Fighting for Renters’ Rights

Building Meeting _1Chicago has seen its highest percentage of renters in decades. Now the majority of Chicago residents, renters are often the victims of housing injustices, especially low-income renters.  While homeowners facing foreclosure have policies and laws in place to help ease their losses, there has been a gap for renters living in foreclosed buildings. They are vulnerable because they often do not receive required notices and often are misled about their rights as renters in foreclosed properties by the banks and their former landlords. Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing (LCBH), one of the many impactful  organizations you are supporting through the Investing in Justice Campaign, seeks to close that gap by focusing on protecting renters’ rights.

By providing direct services and working with other community organizations on policy issues, LCBH hopes to holistically address the short-term housing crisis and ensure safe and stable housing for all in the long-term.  Foreclosure remains one of the most pressing issues for renters in 2015. LCBH Executive Director Cheryl Lawrence estimates that the organization is doing as much work on foreclosure issues today as they have at any time in the last eight years. So far this year Chicago has seen almost 1,000 apartment buildings go through the full foreclosure process.  Banks or financial institutions acquiring these properties generally do not want to be landlords and thus seek to empty the buildings. Through foreclosure auctions, investors are also acquiring many of these buildings to rehab, ultimately resulting in far higher rents. Consequently, the foreclosure process displaces thousands of renters not just from their homes, but their communities. LCBH has worked on initiatives to help keep affordable housing available, and offers assistance to those living in foreclosed buildings with its free Tenants in Foreclosure Help Line.

We choose to live in Chicago because we love the vibrancy the city offers. It’s a quilt made up of a patchwork of diversity of income and ethnic flavor. We all need to care about these issues if we want to keep it this way.

LCBH also helped draft and pass the Keep Chicago Renting Ordinance (KCRO) in response to the harmful effects of the foreclosure crisis on renters. The ordinance aims to keep renters in their homes, and if that’s not possible, it offers tenants significant relocation assistance. The new building owner must offer a lease renewal or extension and may not increase the current rent by more than two percent per year. Otherwise, qualified tenants (those with valid leases) may be eligible for relocation assistance in the amount of $10,600. LCBH is currently involved in over a dozen lawsuits to enforce KCRO.

IMG_1874Another major success in LCBH’s policy work is ensuring that state law sealing foreclosure-related evictions is followed, and clarifying that evictions should be sealed at the beginning of the case. Renters who are evicted from a foreclosed building get an eviction tacked onto their record, regardless of whether they knew their building was in foreclosure or whether their rent is fully paid. Having an eviction on one’s record makes it virtually impossible to rent another unit. Enforcing state sealing laws protects the renting prospects and reputation for these tenants.

To better achieve LCBH’s broader goal of safe and stable housing for all, the organization is formally launching a medical-legal partnership in October with one of Chicago’s safety net hospitals and a community wellness center. Medical maladies can trace back to or be exacerbated by a housing issue it is hard to get healthy and stay healthy if you don’t know where you are going to be sleeping at night or you live in unsafe housing. LCBH believes that addressing housing issues before a client reaches the eviction court will provide much better outcomes, and working in the community with medical providers will provide a much better continuum of care for people suffering from medical conditions related to or exacerbated by their housing situation.

For everyday issues, such as understanding your lease or knowing your rights, LCBH’s website is a comprehensive and informative tool for renters. It covers common legal problems such as unsafe building conditions, housing discrimination, eviction, illegal lockouts, landlord retaliation, security deposits, and utility shut-off. The organization also developed a Renters’ Resource Guide for renters to understand their available legal remedies.

Cheryl noted, It’s amazing what a difference it makes when a landlord gets a letter from an attorney. Even a little help from an attorney can have a lot of impact on somebody’s life.