for new housing is likely lower than normal for this season because many people do not want to move during the current shelter in place order,” says Schumann.

If your landlord isn’t renewing your lease or offering an extension you only option is to move out. Staying at your apartment without an agreement with your landlord means your landlord could make a strong eviction case.

“Tenants may be able to continue to pay the rent, and if the landlord accepts it, a month-to-month tenancy may be created. But, tenants should read their lease carefully because some have holdover provisions that might make them liable for more than their normal rent amount,” she says.

Can my landlord ask whether I have COVID-19?

Typically, tenants aren’t required to disclose medical or health issues to their landlords. Also, landlords cannot suddenly terminate a lease or demand to know if you’ve been exposed to COVID-19 before you move into a new apartment.

“I’ve talked to restaurant workers facing issues and pushback, despite having been approved to move in already. We are seeing calls from people whose landlords are making unreasonable demands. I just emailed a woman this afternoon, a mother of three children, who reached out because her landlord told her she can’t use the laundry room unless she tests negative for the coronavirus. How absurd and cruel.”

As a renter, what legal protections do I have?

Most renters are protected under the city’s 1986 legislature, the Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance (RTLO). The ordinance covers most housing, except for renters who might be in owner-occupied condos, co-ops, and buildings with six units or less. However, this doesn’t mean those tenants aren’t safeguarded—a lease agreement will offer many of the same protections.

Most tenants aren’t aware of how they can advocate for themselves, DeVon said. The ordinance outlines protections and responsibilities for both renters and landlords.

We’ve compiled the most useful information in this rundown of renters’ rights everyone should know.