A Q&A with Mark Swartz, Executive Director of Lawyers Committee for Better Housing (LCBH)
Media reports say renters are still facing a number of challenges, despite the Governor’s moratorium on evictions. What are the most common problems people are coming to you with?
The most common problem tenants are having is that they simply cannot pay their rent. While the moratorium on evictions is helping to keep them in their homes for now, there is not yet a long-term solution in place. A tenant who lost their job in March will not be able to pay three months’ back rent in June, even if they are able to return to work.
As a result, there is a lot of confusion about what tenants who lost jobs due to COVID-19 should do if they are unable to pay their rent. We are encouraging renters to work with their landlords to find a fair solution that works for both parties.
We’ve also seen many more threats of illegal lockouts and actual lockouts. In response, we’re finalizing public educational materials and a Chicago Police Department training on lockouts in collaboration with the City of Chicago and our community partners at Metropolitan Tenants Organization. This should clarify how to get help and what the police should do when a lockout occurs.
What are the key rights and responsibilities you want renters to know they have during the pandemic?
All renters, no matter what their current financial situation, have the right to live in their apartments without interference and with all the amenities provided under their lease. If a landlord wants the renter to move, they must wait and go through the eviction process.
Most importantly, renters always have the right to seek legal assistance, particularly when negotiating with their landlord. Renters should visit rentervention.com to start.
Speaking of Rentervention, you’ve made some upgrades to this free online chatbot for Chicago renters. Tell us about them.
Within days of the Shelter in Place Order, LCBH added additional COVID-19 information to the chatbot for tenants, including updates about their rights and responsibilities, how to access emergency funds, and increased the ease in which tenants can access a free attorney in the Rentervention Virtual Clinic. The Virtual Clinic offers scalable solutions for pro bono attorneys to address COVID-related housing issues.
This pandemic will very likely lead to a crisis in the courts as well. What policy responses would you like to see implemented to help address housing issues and ensure people have access to the justice system?
In many ways what COVID-19 has done is heighten the need for reform. Many of the access to justice challenges in eviction court are due primarily to disparities in rates of representation. LCBH data show that 79% of landlords had attorneys, while only 11% of tenants do. So, I am a strong proponent of a right to counsel in eviction court.
LCBH has also been advocating that Chicago adopt “just cause” protections for renters to reduce displacement, stem the tide of African Americans moving out of the city, and preserve the city’s dwindling stock of affordable housing. A just cause ordinance would protect renters who have done nothing wrong from being forced to move. Renters who are asked to leave would receive compensation so that they would not have to bear the cost-burden of their forced displacement.
On a personal level, how are you and your family coping during this time?
Like so many parents, my wife and I are experiencing difficulty balancing work with supervising the remote schooling of our children, who are 3 and 6-years-old. We are spread pretty thinly, and feel stressed and guilty much of the time. But I am striving to model a healthy work-life balance to LCBH staff. For instance, I have resolved to take some mental health and vacation days and to not be on email. I am taking this Friday off, I hope.