When we talk about the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020 –– a full year ago –– events read off like a domino effect. People became ill, lockdowns were mandated, businesses were closed, people lost their incomes and, for many in this domino chain, an inability to pay rent was next.
Organizers with groups like Tenants United were uniting behind residents to call for eviction bans, rent freezes and rent relief. A year later, some goals have been met and some relief — like federal, state and city eviction moratoriums — have kept many from experiencing houselessness due to the pandemic. But even with widespread vaccination efforts, lower infection rates, and a better idea of how the virus spreads and works, eviction and housing insecurity still remain a real threat and reality for thousands of Chicagoans.
14 East caught up with Tenants United organizer John Hieronymus to understand what has worked, what hasn’t worked and what needs to change in the future to take the pressure off a potential housing crisis.
Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.
Francesca Mathewes: Since we last spoke a year ago, a lot has changed. Currently, there are eviction moratoriums –– one that Joe Biden instated in January that goes until March 31, as well as an Illinois eviction moratorium that runs until April 3, and then a City of Chicago moratorium that extends after that, but obviously, people have still been evicted. How much do you think that the moratoriums have been effective? And what are the ways in which they’ve not helped it at all?
John Hieronymus: I think that the moratoriums have probably had an effect to keep the eviction situation from becoming, like, a tidal wave crisis. But we’ve seen states where eviction bans have been late coming or not really happened until a federal eviction ban came into place and those states saw substantial numbers of evictions. Also, the situation was so bad that it ended up provoking some pretty serious organizing amongst tenants to fight back and tenants in places like New Orleans and in Kansas City were able to organize mass actions that shut down eviction courts, despite not having the official statewide dance just because the the judges running the courts didn’t want to deal with the popular backlash. Continued, unimpeded operation of eviction court was provoking in places where there was no eviction ban. In some ways, in Illinois … we haven’t seen that level of mobilization against evictions, so the organization of tenants has lagged a little bit. It’s still happening. There’s lots of stuff going on. But when the crisis is really ugly, it seems like people kind of are forced to act in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t.
M: What do you mean by acting in ways they otherwise wouldn’t?
H: I mean physically blockading eviction courts –– which is a thing that we’ve seen happen in other cities. And that hasn’t happened here. And that’s just, I think, a reflection of the actions that people felt that they had to take to keep things from becoming a really ugly, like, substantially more ugly, situation.
M: In the past year, as an organizer, what have been some of the moments of triumph? What are things that you could call a success?
H: One of the things that’s really taken off over the last year has been the growth of a citywide tenants organization called Chicago Tenants Movement, which has always been one of the goals of Tenants United and we started several years ago. And the progress on that has been really phenomenal. Lots of strong organizers have come together and made that possible. So in some ways, tenant organizing in the city is much stronger than it was before. There have been some pretty good actions, and some good actions that have kept tenants in their apartments, despite threats of illegal eviction and intimidation.
Part of what has kind of sucked from all this is that COVID really took a bite out of our capacity. For me, it’s like, there have been moments where I feel like we could have done more and better, but there are the literal limits to what people can do when they’re going from their full normal energy to having a big bite out of their energy and time and that kind of thing. That being said, during the polar vortex [in February] we helped raise close to I think $60,000 to directly get houseless neighbors to hotels, make sure that they have propane tanks and food and things that they needed to stay warm and safe. So that was, I think we can say, a pretty big success.
M: Shifting away from successes –– the Chicago Department of Housing and other organizations had some grants for rent assistance. But the demand was not totally met, and there’s still a lot of work to be done. What do you think should have happened at the city level that would have provided more relief? And what are things that moving forward … should still be done?
H: Alright, so just to put it in perspective –– the city of Chicago, had, I believe, over a half a billion dollars, that they were transferred from the federal government to deal with the various effects of the pandemic. And out of that they only spent $3 million on grants as direct cash assistance to tenants –– and that was given out by lottery. That’s compared to, what was it, two or $300 million that they gave to the [Chicago Police Department] prior even to the George Floyd uprisings… that’s really upsetting.
We didn’t know that there was so much more money on the table. So … what could the city have done better? The city could have instituted a much earlier eviction ban that was more ironclad. They could have given tenants access to all the money that they spent on policing, or distributed it in a more socially equitable way. At the state level, Governor Pritzker could have signed the emergency rent control. The thing that we’re seeing is that people are still getting rent increases –– in spite of the fact that we know rental units are going empty –– because many people who have the option are leaving the city. We are also seeing that while prices on luxury housing are dropping, working class tenants are seeing rent increases still. So it’s kind of like a captive market for the people who own working class housing in the city.
M: It seems that a lot of COVID-19 discussion now is focused on “returning to normal,” or “pre-COVID-19” ways of life. But people were getting evicted and there were housing inequities before COVID-19 –– so what does a future “normal” look like to you?
H: First off, I just want to say that normal [or] going back to normal is a kind of contentious thing [in] and of itself. The vaccine situation is still very preliminary and early. There’s still lots of people who are saying that they are waiting to get the vaccine even though they have the option, or people who are waiting who are saying outright that they won’t get the vaccine. My personal take is that we will be dealing with COVID-19 in some way into 2022.
One thing that could also add to a potential new normal would be a vacancy tax. So if you own a livable unit of housing, if it’s not occupied, you pay a tax on that. Vancouver put a vacancy tax in place and substantially changed the dynamics of housing in their city. All of a sudden, people who bought their apartments as an investment, literally as an investment, are saying, ‘Well, it can’t sit and just appreciate value passively empty –– because the real estate market is going to keep going up no matter what.’ So the first line of defense would be let’s fix and … let’s get people into the apartment buildings that are just sitting vacant now.
It would be nice to see a new normal where we have no-fault eviction bans, where a tenant can’t be evicted without there being an actual reason. It’d be nice to see –– since the federal government seems to see that it’s fine to print trillions of dollars to give to banks –– that perhaps we could see the reinstitution of public housing subsidies. If we’re talking about what’s realistically going to happen, I don’t know that –– even with Trump and Republicans theoretically out of power –– there’s going to be any change on that front. But what I would like to see in a new normal is the increasing organization of tenants to fight back both against their landlords, against their city government. We would like to see as part of the new normal that housing issues and housing organization is taken up as a fundamental issue and priority in popular progressive or socialist organizations. And we’re beginning to see that.
M: Sometimes when we talk about housing issues, there is a narrative that not all landlords are large companies and that many are beholden to their mortgages and banks, and that this is all a part of a larger system. I’m wondering if you can shed some light on who and how you target organizing efforts and exactly whose responsibility it is to ensure that there isn’t a wave of eviction?
H: I think that there is a lot of ink spilled for the small landlord. We know statistically that most properties are held by large corporate landlords in Chicago. And there’s kind of, like, a mythology of like the mom and pop … but the reality is that, in Chicago, there are neighborhoods where the mom and pop landlord is actively harassing and harming tenants acting outside the law. Just last week, I was escorting a tenant into their space, and the landlord had filed false complaints with the police attempting to evict them and had the Chicago Police Department carry out an illegal eviction. They’ve dealt with this multiple times.The tenant was just working on trying to get out of that situation. And just the fact that they needed someone who was there to witness the behavior of this person who is very much the quote unquote ‘small landlord …’ people don’t understand that landlords –– people who own apartments to rent out for income — are an investor class. If you were a day trader, and you threw all your money on something, and then all of a sudden the company went bankrupt, the idea that we would have the business press lining up behind them is pretty absurd, right? People have treated owning property for rent as a surefire, always, never-fail investment that will give you guaranteed returns for the rest of your life. And then when the reality comes and the amount of actual work you have to do to provide safe, dignified, legal housing to people becomes overwhelming. Little things happen. Those people should be seeking help from the government, as opposed to calling the police on people who they are contractually obligated to keep the lights on for.
M: It’s also interesting that land is a finite resource, but people can invest in it essentially like anything else. How does that tie into this conversation?
H: There’s just no need for there to be homeless people in America generally, or in Chicago. The reality is that we have almost more empty buildings and empty apartments in Chicago than we have people. And then people will say, ‘Well, a lot of that housing stock is uninhabitable.’ Then pay people to fix it up! Teach them skills, set up neighborhood-based construction companies and get people the skills they need to fix up their neighborhood and put it into what they fixed into community land trust, so it can’t be put on the market, Which is a practice going all the way back to Reconstruction and Civil Rights Movement in the South to help preserve Black ownership of land and communities. The other thing would be … that once we’ve fixed every vacant building, gotten them all filled up with folks, and then we still have more housing needs, there should be a real push for the state to be building the housing that people need. Public housing didn’t just come spring out of someone’s mind –– the first of what you would call ‘housing co-ops’ were built by unions, for members of the unions in New York City. So I think it would be a really powerful thing if Chicago Teachers Union, SEIU, my union –– National Nurses United –– came together and put together a fund and built housing for their workers and for the community if the state of Illinois can’t figure out how to do it.
Historically speaking, unions have been pretty capable of doing this stuff in the past and I think that that’s the thing –– that if we want to continue, if we want to build a fighting labor movement, we need people to look at unions as a thing to get things done for regular folks and tie it all together.
Header image by Yusra Shah