CHICAGO — As COVID-19 spreads throughout the United States, making an indefinite period of social distancing vital for containing the outbreak, millions of Americans have, or will soon, lose their jobs. Because of this, instead of being able to focus on how best to protect their communities, many are left worrying about how they will pay rent on April 1st.
ATU, in coalition with 22 other Chicago organizations, has created a petition articulating demands to address this fear. In less than two days, over 5,000 Chicagoans have signed on. In a city where more than half of renter households are considered "rent-burdened" and over 85,000 people are already homeless, one missed paycheck can mean a choice between groceries or rent. With a coronavirus recession fast approaching, this injustice threatens to become a full-blown catastrophe.
It will take drastic action to avert this disaster. For this reason, Autonomous Tenants Union is demanding that Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Governor JB Pritzker enact a complete freeze on the collection of all rent, mortgage, and utility payments throughout the duration of the crisis, compel landlords to grant automatic lease extensions to tenants unable to move during the crisis, and immediately house people experiencing homelessness. Additionally, ATU demands that Chief Judge of the Cook County Circuit Court Timothy C. Evans close all court filings for evictions and foreclosures for as long as the emergency persists.
Even a tiny sampling of comments from signees lays bare the desperate urgency of this moment:
"I'm a bartender who recently was laid off. I care for my elderly mother as well and I'm the only one that was working in my household."
"We are low income, we are disabled, we cannot work what little work we could even before the pandemic. We deserve housing. Everyone deserves housing. Shelter is a human right."
"I work in food service… and though we are trying to produce free meals for the needy I am not getting paid for the volunteer work and won't be paid for the foreseeable future."
"Our landlord is still trying to raise our rent by an additional $150/month during this pandemic."
"I am an independent contractor artist, and every single one of my contracts for the next two months have been cancelled. My monthly overhead is $5,000 for my family of five, and I am the sole provider."
In her address to the city on Thursday, March 19, Mayor Lightfoot called on landlords "to give tenants some grace wherever possible during these trying times." Unfortunately, simply asking landlords for leniency is not sufficient. Though the Circuit Court of Cook County has scaled back operations for 30 days, "civil lawsuits may still be filed in person or via electronic filing."
Tenants who know that missing rent could result in an eviction on their record are more likely to go to work while symptomatic and risk spreading the virus. The only way to slow the virus' spread is to assure people that they will not be penalized for playing it safe. It is unacceptable that landlords can, and will, continue to file for evictions during this crisis.
ATU member Karen Alvarez is experiencing this reality first-hand. For months, her landlord Nathan ( Fred ) Parker has refused to remedy numerous conditions issues - verified by city inspectors - within her unit. After Alvarez exercised her legal right under Chicago's Residential Landlord-Tenant Ordinance to reduce her rent payment in proportion to the diminished value of the apartment, Parker served her with a 5-day eviction notice.
"Dangling an eviction over our heads because of [his] unwillingness to make basic repairs to our unit has been cruel, inhumane, and has put us under so much stress," Alvarez said. Parker's actions have caused "many sleepless nights trying to figure out plan B, C and D in case we were to face an eviction right in the middle of this health pandemic and forced us to save every penny to cover the unforeseen costs our landlord has brought upon us."
ATU has also received a number of emails from renters with leases expiring soon and concerns about how they will safely move. Given the lack of guidance from city officials on this issue, ATU is demanding automatic lease extensions for all tenants with difficulties moving.
Full list of endorsees, as of 3/20: 33rd Ward Working Families; Albany Park Defense Network; Autonomous Tenants Union; Anakbayan Chicago; Chicago Boricua Resistance; Chicago-Kent College of Law Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild; GoodKidsMadCity; Lift The Ban Coalition; Little Village Solidarity Network / Red de Solidaridad de La Villita; Logan Square Neighborhood Association; Migrante Chicago; National Lawyers Guild, Loyola University of Chicago Chapter; National Lawyers Guild - Chicago; Neighbors for Affordable Housing; Northside Tenant Network; Organized Communities Against Deportations; Pilsen Alliance; Rising Tide Chicago; Rogers Park Solidarity Network; South Side Workers Center; Tenants United Hyde Park Woodlawn; Ãšnete: Little Village Community Development Committee; Working Family Solidarity
—From a press release