Evictions were prevalent before COVID-19, but the situation has reached a crisis level. The national unemployment rate hit an all-time high of 14.7% in April 2020 and was still at 8.4% in August. The high unemployment rate has resulted in fewer people being able to pay their rent or mortgages. In the first three months of 2020, landlords collected 80% of total rent due from tenants. In the first half of July, they collected just 37%.
To help prevent the further spread of COVID-19 due to homelessness, laws have been created and amended to address the eviction crisis in Illinois and nationally. Currently, Illinois has a moratorium on evictions until September 19, 2020. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a national eviction moratorium on certain residential evictions beginning September 4, 2020 and ending on December 31, 2020. Although this has slowed the number of evictions, it doesn’t cancel out the rent due once the moratoriums end. Therefore, these laws only put a band-aid on an impending crisis.
Because eviction is a legal issue, the legal profession can help alleviate the eviction crisis in Illinois by reimagining how eviction cases are handled. According to Matt Hulstein, supervising attorney at Chicago Volunteer Legal Services:
…landlords and tenants are going to have to figure out a way to negotiate agreements to keep as many tenants housed as possible. There is a huge imbalance in bargaining power between represented landlords and pro se tenants that will lead to one-sided agreements. The powers-at-be can correct this imbalance by instituting efficient eviction mediation programs. Legal aid and pro bono attorneys can also step up to represent more pro se tenants and landlords to ensure cases are decided efficiently according to their merits. This will all require a greater investment into these programs to make a real difference.
Act to Reduce the Eviction Crisis in Illinois
The Illinois legal profession has already jumped to action. Below, I highlight five of the many ways the legal profession is reimagining the law to address the eviction crisis in Illinois. I also include some ways you can get involved.
- Eviction Prevention Project. According to Michelle Gilbert, Legal Director at the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing (LCBH), the Illinois legal aid community has been collaborating on ways to address the potential flood of eviction cases since the start of the pandemic. Gilbert also directs LCBH’s new Chicago COVID-19 Eviction Prevention Project. In addition to representing tenants who have been illegally locked out of their apartments or those evicted during the pandemic, the project has an eviction prevention component. The goal is to assist tenants to negotiate repayment agreements with their landlords to prevent a surge in evictions once the moratorium ends. If you’re interested in volunteering, LCBH has pro bono opportunities available.
- “Know Your Rights” Technology Tool. There aren’t enough legal aid and pro bono attorneys to represent all low-income tenants with evictions. So, a technology tool has been created to help tenants understand their rights. Rentervention is a free resource for Chicago renters facing housing issues. Through Rentervention, Renny the bot helps tenants diagnose their legal issues, become educated on their rights, connect with community resources, and choose the best option to solve their problem. For example, Renny can help a tenant determine if they qualify for the CDC moratorium and email the tenant the required declaration to give to their landlord. Rentervention is a joint project of the LCBH, the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois, and other advocates. If you’re an Illinois attorney interested in offering pro bono representation, email email@example.com and mention that you would like to volunteer for Rentervention.
- Revised Court Rules & Forms. The Illinois Supreme Court approved SCR 139 in July to assist tenants, landlords, and judges better navigate the spike in eviction cases. The new rule was developed to reinforce the law, practices, and procedures in eviction courts by requiring the attachment of termination notices, proof of service of the demands and notices, and relevant portions of the leases at the time of filing an eviction complaint. In addition, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice released an eviction complaint form suite. These new forms standardize the process and are to be accepted in all Illinois courts. The form suite includes plain-language guidance on how to fill out court forms to simplify the process so litigants don’t need an attorney.
- Pandemic Pro Bono Eviction Project. To address the looming eviction crisis in Illinois after state and national moratoriums end, Prairie State Legal Services (PSLS) created a pro bono project to maximize tenants’ chances of remaining in their homes. Attorney volunteers will advise families of their rights and available rental assistance and empower them to enter into agreements to help them keep their homes. PSLS serves 36 counties in Illinois, but you don’t have to live in one of those counties to volunteer — the work will be done remotely. To find out more, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Reviving an Old Program. The Chicago Bar Foundation has been working with Cook County, the Circuit Court of Cook County, and a coalition of legal aid partners to develop a county-wide Early Resolution Program for eviction and consumer debt cases. The program would combine community outreach and education, mediation, legal advice, and legal representation and provide a streamlined process for connecting self-represented litigants with resources at or before their first court date. This program plans to resurrect a foreclosure mediation program that saved more than 7,000 homes during the 2008 recession and housing crisis. The lessons learned would be implemented not only in foreclosure cases but also for eviction and consumer debt cases.
As you can see, the legal profession can have a big impact on the eviction crisis by reimagining eviction law and how it’s practiced. Will you join in and help? Do you have other ideas on how we can reimagine the law to address the eviction crisis in Illinois and nationally? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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