JACKSONVILLE — As economic uncertainty lingers one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, housing advocates across the state are planning next steps to protect tenants and landlords and create additional affordable housing opportunities.
Over the past several weeks, the General Assembly has considered various bills on the subject, including emergency rental assistance, lifting the state ban on rent control, and subsidizing future affordable housing construction in the state.
Advocates for affordable housing in Illinois, including Rep. Delia Ramirez, a Democrat representing Chicago, say the pandemic has shed new light on an ongoing affordable housing crisis and sparked a new sense of urgency to support tenants and landlords struggling to afford rent and maintain their properties.
"I've gotten calls from colleagues of mine and offices from all over the state asking what do we do if this pandemic has only made this crisis worse than ever," Ramirez said.
According to data from the National Council for State Housing Agencies, more than 540,000 Illinois households could not pay rent as of September, and the backlog of owed rent in the state as of January of this year totaled more than $1.2 billion.
Michael Mini, executive vice president of the Chicago Apartment Association, said the pandemic also has been difficult for property owners and landlords.
"When the pandemic first hit, our members went into action and started reaching out to residents and did what they could to work with them on trying to keep them in their housing," Mini said. "It's been very challenging for residents and apartment owners and managers, no doubt about it."
"We have landlords who don't know how they're going to pay the utilities, their mortgages, and we have tenants who are going to work when they shouldn't when they have symptoms and should stay home, but they don't think they can afford to stay home because they'll be in the streets," she said.
Since the outset of the pandemic last year, Ramirez has been working on a bill now known as the COVID-19 Federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program Act. The bill has been reintroduced this legislative session as House Bill 2877.
While the bill as originally introduced would have implemented a statewide eviction moratorium until next year, it now aims to direct an estimated $1.4 billion in federal emergency rental assistance to support tenants most at risk for eviction and small landlords in need of the most assistance.
"For us in this bill, prioritizing people that owe the most will really help stabilize them and prevent people being evicted or put on the street as a result of funds being exhausted," Ramirez said.
Another major provision of the bill includes sealing eviction records for individuals who may have been evicted as a result of pandemic-related economic hardship until March of next year, which Ramirez said would be key to "cleaning slate" for tenants and allowing them to find housing in the future.
"With any eviction record or bankruptcy, those are records that follow you for seven years," Ramirez said. "The bill will ensure that people are able to move and not have an eviction filing on the record and keeping them from accessing housing."
Michelle Gilbert, a housing attorney and director of the Chicago COVID-19 Eviction Prevention Project, said sealing eviction records until next year is an important step for protecting low-income renters and homeowners for the remainder of the pandemic.
"Even with the moratorium, there are cases that are being filed every day," Gilbert said. "The eviction filing, even when the tenants win or get the case dismissed, isn't sealed. It impacts their ability to get housing long term."
Ramirez, who is the chief sponsor of the legislation, saw her bill pass the Illinois House on March 18. The bill is now under consideration in the Senate with Sen. Omar Aquino, D-Chicago, serving as the lead sponsor.
This will be the second time the bill has been sent to the Senate, which did not call it for a vote at the conclusion of the lame duck session in January. Ramirez said she since has worked with stakeholders in the banking and real estate industries on various concerns with the bill.
"We were able to resolve that in this new session, which I think makes it easier for the bill to move now in the Senate," Ramirez said. "I think the big question for us is how soon."
Regarding the initial concerns from property managers, Mini said the latest changes have caused the banking and real estate industries to take a neutral stance on the bill.
"It's been amended quite a bit from when it was initially brought up at the end of session last year," Mini said. "We still have concerns about the sealing of eviction records, but I think we've gotten to a place where if it's limited to addressing those that were affected by the pandemic, that's something that we can live with."
Ramirez said she remains "hopeful" the legislation could be called for debate in the Senate as early as next week, and that she expects the governor's office to view the bill as a priority.