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A family's belongings lie on the sidewalk following an eviction. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Eviction by ‘Rent-a-Cop’

An Illinois bill could ‘privatize’ evictions and pave the way for Wall Street abuses.

BY Rebecca Burns

Tenants’ rights groups have warned that the measures outlined in HB 5395 could take the city back to a time when landlords could remove their renters simply by strewing their belongings across the sidewalk or retaining someone to order them out at gunpoint.

Housing activists in Chicago are sounding the alarm over a proposed state law that they say would effectively privatize the eviction process and erase decades of gains surrounding tenants’ rights. Introduced by Rep. Monique D. Davis (D), who is both a legislator and small-time Chicago landlord, the bill could also prove to be a boon for the Wall Street investors currently making a foray into the rental market.

Though the proposed legislation is before the Illinois General Assembly, it is written only to apply to counties with populations of 3 million or more people; in other words, it would only impact Cook County, Illinois, which encompasses the greater Chicago area.

At present, evictions in Cook County are a civil matter carried out by a specially trained unit within the Sheriff’s office. During the past three decades, largely at the urging of advocates, this unit has begun training deputies in the nuances of tenant law and employing a social worker to consult with elderly or disabled tenants and those with young children. Police typically do not become involved in the process.

By contrast, HB 5395, which passed out of committee this month and is now before the Illinois House of Representatives, would change eviction laws to allow any “peace officer,” including off-duty police in the employ of private security companies or landlords, to remove tenants from their homes. Critics have denounced the idea of “rent-a-cops” unfamiliar with the nuances of tenant law carrying out this procedure.

Under current law, tenants may also file motions to attempt to stay their eviction if, for example, their new apartment is not ready yet, or they have a disability that prevents them from moving in the allotted time. Such motions do not prevent the enforcement of evictions unless they are granted by a judge, but legal advocates say that they can still provide a safeguard against tenants who are being evicted wrongfully. HB 5395 would restrict the number of motions a tenant can file to two, placing what advocates say is an arbitrary limit on a process that self-represented tenants, in particular, often struggle to complete correctly on their first try.

Overall, tenants’ rights groups have warned that the measures outlined in HB 5395 could take the city back to a time when landlords could remove their renters simply by strewing their belongings across the sidewalk or retaining someone to order them out at gunpoint.

Jeremy Bergstrom, senior attorney for the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, says the new law would throw the current eviction system into “chaos.” “The one thing we always stress to all tenants is, ‘Your landlord cannot just hire someone to come and evict you,’” he says. “This would change that.”

Among those vehemently opposing the bill is Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who has said that having such private parties without special training carry out evictions would be a “nightmare.”

“Evictions are inherently difficult and often tragic—particularly when children and other at-risk populations are involved,” says Cook County Sheriff’s Office Director of Communications Benjamin Breit. “The Cook County Sheriff’s Office is able to provide social services to families that we are ordered to evict because we care about them. … Placing this authority with those that have a financial stake in the process would incur unthinkable consequences.”

Sympathy for the landlord

As first introduced in February, the original version of HB 5395 would have eliminated a standing moratorium on evictions when the weather dips below 15 degrees, earning it the nickname “the Polar Vortex Evictions bill” from critics. Davis, the chief sponsor of the bill, is herself a landlord who grew frustrated during the bitterly cold Chicago winter that the sheriff’s office had not yet evicted one of her tenants. The latest version of the bill has removed the weather provision, as well as a subsequent one that would have required the sheriff’s office to enforce an eviction order within 45 days of its entry. Still, many housing advocates are nevertheless decrying what they see as a moral and political conflict of interest in Davis’ dogged advocacy for the bill. (Illinois law stipulates that legislators asked to take official action on an issue in which they have a personal, family or business interest should “consider the possibility of eliminating the interest creating the conflict situation” or “consider the possibility of abstaining from such official action.” But Illinois is not among the 30 states that prohibit so-called “conflict of interest voting” by state legislators.)

Reached by In These Times, Davis says that HB 5395 is not about enforcing evictions against people with disabilities or parents of small children, who critics fear would suffer most under the new provisions limiting the number of motions that can be filed. Instead, she says, “This bill is for those groups of people who have the belief that they don’t have to pay rent when they’ve rented an apartment. This is to give some relief to landlords who are having situations in which a tenant files motion after motion to delay the inevitable.”

Bergstrom, meanwhile, believes such concern is exaggerated. “There’s a perception that it takes a long time to evict people in Chicago. The lawyers who I talk to … believe it’s more a perception than a reality,” he says. “The sheriff got behind this winter, but I think that’s evidence of why the sheriff needs to have some discretion. It was a record cold winter.”

Asked whether the bill constituted a conflict of interest, Davis says, “I also pay a light bill. Should I not vote on [legislative] utility bills?”

Davis declined to state how many buildings she rents out in Chicago, but an In These Times search of public records found that she owns at least five. In a review of eviction proceedings initiated by Davis last year, In These Times discovered one case in which a tenant on the city’s South Side alleged before a judge that Davis had changed the locks and had her car towed off of the property in November 2013 before her eviction had been carried out. If true, this action would constitute an illegal lock-out under Chicago’s Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance, according to attorney Kelli Dudley, director of the Resistance Legal Clinic. The tenant had filed a motion the previous month to stay her eviction in order to give her and her 8-year-old daughter more time to move; according to a later motion by the tenant, the judge ordered Davis in mid-November to give the tenant a new key.

Asked to comment on that case, Davis says that the tenant, who had first given her a bad rent check in June 2013, had only just been evicted when she spoke to In These Times on May 23—a sign, the legislator argues, that the system is unfair to landlords.

As Chicago Sun-Times writer Mark Brown has noted, irony abounds in the fact that Davis is herself a delinquent tenant: Her district office is in a building owned by Chicago Public Schools, but Davus has paid no rent for 11 years and is fighting eviction. In 2009, the Chicago Board of Education and Cook County filed suit to recover more than $100,000 in back rent and $456,000 in tax, fees and fines for use of the office, but Davis and the State of Illinois have continued to fight the litigation.  

Wall Street 'Repo Men'?

Davis tells In These Times that she decided to introduce the bill after consulting with other local landlords. But as the housing market picks up again and the pace of gentrification in the city quickens, housing activists worry that the bill could have implications beyond the financial interests of legislators and small-time landlords.

Critics of the bill say that it could exacerbate the impact of the foreclosure crisis in an already hard-hit city. Davis, for her part, is quick to emphasize that HB 5395 “has nothing to do with mortgage foreclosures.” But the bill as written would apply to “tenants of single-family or multi-family residential dwellings,” and growing numbers of tenants are living in foreclosed buildings reposessed by banks or acquired by third-party investors, notes the Shriver Center.

In the wake of the foreclosure crisis, as In These Times has reported previously, Wall Street investors have launched a new single-family-home rental empire by gobbling up more than 200,000 homes nationwide. Tenants have reported numerous abuses, including high eviction rates, at the hands of firms seeking to secure returns on their investments. Now, the same investors and hedge funds are setting their sights on multi-family apartment buildings; among them, the private equity giant Blackstone Group, which recently became the largest owner of single-family homes in the U.S., is currently ratcheting up its efforts to acquire distressed multi-family apartment buildings. According to a report in Al Jazeera, renters in such apartment buildings are already reporting abuses at the hands of investors-turned-landlords, who advocates fear are seeking to force out long-time tenants in order to hike rents.

Shriver Center Director of Housing Kate Walz notes that private eviction enforcers are less likely to be versed in the array of local, state and federal regulations that extend protections to tenants in such foreclosed buildings, potentially creating an atmosphere of confusion that could further abet these abuses. “I can't imagine what will happen when an off-duty cop handles this dicey situation [of determining the rights of tenants in foreclosed buildings], particularly when there may be a [high] volume of evictions,” she says. “This is a dangerous 'repo man' policy being set in motion for residential tenants.”

Rebecca Burns is an In These Times assistant editor based in Chicago, where she also covers labor, housing and higher education. Her writing has also appeared in Al Jazeera America, Jacobin, Truthout, AlterNet and Waging Nonviolence. She can be reached at rebecca[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns

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