Eviction moratorium continues

Meanwhile, landlords worry

click to enlarge Tenants gather outside their building at in Chicago to protest their new landlord’s plan to evict them. - PHOTO BY M. OSORIO/CHICAGO TRIBUNE
Photo by M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune
Tenants gather outside their building at in Chicago to protest their new landlord’s plan to evict them.

With Gov. JB Pritzker recently extending a moratorium on evictions, tenants who haven't paid rent are largely safe from being removed from premises.

The governor last week extended the eviction ban, first enacted last spring, until late October, the latest in a series of extensions aimed at preventing people who've lost income due to the coronavirus pandemic from losing their homes. Under the governor's order, nonpayment of rent isn't sufficient reason for eviction, although tenants can still be evicted if they pose a threat to health or safety.

The number of eviction lawsuits in Sangamon County has plummeted since the ban took effect six months ago. Between April 1 and Sept. 22 of last year, landlords filed 730 eviction actions in Sangamon County Circuit Court. During the same period this year, the number has dropped to 221.

There is no shortage of people seeking rental assistance.

The city of Springfield has allocated $400,000 in federal funds for rental assistance. The city has put the Springfield Urban League in charge of administering the program and determining eligibility, with a limit of $1,000 in assistance per household. Urban League officials did not return a phone call.

Val Yazell, city economic development director, said that no funds have been distributed yet, but the need is great. More than 620 applications were received in three days when the program started last month, she said. Funding secured so far, she said, isn't enough to meet demand.

"It's a drop in the bucket," Yazell said. "We're hoping for more funding to be able to continue to help."

Landlords are hurting along with tenants. Yazell says she's kept in touch with landlords since the eviction moratorium began and says that they want to work with tenants. "They still are saying, 'Reach out to us,'" Yazell said. "But the longer this goes on unresolved, the worse that's going to be. At some point, landlords still have to make the mortgage payments, they still have to pay property taxes, there's still insurance."

The county extended the deadline to pay the first half of property taxes from June until this month. Despite pandemic, Sangamon County treasurer Joe Aiello said that this year's property tax collections are on pace with past years.

Eviction moratoriums help prevent disease from spreading, according to public health officials. On Sept. 2, the federal Centers For Disease Control installed a nationwide eviction moratorium for tenants who make less than six figures and declare that they've done their best to pay and would be likely be left homeless, or forced to live in close quarters with others, if they are evicted. The federal moratorium, which is under court challenge by the National Apartment Association, is set to expire Dec. 31.

As with the state ban on evictions, the federal moratorium does not relieve tenants of their responsibility to pay rent: At some point, what's owed must be paid, and so tenants eventually could face a reckoning. That worries Michael Durr, a Springfield attorney who represents landlords in eviction proceedings.

Durr sees evictions as carrots as opposed to sticks. Frequently, he says, landlords, once an eviction order is issued, work with tenants, agreeing to accept $50 or so extra each month along with the monthly amount due under the lease. If the tenant lives up to the agreement, the past-due amount is gradually erased, he says, usually in 14 months or so, and the tenant stays put. Otherwise, the eviction order is enforced. "I say, 'This is designed to make you succeed – you've already failed,'" Durr recalls telling tenants. " 'If you want the other side of the coin, here's your notice to vacate.'"

If all goes well, the tenant doesn't have to move and the landlord doesn't have to put the premises on the market. "This win-win has been in this community for years," Durr says. But it can't happen if evictions aren't allowed, he says, and whittling down six months of past-due rent is a far harder task than paying off debts that are far less.

"It's like stages of a cancer or other illness: If we get someone early, if it's $800 or $1,000, it's a totally doable scenario," Durr said. "But now, it's $6,000. This was a solvable problem. But now, because of this kick-the-can-down-the-road philosophy, maybe now, not so much."

Durr says landlords are frustrated, not so much at tenants as at the state's eviction ban, and some are bordering on desperate.

"The media is trying to paint these people as rich," Durr says. "Most of these people are like you and me – it's a small, family-owned business. They own a few properties. It's how they make their living. They supply decent housing to people, by and large."

Landlords, like tenants, have debts and expenses, Durr says. "So, what happens in the end?" he asks. "If it continues and eventually you get the landlord to fail, now you've got the bank taking over. Many, many landlords around here, they're Springfieldians – Sangamon County people. They're local, they're here, they're treating the problems like local people instead of treating tenants like numbers on a balance sheet."

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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