Renters facing eviction could receive free legal aid under new $8 million city initiative

·4 min read

The city of Chicago will provide free legal assistance for low-income tenants facing eviction under a new program aimed at boosting housing stability.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration plans to hire a contractor to run a program in the first half of 2022 that would provide funding for lawyers to represent low-income tenants. The city issued a request for proposals on an $8 million, three-year pilot program, though specifics about who will be prioritized to receive the assistance have yet to be determined.

The move comes months after the state’s moratorium on evictions expired, and as thousands of tenants have sought help paying rent during the pandemic through assistance programs.

Lightfoot officials declined to be interviewed for this story but in response to written questions released a statement noting “that having legal representation dramatically improves the odds of a tenant having a positive outcome after an eviction filing — but that only a small fraction of tenants in fact have access to such representation.”

“Evictions are profoundly destabilizing not just for families that are directly impacted — affecting their ability to work, go to school, and find new housing for years to come — but for entire communities,” Daniel Hertz, policy director for Chicago’s Department of Housing, said in the email. “Eviction is also profoundly racialized, in particular affecting majority-Black communities at far higher rates than majority-white communities. If housing is a human right, then so is due process for being removed from your home, and due process requires a right to representation.”

The program will be funded with federal dollars, officials said.

Housing officials said the initiative will work closely with the Early Resolution Program, which provides legal aid, mediation and case management in eviction cases, but does not offer full legal representation to tenants.

Once Chicago’s program launches, it would join other big cities such as New York and San Francisco in providing legal help for certain tenants facing eviction.

The city’s program could help tenants navigate a stressful, complicated court process, and level out a power imbalance with landlords who are more likely to have an attorney, said Samira Nazem, former associate director of advocacy and programs at the Chicago Bar Foundation who now works on evictions for the National Center for State Courts.

Cook County made progress during the pandemic when it launched the housing legal aid program, she said. Providing free legal counsel will supplement pandemic programs and offer a deeper level service, Nazem said.

The pandemic has shined a light on the far-reaching consequences of eviction. Kids might be pulled out of school, parents might be unable to hold down a job and families could suffer mental anguish, she said.

An attorney can help avoid unnecessary evictions and diminish the harm of the evictions that do go through, including by securing more time and resources for a family to move out, or helping connect them with rental assistance.

“The stakes are so high,” Nazem said. “The consequences of eviction can linger for so long. An eviction on someone’s record can make it hard to find housing, hard to get employment.”

Not all evictions can or should be avoided, Nazem added, “but there are ways to mitigate the harm of it.”

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There is a recent shift toward making some of the emergency responses during the pandemic more permanent, Nazem said.

“During the pandemic, there was a sense that it was kind of crisis response mode and we had to kind of stop these worst case scenarios, and now we’re kind of at a turning point,” she said.

But others worry that landlords are being forgotten under the program.

Michael Zink, a housing attorney who is active in the small landlord association Neighborhood Building Owners Alliance, said the Lightfoot administration’s effort fails to address what he sees as one of the most pressing issues for mom-and-pop landlords: delays in the court process.

“It’s sort of an antidote to something that’s other than the problem,” he said.

Zink said legal representation for tenants who cannot afford it is a good thing. But administrative delays and long waits while rental assistance is sorted out have caused cases to last months and that puts small landlords in a bind, he said. Rent remains unpaid during the process while landlords’ property tax bills and mortgages come due, putting some buildings at risk of foreclosure.

Zink also hopes the program could be expanded to include small landlords, who also might have trouble navigating the court process.

“That’s what I would hope this program would consider, is that many of these housing providers are people of color who may not have the means or even understand what the process is, or to afford an attorney,” he said.

sfreishtat@chicagotribune.com

gpratt@chicagotribune.com

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