COVID-19 and paying the rent: What tenants who lost a job or income due to coronavirus can do

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CHICAGO —  The economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis is about hits home for many whenever the landlord comes looking for rent. Here are some answers to some typical rent-related questions, and resources available for tenants:

Do people still have to pay rent on if they lost a job, worked less hours or got sick due to coronavirus?

The short answer is yes. Neither Illinois nor Chicago have implemented a rent freeze, so rent is technically still due. However, these are unprecedented times so landlords may be willing to be flexible.

John Bartlett of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization said the first thing renters should do if they can’t pay is contact their landlord and see if they are willing to make a deal.

Tom Benedetto of the Chicagoland Apartment Association, which works with landlords, agrees and says tenants should let their property manager know about changes in their financial situation.

“Many rental housing professionals already have individual plans in place to work with their residents during this unprecedented crisis. There is no ‘one approach fits all,'” Benedetto said.

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Whether it’s partial payment, a payment plan or something else Bartlett said it’s best to get any agreement in writing and have an attorney look at it.

“As for agreements, it is best not to make an unrealistic agreement or one that you cannot fulfill. It will just push the inevitable down the road,” Bartlett said.

On April 29, many landlords and mortgage lenders signed a “Chicago Housing Solidarity Pledge,” indicating they would waive late fees and agree to written plans that allow tenants to pay in installments.

What happens if I don’t pay?

Anyone who doesn’t pay their rent would eventually be subject to eviction, but would likely be able to stay in their home for several weeks.

All evictions and utility shut-offs due to lack of payment are banned throughout the duration of Governor JB Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, which he recently extended through May 30.

However, Benedetto notes that the executive orders specifically indicate that they do not relieve people of their obligation to pay rent. So failing to pay could result in someone being subject to eviction after the executive orders expire.

Since it’s “completely illegal” for landlords to evict tenants without a court order, Bartlett said, tenants who don’t pay should be able to remain in their homes.

However, once the courts reopen landlords can file court papers starting the eviction process. In addition to potentially losing their home, being involved in an eviction proceeding can actually hurt a tenant’s ability to find a new place to live, Bartlett said.

Is there help available for renters impacted by the coronavirus?

There’s a wide range of federal and local assistance available to people impacted by the economic effects of the coronavirus.

First, the federal government has extended unemployment and other benefits to help Americans pay for essentials like rent. While a surge in people applying for benefits led to restrictions on when Illinois residents can apply, officials say the portal is open to those who need it.

The City of Chicago also offers emergency support to help people avoid homelessness, as well as short-term housing stabilization funds to people who are in “immediate risk of eviction.”

Some community organizations also offer short-term assistance with rent and mortgage payments – there’s a more comprehensive list below.

What politicians are doing

A coalition of activists and Chicago aldermen are calling on Governor JB Pritzker to lift Illinois’ ban on rent control, which ties the state’s hands when it comes to regulating rents.

Some activists are calling for a rent strike to pressure landlords and officials into offering some form of rent forgiveness. Others are pushing for an indefinite freeze on rent, mortgages and utility payments during the crisis.

However, laws currently on the books specifically restrict the state from implementing any kind of rent control, and Gov. Pritzker has said it is “not something I can overturn.”

Groups representing property managers also oppose such measures, noting rent payments are needed to cover everything from property taxes to upkeep of their properties.

Additional Resources

For people living in Chicago Housing Authority units, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Wednesday that the CHA will not be collecting rent until the stay-at-home order is lifted.

One Fair Wage is providing emergency support to tipped workers and other service workers through a newly-created fund.

When it comes to rent and other bills, Illinois PIRG Education Fund released a guide with tips for negotiating with banks to lower interest rates, waive overdraft fees, and agree on payment plans.

A newly-created Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund has also provided money to relief organizations and local nonprofits that offer short-term and rental assistance to the communities they support, including:

  • American Red Cross – Greater Chicago
  • The Salvation Army Metropolitan Division

    Neighborhood Groups
  • Brighton Park Neighborhood Council
  • Claretian Associates (South Chicago)
  • Northwest Side Housing Center
  • Resident Association of Greater Englewood
  • Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP)
  • Teamwork Englewood

    Community Organizations
  • Access Living of Greater Chicago
  • Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago
  • Chicago Federation of Labor Workforce & Community Initiative
  • Cornerstone Community Development Corporation
  • Enlace Chicago
  • Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights
  • Inner-City Muslim Action Network
  • Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago
  • Metropolitan Family Services
  • OAI, Inc.
  • The Puerto Rican Agenda of Chicago
  • The Resurrection Project

Additional resources from the Metropolitan Tenants Organization are available here.

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