Editor’s note: The nonprofit news outlet Injustice Watch provided this article to The Associated Press through a collaboration with Institute for Nonprofit News.
By Grace Asiegbu, Injustice Watch
CHICAGO — A new court-based program aims to help Cook County residents repay their rent and avoid eviction.
The rental assistance program, scheduled to launch Friday, comes as the statewide eviction moratorium put in place by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker in response to the Covid-19 pandemic is set to expire Oct. 3. Researchers at Loyola University Chicago estimated that as many as 30,000 new eviction cases could be filed in Chicago after the moratorium expires.
The program, funded with federal money from the $21 billion American Rescue Plan that Congress passed in March, is a collaboration between Chicago, Cook County, and state agencies and Cook County Legal Aid for Housing and Debt, a collection of legal aid organizations. A similar program, run by the Illinois Department of Housing and the Illinois Supreme Court, will be available to renters in other counties across the state.
The court-based program is designed to reach people who have active eviction cases the first time that they appear in court, said Bob Glaves, executive director of the Chicago Bar Foundation, one of the legal aid partners for the program. City or county representatives in eviction court will inform tenants that they are eligible to apply for rental assistance and assist them with the application, Glaves said.
Susan Campbell, director of planning and development for the Cook County Bureau of Economic Development, which oversees all rental assistance in the county, said the goal is to process applications and provide funding within two weeks after the first court date.
“When they come back to the court in two weeks’ time, the judge can look in the system and say, ‘Oh, OK, that person’s been approved, and I can dismiss (the case) and make sure that landlord has that payment,’“ Campbell said.
A spokesperson for the Circuit Court of Cook County referred questions to the other program partners.
The court-based program is part of a larger round of rental assistance made available through the American Rescue Plan. Cook County landlords and tenants who are not in active eviction proceedings can apply for funding to pay back rent or utilities through an application that opens Oct. 4.
More than 17,000 people applied in the first round of rental assistance, and just over 7,300 applicants were approved, according to county data. Of those approved, about 40% were immediately facing eviction.
The new court-based program is meant to give such people one final opportunity for financial assistance before they are evicted.
“We know there are people who, for whatever reason, fell through the cracks, ending up in court for eviction, where they might still benefit from one of these rental assistance programs,” Glaves said.
Court representatives will help people apply when they first appear in court, Glaves said. Applicants who request the relief will be moved into breakout Zoom rooms, where the representatives will instruct them on what documents they need to provide. Applicants will be able to upload necessary documents on their own or with the help of a housing advocacy organization, Campbell said.
Campbell said the federal government is “allowing more leniency” in eligibility for this round of rental assistance, but there are still certain income requirements. Renters are eligible if they make less than 80% of the area median income, or $74,500 for a family of four. When a tenant is approved, the Housing Authority of Cook County will disburse the money directly to landlords, Campbell said.
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