Cook County Sheriff's deputies break down a door while performing an eviction in April 2017 Credit: Maya Dukmasova

Eviction hearings in Cook County courtrooms happen in the blink of an eye. According to legal observers and court-watching reports, tenants frequently show up to their first court date unaware that the fate of their housing may be decided immediately. And though the circuit court doesn’t publicly report statistics on the some 30,000 eviction cases filed countywide each year, legal advocates have long observed that tenants almost never have lawyers.

In a first attempt to quantify the problem in over a decade, the Reader obtained data from the Clerk of the Circuit Court showing that just 12 percent of more than 19,300 Chicago tenants facing eviction in 2016 were represented by attorneys at any point during their case. Meanwhile, 83 percent of Chicago landlords had lawyers in eviction court. (Thought some 23,600 eviction cases were actually filed in Chicago last year, the Clerk only provided data about legal representation in cases that weren’t subsequently sealed.)

The outcomes of cases in which defendants had lawyers differ markedly compared to those in which they didn’t. When tenants were unrepresented in Chicago, eviction cases were resolved in their favor 33 percent of the time. When they had lawyers, cases were resolved in their favor 58 percent of the time.

As we have explained before, an outcome in favor of a tenant in eviction court usually means that the case is dismissed. Landlords win when they’re granted possession of the property, and sometimes money owed by the tenant. While judges often give the plaintiff-landlord permission to bring a dismissed case against a particular tenant-defendant back into court at a future date, legal advocates consider it a win for tenants anytime they are allowed to stay in the unit.

Curiously, for plaintiffs, having a lawyer in eviction court actually correlated with somewhat lower rates of success. Though landlords tend to win cases regardless of whether or not they have legal representation, they won 62 percent of the time when they had lawyers, but 74 percent of the time when they didn’t.

The data shows similar trends and outcomes in Chicago as in the Cook County suburbs. Rates of legal representation among suburbanites getting evicted are even lower: Just 6 percent of defendants in the more than 9,100 cases filed in 2016 had an attorney. On the other hand, 78 percent of suburban plaintiffs bringing eviction cases had lawyers. Tenants who didn’t have lawyers prevailed 44 percent of the time, and those who did won 50 percent of the time.

While suburban landlords won eviction most of the time, there too having a lawyer seemed to be a handicap: unrepresented plaintiffs won eviction cases 63 percent of the time, while those with lawyers won 58 percent of the time.

Legal representation for tenants in eviction court is scarce nationwide. In Milwaukee, sociologist Matthew Desmond found that only 10 percent of tenants have a lawyer; in Denver, according to a new report, just one percent of tenants do. To address the disparity in New York City, where only 10 percent of tenants have historically had attorneys, Mayor Bill de Blasio recently signed a law guaranteeing legal representation to low-income residents in eviction court.

But a lack of legal representation in eviction court isn’t the only hurdle Chicago tenants face when fighting displacement. Cook County circuit court doesn’t have court reporters or recording equipment in eviction courtrooms, making appeals all but impossible. Tenants can also be forced out informally, through the illegal practice of lockouts and other types of pressure such as astronomical rent spikes and lapses in maintenance. In gentrifying neighborhoods, tenants have reported retaliation from landlords when they try to assert their rights under the local Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance, which allows them to withhold rent for landlords’ failure to maintain properties.

And in addition to high eviction rates in Chicago, particularly in poor, black neighborhoods, the problem is growing in the Cook County suburbs. Desmond and other researchers have demonstrated eviction to be a major source, and not just a by-product, of persistent urban poverty. And increasingly, local advocates and some elected officials are exploring strategies for combatting the eviction crisis, including the repeal of Illinois’s prohibition on local rent regulation.

Andrew Fan contributed data analysis to this story.