Cook County sheriff's deputies perform an eviction in March 2018. Credit: Maya Dukmasova

A new bill introduced by state representatives Emanuel Chris Welch, Theresa Mah, and Juliana Stratton would automatically seal eviction records filed in county courts. In cases ultimately decided in favor of the landlord, records would be unsealed and made available to the public after 30 days. If the law went into effect it would also mandate that all eviction cases be sealed after five years.

The bill is being rolled out in tandem with a new report from Housing Action Illinois and the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, which confirms the Reader‘s prior reporting on Cook County eviction data. After examining more than 105,000 Cook County eviction court cases that were filed and completed between 2014 and 2017, the report found that landlords win more than 60 percent of the time. It also found that more than 80 percent of landlords have attorneys in eviction court (while only about 12 percent of tenants do), and that a third of the filed cases are decided on a tenant’s first court date.

For the roughly 40 percent of eviction cases that end up dismissed or otherwise resolved with no judgment against a tenant, the filing can nevertheless carry heavy consequences. The report profiles several tenants who experienced difficulties in finding a place to rent with merely a filing on the record. Often, the report notes, landlords use private screening companies to collect background information on potential tenants. The companies, in turn, cull records of criminal and civil cases filed against a person, but often don’t provide any information about what happened in the case. Some of the tenants profiled in the report wound up named in an eviction case because their landlord was foreclosed on, while others faced developers seeking to clear and rehab a property (because eviction without cause is permitted in Cook County). Still others had misunderstandings with landlords who filed but didn’t ultimately pursue eviction cases.

The report estimates that roughly 15,000 people per year in Cook County wind up with an eviction filing on their record without actually being evicted.

Credit: Housing Action Illinois

Mah, whose Second District encompasses Pilsen and parts of Chinatown, Bridgeport, McKinley Park, and Back of the Yards, says the proposed legislation would protect tenants from the stigma of an eviction filing without interfering with landlords’ ability to evict or evaluate applicants. “I represent areas that are undergoing rapid gentrification. Displacement is an issue for many of my constituents,” Mah says. Sealing eviction records until they’re resolved would make it easier for people evicted through no fault of their own to find a new place to rent. “In the end we’ll have more accurate public information and a situation where people are treated with more fairness and don’t have to be prejudiced by these records. . . . This is really not something that’s meant to penalize landlords or business owners but to make sure the process is fair for everybody.”

The bill also proposes permanently sealing any cases that were filed without cause even if the landlord ultimately prevailed. This would add an additional level of protection to tenants evicted as a consequence of property flipping. Though there already exists a state law mandating the sealing of eviction cases when tenants are being cleared from a foreclosed landlord’s property, the application of this rule hasn’t been uniform.

“In Cook County sealing was happening after filing, and that undermined the purpose of the state law,” says Bob Palmer, policy director of Housing Action Illinois. “The language in the law wasn’t specific that it would be sealed at the time of filing.”

Palmer says that the new bill, which his group and the Lawyers’ Committee collaborated on drafting, would not interfere with the collection of macro-level data about eviction trends, such as the number of cases filed in certain jurisdictions, and their ultimate outcomes.