A Pangea apartment building at 5018 W. Jackson in the 60644 zip code, where Pangea is now filing the most evictions against its tenants. Credit: Travis Roozée

More than 17,000 Chicago renters wound up in eviction court last year according to 2019 court data obtained by the Reader from the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County. The number of cases filed remains on par with city eviction filings since 2016, though the data provided by the clerk excludes sealed eviction cases. Pangea Real Estate remains Chicago’s most prolific filer of eviction cases, as the company has been since 2012.

According to the data, Pangea filed 1,264 cases in Chicago’s eviction courtrooms in 2019. Of those, 1,083 were against Chicago tenants and an additional 181 cases were filed in Chicago’s courtrooms against tenants in their suburban properties. These cases represent a slight dip compared to the company’s filings against city renters in 2018, but Pangea still filed three times as many cases as the next most frequent filer, a third-party property management company called WPD Management.

A two-year investigation published by the Reader last year found that Pangea became Chicago’s most prolific evictor in the wake of the 2008 foreclosure crisis. Since it began operating in 2009, it has filed more cases than the next four landlords combined, at times accounting for as much as 20 percent of all eviction cases filed in the south and west side zip codes where its holdings are concentrated. The company’s founders, who’d made a fortune in payday lending before the financial crisis, took advantage of the avalanche of foreclosures to cheaply acquire apartment buildings by the block in neighborhoods like South Shore, Chatham, and South Austin. Over the years, Pangea’s real estate empire has grown to more than 7,500 units in Chicago, plus thousands more in suburban apartment complexes and in Indianapolis and Baltimore. Recently Pangea moved to acquire hundreds more distressed apartment units in Chicago that were operated by disgraced (and now bankrupt) nonprofit Better Housing Foundation.

While for years Pangea was filing the most cases in the 60649 zip code—South Shore—last year’s data shows its evictions are now most densely concentrated in the 60644 zip code, which covers the South Austin neighborhood on the west side.

In response to a request for comment, Pangea’s CEO Pete Martay wrote in an e-mail that as the “largest owner of privately funded market rate apartments in Chicago . . . it is unfortunately unavoidable that our total eviction filings are higher than all of the other large operators.” Martay underscored Pangea’s singularity in providing unsubsidized housing in working-class neighborhoods, though about 20 percent of the company’s units are rented to tenants with Section 8 vouchers.

“We are devoted to working with our residents who have fallen behind on rent, well before it becomes necessary to consider filing a court case for non-payment of rent,” Martay continued. “Even after an eviction is filed we continue to work with our residents, within the confines of the court system. . . . Pangea’s goal is not, nor has it ever been, for our residents to be physically evicted by the Sheriff, nor to damage our residents’ ability to obtain housing in the future.”

The Reader‘s investigation found that Pangea has developed an aggressive and formulaic approach to eviction cases, offering “pay-and-stay” deals to many of the tenants it takes to court. While these deals mean avoiding an immediate eviction for tenants, the Reader found that ultimately Pangea’s eviction rate reflected the city’s as a whole, with more than 60 percent of tenants winding up with a judgment against them. The pay-and-stay deals, negotiated by Pangea’s lawyers with tenants who rarely have their own attorneys, lock renters into a contract to pay monthly rent as well as regular payments toward their debt. However, by signing the deals, tenants agree to give up their right to a trial; by the time they fall behind on these payments (as they often do), they’ve already agreed to be evicted and no longer have an opportunity to present any grievances about their landlord or the fairness of the deal to a judge.

As has been typical of the company’s response to questions about its evictions, Martay emphasized Pangea’s track record of investing “more than $350 million of private capital in the past 10 years in [Chicago] with a majority of those dollars directly overlapping with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s new Invest South/West Initiative and its 10 target zones.”

Lightfoot spotlighted evictions in her February 14 City Club address, while making sweeping promises to “end poverty in Chicago in a generation.” She promised to push a “tenant protection package designed to help residents by giving them a fair chance to stay in their home. . . . The first part of this package will include an ordinance establishing just cause for eviction.” As she elaborated on what that would mean, Lightfoot said that “based on a recent study of data from 2010 to 2017 approximately 25 percent of all evictions are no-fault, meaning the tenant did nothing wrong but had to move anyway. These no-fault evictions can give tenants as little as 30 days notice to move . . . Our new ordinance will extend the notice period for no-cause evictions.” Lightfoot didn’t say how much longer the notice period would be.

No-cause evictions often take place in gentrifying neighborhoods, when developers and landlords serve 30-day notices to existing tenants in order to rehab buildings and rent out units at higher prices. “Just cause” eviction laws as they exist elsewhere in the country aren’t just designed to give people more time to move if they’re being evicted simply because the landlord wants them gone. These laws typically make it so that landlords cannot evict tenants unless they have a good reason, such as nonpayment of rent, chronically late rent, lease violations, etc. The Reader asked the mayor’s office to elaborate whether Lightfoot’s proposal would actually establish protections against no-cause evictions or only focus on extending the time people had to move.

In an e-mailed statement, the mayor’s office reiterated support for the idea of making landlords give far more advance notice to tenants they’re evicting without cause, but didn’t say Lightfoot would be pushing for a law prohibiting landlords from evicting without cause. “Mayor Lightfoot knows that housing instability and evictions play a significant role in the cycle of poverty impacting so many individuals in our city, particularly in communities of color,” wrote deputy press secretary Eugenia Orr. “To ensure that more residents have stable, affordable housing, the administration is working collaboratively with members of the City Council to bring forward a series of reforms that will allow people—including [formerly incarcerated] residents who are systematically excluded from securing housing—to get an apartment, and have a real chance to stay in their homes so they can provide shelter to their families, keep a job, and contribute to our economy. The administration wants to find pragmatic solutions to address the needs of these residents at risk of falling into a cycle of poverty because of housing instability and discrimination and improve the city of life for every community.”   v