‘Did this do what we thought it would do?’ Some people face eviction even after getting COVID-19 rental assistance.

Evon McAllister and her 11 year-old son Floyd Jenkins in their South Shore apartment, Dec. 22, 2021. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

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Tenants can once again apply for COVID-19 rental assistance, the latest wave of a $1 billion program that has sought to financially stabilize Illinois renters and landlords.

But although the program has succeeded in protecting some renters, tenant advocates say others are being evicted or threatened with eviction despite receiving thousands of dollars to pay the money they owe. The problem has taken on greater urgency in recent months, as the state’s moratorium on evictions expired in October.

Sara Heymann, a member of the neighborhood group Únete La Villita, said the group helped about 50 tenants in Little Village fill out paperwork for rental assistance through the city of Chicago. But after getting the payments, a lot of landlords still filed for evictions or declined to renew leases, she said, making the experience bittersweet.

“Working so hard to get those tenants rental assistance, and then they weren’t completely out of the woods yet, they didn’t have a job, and then their landlords follow up by just kicking them out? It sucks,” she said.

La Shone Kelly, director of housing for the Garfield Park Community Council, said the program has benefited the community but her agency also has fielded calls from tenants facing evictions or nonrenewals after getting rental assistance.

Many tenants still don’t have jobs when their rental assistance expires, and some landlords, who get many months’ worth of rental assistance in one single payment, lose track of how many months are covered, Kelly noted.

One of the issues, advocates said, is the lack of follow-up by government officials to ensure tenants understand their rights or landlords abide by the rules tied to receiving the public money, such as waiving late fees or temporary bans on filing evictions for nonpayment of rent.

The Garfield Park Community Council has begun following up with tenants on its own, Kelly said.

“That’s a lot of money that went out,” she said. “. .. Did this do what we thought it would do?”

The Illinois Housing Development Authority, which administers the bulk of pandemic-related federal aid for rent arrears in the state, said in a statement that it “unfortunately ... is not in a position to take any action that could be immediately helpful” to tenants who continue to face eviction after receiving assistance. The agency referred tenants to legal aid groups and other service providers.

The Chicago Department of Housing, which also administers rental assistance, said in a statement it has been focused on getting money out quickly “due to the emergency nature of the pandemic crisis.” The department said it was aware of some cases where evictions are improperly filed and has dealt with them on a case-by-case basis.

The department partnered with the University of Chicago Inclusive Economy Lab to follow up with applicants and track their outcomes, but a department spokeswoman did not immediately respond to questions about the partnership.

Evon McAllister in her South Shore apartment.
Evon McAllister in her South Shore apartment. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)

Evon McAllister applied for assistance with the Illinois Housing Development Authority in July after falling behind on rent for her South Shore apartment this year.

An acute stroke had left McAllister unable to move the right side of her body, which prevented her from working and made it hard for her to manage in her sixth-floor unit, she said. She had hoped the rental assistance would encourage her landlord to move her to a more accessible apartment.

In November, she notified her property manager, WPD Management, that her application for assistance had been approved. The company responded by noting she could still be evicted and offering $1,000 — and movers — if she found a new home by Dec. 15.

“If the IHDA does not process the payments in a timely manner you can still be processed for an eviction if the owner decides to,” a company representative wrote in a Nov. 11 email McAllister provided to the Tribune. “Please try to start looking for some places on your own.”

“This is wrong,” McAllister said in an interview. “He got the money.”

According to IHDA, the property management company cashed the $8,010 rental assistance check, which covered nine months of back rent, on Nov. 17. The company also received an earlier round of rental assistance for McAllister that was processed through a Chicago nonprofit.

Evon McAllister sealed all the belongings of her and her son in plastic to protect them from bedbugs and lined the moldings of their South Shore apartment with cockroach poison.
Evon McAllister sealed all the belongings of her and her son in plastic to protect them from bedbugs and lined the moldings of their South Shore apartment with cockroach poison. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

McAllister said she’s upset the management did not improve the condition of her South Shore unit or move her to another apartment, given that the assistance money meant she was more than caught up on her rent. “Nobody should have to live like this,” she said of the mice and roach problems she reported encountering at her unit.

Reached by phone, Robert Ellis of WPD Management said he thought rental assistance had worked for McAllister, as she was not taken to court. He acknowledged problems with the apartment but said McAllister didn’t have sufficient income to live in the building, a problem the temporary rental assistance wouldn’t solve. “She can’t cover the rent moving forward for the unit,” he said.

“We’re doing our best to work with her,” Ellis said.

Ellis suggested that McAllister apply for rental assistance a third time, but McAllister said she just wants to move on. “You’re not gonna get any more money from me,” she said.

McAllister said she applied to live in a low-income apartment but was told there were many more people in need ahead of her.

The rental assistance program, together with other pandemic-related safeguards around eviction, has left renters and landlords more stable than they would have been otherwise, said Michelle Gilbert, legal director of the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing. The organization represents low-income tenants in eviction proceedings and is also connecting residents to public rental assistance.

But the assistance push alone can’t promise long-term housing stability for tenants, Gilbert said.

“There are people who are experiencing housing instability either because they’re not back to the amount of money they were making, or because their savings took a hit, or because they were unstable to begin with,” she said.

It also doesn’t address the power imbalance between landlord and tenant, Gilbert added. “We’re not able to represent everyone,” she said.

Susan Brewer and her wife, Le’Denise Henderson, got help with their rent this year through a city of Chicago assistance program that predates COVID-19. They fell behind on rent after Henderson was laid off as a lead barista at DePaul University at the start of the pandemic, Henderson said.

Susan Brewer and Le'Denise Henderson received nine months' worth of rent assistance through a long-standing city program that predates the COVID-19 pandemic.
Susan Brewer and Le'Denise Henderson received nine months' worth of rent assistance through a long-standing city program that predates the COVID-19 pandemic. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)

On March 31 they were approved for $5,355, which would cover nine months’ worth of rent. But a new landlord purchased their South Shore building shortly afterward, then filed for eviction against Brewer and Henderson for failing to pay rent during the months he owned the building. The case was dismissed in October.

Brewer and Henderson’s landlord, Anthony Glispie, referred questions to his attorney. The attorney, John Norkus, said the eviction case arose out of confusion surrounding the rental assistance when Glispie purchased the property. They decided the eviction case was not worth pursuing because paperwork on the assistance was muddled, he said.

Now the two women are again behind on rent. They said they did not receive rent invoices and could not access the payment system. They are now able to view invoices and pay rent, but can’t come up with enough money to make multiple rent payments at once, Brewer said.

Norkus disputed that Brewer and Henderson were blocked from making payments. Their landlord has again filed to evict them, he said.

The South Shore apartment building where Susan Brewer and Le'Denise Henderson face eviction.
The South Shore apartment building where Susan Brewer and Le'Denise Henderson face eviction. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

Brewer and Henderson said they had not yet been served with eviction papers but were expecting a knock on their door soon. They are considering loans and asking for help, and plan to apply for the most recent round of rental assistance. But they are worried about how much time the process takes.

“That will leave us pretty much in a homeless state,” Henderson said.