Cook County Sheriff's deputies perform a eviction in South Shore in March 2018 Credit: Maya Dukmasova

A new amendment to Chicago’s Residential Landlord-Tenant Ordinance introduced by Mayor Lori Lightfoot at last week’s City Council meeting extends protections for tenants facing no-fault evictions. If passed, the changes would require landlords to give 90 days’ notice—instead of the current 30 days—to tenants whose leases they don’t want to renew. And, if landlords aren’t renewing a lease to “substantially rehabilitate or demolish” the unit, they’d be required to pay the tenants a $2,500 relocation stipend. No-cause evictions impact about a quarter of the city’s tenants, according to the mayor, who need far more time to uproot their lives and find a new home than the month currently afforded to them. Surprisingly, it wasn’t just landlord groups who balked at Lightfoot’s “fair notice” bill, but also progressive aldermen, who voted to move it to the Rules Committee—a place where draft legislation often “goes to die.”

No-fault evictions are fair game in Chicago, meaning that landlords are free to ask tenants to leave with 30 days’ notice if they’re in a month-to-month rental agreement, and they’re free not to renew a tenant’s long-term lease. Tenant advocates who’ve been organizing to lift the state ban on rent control have also pushed to establish a “just cause eviction” law that would prohibit landlords from not renewing a tenant’s lease unless the tenant was violating it, not paying rent, or endangering the health and safety of neighbors.

In February, Lightfoot made headlines when she announced she’d be pushing for a “just cause eviction” ordinance in City Council, though it wasn’t clear whether she meant actual just cause or was using the term of art to mean something else. Yet talks between the Lightfoot administration and housing advocates from nearly 40 community groups united under the Housing Justice League umbrella had already been in progress for months. They centered on how to strengthen tenant protections in the face of a dire affordable housing shortage and persistent gentrification pressures. Many tenant advocates were hopeful that she really did mean just cause eviction, while landlord groups worried about the same. The city had appeared willing not only to prohibit lease non-renewal, but to make landlords offer relocation benefits as high as $10,000 (which is the current fee property owners have to pay when evicting tenants from foreclosed buildings). The coronavirus pandemic had shifted these discussions to the back burner until the last couple of weeks.

Sources familiar with the discussion between the city, tenant advocates, landlord representatives, and community stakeholders say that Lightfoot’s administration seemed to be on board with a real just cause eviction proposal until only a few weeks ago. They were surprised to learn about the “fair notice” ordinance, which falls short of the kind of protections a just cause eviction law would offer, two days before the May council meeting.

“Not to say these measures are not important, but we need to make sure that the legislation comes from collaboration, that it comes with a debate about what’s important. And that did not happen,” said 25th Ward alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez, who’d voted to send Lightfoot’s bill to the Rules Committee. While he isn’t opposed to the idea of giving tenants a longer notice period, he says tenants need more protections from gentrification. He was also against the unilateral manner in which he saw Lightfoot advancing her own proposal. “The issue is with the process and the process is important.”

According to a statement from the Department of Housing, the administration had been in sustained talks with aldermen and advocates and decided to push for the “fair notice” measures after they “heard from a wide number of smaller landlords and affordable housing providers that an ordinance that would, in some cases, prohibit landlords from choosing not to renew a lease when it comes to an end would be very difficult. We further heard from small landlords that the [$10,000] relocation payment is more than they net in some years.” The statement went on to say that the administration felt confident that they’d have the votes they needed to pass the fair notice ordinance. “Thus we felt we should advance protections that could garner support today.”

This doesn’t mean that a just cause eviction law is dead in the water, but if it’s introduced in the months ahead as its backers plan, it may be competing with Lightfoot’s proposal.

“We’re not criticizing her bill. It is a step in the right direction. But it’s not anywhere near adequate enough to deal with the problems as we see them,” said Housing Justice League spokesman Mike Saelens. “The two bills are apples and oranges . . . [Lightfoot’s bill] doesn’t address the meat of the issue, which is making sure that tenants can stay in place.” He added that the just cause eviction law would still allow landlords to not renew leases if a tenant is creating problems. “They just have to document it . . . we’re just saying: ‘Do a little bit better record keeping and if you need to remove a problem tenant we’re on board with that.’ We’re just trying to build more stable landlord and tenant relationships.”

Landlords, however, don’t see it that way. Several property owners’ and developers’ groups decried Lightfoot’s bill as soon as it was announced. “The Mayor’s proposed changes to tenant rules have adverse and unintended consequences on those who are providing crucial stay-at-home services during this pandemic: neighborhood housing providers,” the Neighborhood Building Owners Alliance wrote in a statement. Though they didn’t offer specifics about these consequences, the group said changes to landlord-tenant laws “should wait until the future of housing in Chicago is more predictable once the pandemic is over.”

City officials, however, say that they’re planning to introduce further, pandemic-related relief in the weeks to come and expect a passage of Lightfoot’s fair notice ordinance in June.   v