Struggling to stay put

Eviction moratorium creates worry

A year ago, Rick and Carla Phelan were on the cusp of homelessness.

They'd been there before, but pandemic was different. After two nights spent sleeping in their 2004 Buick LeSabre with their dog – their son stayed with relatives – the Phelans were among the first in Sangamon County to drive home that a moratorium on evictions, meant to curb COVID, is real.

Cops showed up when summoned by management the day that the Phelans left the Midtown Inn on Dirksen Parkway. The couple owed rent. Carla Phelan says that she was working at a Subway sandwich shop; her husband is on disability. The state had just locked down. Stay home unless absolutely necessary, Gov. JB Pritzker pleaded, and he backed up pleas with executive orders that shut down bars and restaurants and churches while barring evictions for fear that people, left homeless, would spread the virus as they couch-surfed or crammed together in homeless shelters. A federal eviction moratorium mirrors moratoriums enacted by Illihois and other statesFor the Phelans, Pritzker's eviction moratorium proved a short-term bridge.

click to enlarge A year ago, Rick and Carla Phelan were in the courthouse with their lawyer Dowin Coffy, fighting to keep a roof over their heads. - PHOTO BY BRUCE RUSHTON
Photo by Bruce Rushton
A year ago, Rick and Carla Phelan were in the courthouse with their lawyer Dowin Coffy, fighting to keep a roof over their heads.

After Sangamon County Associate Judge Dwayne Gab ruled that the eviction moratorium applied to the couple, the Phelans returned to the motel. They were out in less than two months, says Carla Phelan, who now works in a nursing home kitchen. Today, she and her husband live in a single-wide mobile home that they purchased with federal stimulus money. Lot rent at the Peoria Road trailer court is $447, Carla Phelan says."It needs a little work done to it," she allows. If Midtown wants its rent, the motel's owner will have to sue the Phelans in small-claims court.

click to enlarge Today, Rick and Carla Phelan lives in a mobile home purchased with the help of stimulus checks. - PHOTO BY BRUCE RUSHTON
Photo by Bruce Rushton
Today, Rick and Carla Phelan lives in a mobile home purchased with the help of stimulus checks.

"We got out as quick as we could," Carla Phelan says. "We're happier out here."

"Eviction is the worst-case scenario"

As deaths and infections decrease while vaccinations crescendo, light, or something darker, beckons at the end of a long tunnel. For tenants who haven't been paying rent and landlords with little recourse, a reckoning seems nigh.

Landlords can evict tenants for dealing drugs or allowing trash to pile up or otherwise causing a nuisance, but failure to pay rent hasn't been a ticket to eviction for a year, and that's reflected in the court docket. Since the state enacted an eviction moratorium, the number of eviction cases has plummeted, according to the Sangamon County circuit clerk's office, which reports that eviction filings dropped from 1,494 in the year ending March 1, 2020, to 577 in the subsequent year – landlords can still evict tenants who pose health or safety threats or damage property – when pandemic and Pritzker's moratorium took hold. During the same time period, foreclosure cases, blocked in part by government-ordered forbearances involving federally backed mortgages, have fallen from 362 to 79.

Most tenants are current on rent, according to Stella Dean, who sits on the board of the Springfield Area Landlord Association and acts as the organization's spokeswoman. Based on a membership survey, 25 percent of tenants are behind, Dean says, with landlords reporting that nearly half of folks who've fallen delinquent have lost jobs, gotten sick or have otherwise suffered pandemic-related hardship that accounts for arrearages. It equates to between 10 and 12 percent of renters unaffected by pandemic stiffing landlords who could throw them out but for the eviction moratorium. Measuring sticks to determine who's a deadbeat, Dean says, include the number of tenants who've been rejected for government rental assistance and tenants who haven't applied, suggesting that they know that they don't meet income eligibility or otherwise qualify for help. Dean declined to give precise numbers but said that considerably more than 100 landlords who collectively own more than 1,000 properties belong to the landlord association.Eviction, Dean says, is a last resort: Landlords will work with folks caught in pandemic-induced binds.

click to enlarge Fred and Korie Brandt make a deal with Michael Durr, lawyer for a landlord seeking eviction. - PHOTOS BY BRUCE RUSHTON
Photos by Bruce Rushton
Fred and Korie Brandt make a deal with Michael Durr, lawyer for a landlord seeking eviction.

"It's always in the landlord's best interest, as well as the community's interest, to keep a tenant placed," Dean says. "These are community members. These are students going to school. Eviction is the worst-case scenario for a landlord – they only want to evict someone if they're causing damages or devastating the property or they can't pay their rent. I think landlords are being placed in a position that, when a negative circumstance occurs, the legal remedies are not available. The courts need to get back to their normal operations so that landlords have legal recourse to remedy their situations."

Some landlords are skipping the court system.

Melinda Hubele, managing attorney for the northern regional office of Land of Lincoln Legal Aid, says that her organization in 2020 tallied 116 instances of landlords changing locks or shutting off utilities to execute so-called self-help evictions that don't involve courts; in 2019, she says, the nonprofit that helps tenants in eight central Illinois counties counted 50 such cases. It is illegal, she says, for landlords to take matters into their own hands and force eviction without court approval.

"I would speculate that there are landlords out there who are either unaware that they cannot take the self-help method into their own hands – they have to go through the courts – or they're frustrated," Hubele says. "Thousands of people have lost employment. The moratorium was put in place so that thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of individuals were not made homeless. Also, it helped prevent spread of the virus. The increase in this number of self-help evictions just shows that there are people without income to pay their rent, and so landlords have just taken it on themselves."

click to enlarge Rickie and Emily White say pandemic has precluded them from paying rent for a leaky house on Lowell Avenue. - PHOTOS BY BRUCE RUSHTON
Photos by Bruce Rushton
Rickie and Emily White say pandemic has precluded them from paying rent for a leaky house on Lowell Avenue.

Hubele sees both sides: Renting property is a business, she says, and landlords holding leases count on rental income. "I can understand the frustration of landlords, when many of them are everyday individuals – this is their livelihood," she says.

The eviction moratorium, like the pandemic, won't last forever, and delinquent rent isn't forgiven by government edicts: At some point, what's owed must be paid. What will happen when tenants who haven't paid rent in months, or a year, get hit with past-due bills via courts empowered to evict?

"I don't know that I have a good answer," Hubele says. "It's definitely something we've all been thinking about. ... Without some form of relief to them or to landlords directly, there are going to be many people who owe back rent who will be unable to pay."

"People need help"

Lawrence Criscione is counting on rental property to fund golden years.

It's a common plan in Springfield, where a house can be bought for $50,000 or less, rented out, then sold when it's time to retire. An engineer who commutes to Maryland, where he works for the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Criscione owns 18 rental houses plus a duplex in the capital city. Five tenants, he says, are in arrears. All but one, he says, have paid part of what they owe, even the guy recently released from prison.

The outlier is Emily White, a clerical worker for the state Department of Natural Resources who is paid $38,000 a year and hasn't missed a paycheck since pandemic hit. Her husband, Rickie, says that he earns $13 an hour working as a janitor. Rent is $550 a month. The Whites, who've lived in Criscione's house for six years, last paid in December 2019. Criscione says they'd been late before but always caught up, so he wasn't immediately alarmed. He figured on getting paid when tax refund season came.

click to enlarge SOURCE IS SANGAMON COUNTY CIRCUIT CLERK
Source is Sangamon County Circuit Clerk

The Whites say they'd rather live elsewhere, and it isn't hard to see why. Paint on the porch of their Lowell Avenue home is blistered, as is the kitchen ceiling, portending leaks that have become obvious in an adjoining room, where plaster is stained and looks ready to fall. When it rains, the Whites say, buckets are a must.

Why haven't they paid rent? "The price of food went sky high, and it hasn't come down," Emily White says. Her husband says that he and his wife had planned on moving nearly a year ago, but couldn't find a place. The eviction moratorium, Emily White says, has saved them. "We'd be homeless if it wasn't in place," she says. Her husband allows that others might be skating. "People need help," Rickie White says. "There are, maybe, some people out there abusing it."

Criscione went to court last July. Emily White, leaseholder of record, didn't appear. She says that she was in quarantine and couldn't travel to the courthouse. Her landlord won a $5,167 judgment, plus an eviction order that's been postponed due to pandemic and the state eviction moratorium. Judgment in hand, Criscione got a court order garnishing White's wages. He's getting $350 a month. White has filled out a declaration required of tenants who haven't paid rent and face eviction, stating under penalty of perjury that she has paid as much as she can.

Criscione says that he's gotten some government money from rental assistance programs who've helped his other tenants, but not the Whites. He says that he wants to fix the ceiling in the Whites' house, and he acknowledges that he isn't a perfect landlord: If he can't fix something right away, he'll reduce the rent. "If we can't agree, they can move," he says.

While the law allows evictions if tenants pose health threats or damage property, the law, Criscione says, isn't working.

"We've actually implemented programs to discourage paying rent," Criscione writes in an email. "The outliers have increased in numbers slightly but have increased in hazardous liability immensely. They are no longer a thorn in your side for a few months. They have become an indefinite issue."

Rental assistance remains available, with federal money dispensed by local authorities such as the Sangamon County Department of Community Resources, which distributed more than $413,000 last year to help 426 tenants. There are limits. Tenants must make no more than twice what is considered the poverty rate, and no more than one month's rent can be paid over a 24-month period.

"We want to help landlords," says Dave MacDonna, department director. "We know they're taking it on the chin. It's a concern of the county board members. Many of them have told me, 'What can we do to help the landlords?'"

"I'm homeless"

One by one, Sangamon County Associate Judge Chris Perrin goes through cases, calling up defendants whose landlords, despite the moratorium, are seeking eviction.

"Can I get your address?" the judge asks Sherrese Walker, who's already moved and is splitting time between Springfield, where she works at a supermarket, and Chicago, where relatives live. "I don't have an address – I'm homeless," Walker replies during a court session where hers and a handful of other cases are considered.

Outside the courtroom, Walker says that the last year has been rough. She says that she contracted COVID last fall and that she's lost shifts at work. Trash outside her rented home on Edwards Street is the work of fly dumpers, not her, she says, and she can't understand why her landlord is seeking more than $8,000 – she says that she was two months in arrears when she moved. "You don't even give me a chance to catch up on the rent," she says.

Fred and Korie Brandt have a happier outcome.

The couple, married 20 years, say that RME Properties, their landlord, didn't fix the broken furnace at their cottage on North Fifth Street – they came to court with an inspection report from the city showing that repairs were ordered on Dec. 7. The city also found electrical problems that posed a hazard. The Brandts say that fuses easily blow, and they don't have access to the fuse box. This, also, was documented by a city inspector who gave the landlord 30 days to make repairs that the Brandts say still haven't been accomplished. They say that they used their stove for heat to get through the winter. They stopped paying $550 monthly rent late last year.

"Folks, talk to me: What's going on?" Michael Durr, the landlord's attorney, asks in a hallway outside the courtroom. A deal is soon struck. If the Brandts move and leave the premises in good condition, the landlord will forgive past-due rent and dismiss the eviction case. "It worked out good," Fred Brandt says after shaking hands with Durr. "We're going to go back to a motel, if we can find a place."

It's the sort of arrangement Durr says was once common. Typically, landlords, with threat of an eviction order as a lever, would agree to payment schedules: Tenants could remain if they stayed current on rent and paid $100 or so extra each month to catch up on past-due amounts. If tenants upheld bargains, the eviction case would be dismissed. "If you give people a way to resolve disputes, by and large, most people will do it," says Durr, who's been representing landlords for 25 years. Before that, he was a legal aid lawyer, helping tenants who faced eviction. "I was a landlord killer – that's what I did," he says.

Durr says that the eviction moratorium isn't working for anyone. Tenants who owe thousands of dollars in back rent won't be able to catch up when the moratorium is lifted, he says, while landlords who depend on rental income to make mortgage payments will lose houses. The courtroom corridor, he says, is where magic happens, as tenants faced with eviction make deals that stick and keep them housed. He calls the eviction moratorium a political solution that sounds good but creates real harm. "What we need to do is start implementing things that work," Durr says. "All we do now is battle."

Inside the courtroom, matters proceed.

"She says it's a service dog," says a landlord who's trying to evict a tenant for keeping an unruly pet and playing music. Judge Perrin doesn't bite. "I don't think you're going to be able to evict them based on loud music and a dog," the judge says. He continues a case for a couple after the landlord says that she doesn't want to sit down with her tenants and resolve differences. "Eventually, this is coming," the judge tells the tenants as he sets a hearing date for April. "Ultimately, you and your husband are going to have to go through this process."

One tenant agrees with her landlord: Plumbing and other things are broken. "He's telling the truth about a whole lot of things," she tells the judge. "You can't even take a bath in there. I have a big family. I have kids in there. He doesn't care." The landlord says that she won't let him in the house to make repairs. "Right now, it's unlivable conditions," he tells the judge.

"If it's as bad as you say, why do you want to live there?" Perrin asks. "It's hard to get places," the woman replies. Another hearing is set for April 30.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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