Chicago tenant unions fight for those struggling to pay rent

By Amina Sergazina, Contributing Writer

Shane Tolentino

For two months, Danielle Limonez struggled to pay rent, barely getting by once the coronavirus pandemic began.

Limonez, a senior television major, was laid off March 27 from her position as an outreach leader with no notice. It was the highest paying out of three other jobs she had.

“That’s at least $600 a month that I’m out,” she said, during an April 4 interview. “It’s hard trying to cover my bills and paying for everything else. Some companies tell you that they’re trying to help you out, but they’re not.”

The coronavirus-induced recession and stay-at-home orders have left many unemployed, including many young adults.

An Axios-Harris survey from March 14-30 found that 31% out of 1149 U.S. responders ages 18 to 34 had been laid off or furloughed because of the pandemic.

Chicago’s COVID-19 Housing Assistance Grant Program used $2 million from the city’s Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund to help 2,000 Chicago residents pay their rent through $1,000 grants.

According to a Chicago Sun-Times commentary written by Chicago Department of Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara, more than 83,000 applied for the grants, which required applicants to provide documentation showing proof of unemployment and household income at or below 60% of the area median income prior to job loss.

Some tenant unions in Chicago like Autonomous Tenant Union, Tenants United Hyde Park Woodlawn and Northside Action for Justice are attempting to prevent evictions and are pushing for a citywide rent freeze to protect people like Limonez.

John Hieronymus, a coordinating committee member of Tenants United Hyde Park Woodlawn, said the union received more calls in April than in the two years they have been operating, and they are aware illegal evictions are happening. Now, calls are being directed to specific landlord organizing committees, such as Mac Tenants United, Pangea Tenants United and TLC Tenants United.

Tenants United Hyde Park Woodlawn, an organization that empowers tenants and fights gentrification in Hyde Park, advises residents to communicate with their neighbors to organize a collective letter to be sent at least 14 days before the rent is due, informing their landlord that they plan to withhold rent, Hieronymus said.

“No one should be homeless right now, and no one who can’t pay their rent right now is going to be in a situation where they can pay rent to another landlord somewhere else,” Hieronymus said. “Being forced to move in the middle of a pandemic is dangerous and life-threatening.”

Limonez, who shares an apartment with her partner, said she has tried various ways to contact her landlord but he has been “unresponsive.” She has not attempted to contact him since the end of March.

Limonez is not part of a tenants union but said she has the option of moving in with her parents if she is evicted, which is not likely to due to an April 23 Executive Order issued by Pritzker.

The order stated a person or entity may not “commence a residential eviction action” during the duration of Gubernational Disaster Proclamation.

On Friday, May 29 Pritzker announced the ban on eviction would be extended through the month of June.

The Autonomous Tenants Union, a volunteer-based organization for housing justice, wrote an open letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans in April asking for a freeze on the collection of rent for the duration of the pandemic.

The letter was endorsed by four alderpersons including Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th Ward), Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward) and Andre Vasquez (40th Ward), and as of press time, it has 17,449 signatures of its 25,600 goal.

Limonez was able to pay her May rent with the help of the stimulus check and $250 in financial aid from the college given as part of the CARES Act. She said she was also able to pay her rent for June.

Even though she is uncertain about her future and ability to continue paying rent, Limonez said she is staying positive.

“It’s happening to so many people, and I’m just grateful for being able to get by,” she said. “Today’s been a good day. If you talked to me a few days ago, maybe it wouldn’t have been.”