Why Chicago Needs to Pass Just Cause for Eviction

On Saturday, August 21 the Chicago Housing Justice League, a coalition of housing groups that includes the Chicago DSA, co-organized a protest in favor of Just Cause for Eviction. As a coalition, we were fighting for Just Cause even before the pandemic; as a body of housing organizers, community groups, and non-profit housing organizers, we understood that evictions were already a crisis before the pandemic struck. Now, with the CDC eviction moratorium struck down on August 26 by Supreme Court ruling and the Illinois moratorium ending September 18, potentially extended until October 3, we’re seeing politicians who otherwise ignore renters entirely pay lip service to the looming harm facing renters everywhere.

It didn’t have to be this way. Rather than making policies in a reactive, piecemeal way, ensuring that countless people are going to be hurt that don’t need to be, we have consistently argued that City Council could pass Just Cause and protect tens of thousands of Chicago households each year who have done nothing wrong. Rather than taking the lead on Just Cause and getting ahead of the issue of evictions, we’ve seen the mayor and members of City Council consistently delay our bill from consideration, holding it off for so long that it’s now impossible for us to pass it before the eviction moratorium lapses. Simply put, Just Cause will stop landlords from ending a tenancy through eviction, termination, or non-renewal when a tenant has done nothing wrong. It’s a tool that landlords use to gentrify communities, to flip properties to higher income brackets, to retaliate against renters for asking for repairs, and to discriminate against vulnerable populations who are more at risk for displacement. While Just Cause is not a panacea for the tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of Chicago households who are at risk of eviction because of non-payment of rent, the moral failure of preventing so many other unjust evictions with this simple, powerful policy fix is a grim reminder of how disconnected our political leadership is from the needs of working-class Chicagoans.

That delay is hurting tenants like Ferrus, who’s been living in the US for the last decade. In that time, she’s been forced to move three times involuntarily, and has even had to see her family separated into different apartments because of the instability. While she’s kept up with her rent and otherwise proven herself to be a thoughtful neighbor, Ferrus is once more facing the danger of being displaced with just 30 days’ notice. “I’m really struggling,” she told the crowd on Saturday. “It’s not my problem that I’m not paying the rent. I tried so much to pay my rent on time, but these landlords just want you out for no reason at all.”

As Ferrus noted, it’s been the support of the Autonomous Tenants’ Union that’s kept her indoors this long. As Antonio Gutierrez, co-founder of the organization, argued at the rally, “The work that ATU has done in the last five years has revolved around the lack of Just Cause.” Over and over, ATU has encountered landlords who have used mass evictions to clear out buildings and make the neighborhood more expensive. ATU’s first battle was with a landlord who left English-only 30-day notices on the doors of 64 tenants, many who only spoke Spanish, pushing many out in the first week because they feared interacting with the police or ICE. “As ATU, we have identified these silent evictions as one of the main forces that gentrify our neighborhoods,” Gutierrez argued at the rally.

Stable housing is never a guarantee for renters, especially working-class renters of color. In Chicago, the highest rates of eviction are found in Black neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. Meanwhile, in gentrifying Latinx communities like Pilsen, Little Village, and Logan Square, it’s often ‘invisible evictions’ that push people out without making as much of an impact on formal eviction numbers, causing just as much harm while flying under the radar for those who choose not to look. Chicago rents grew more than 60 percent between 2000 and 2015, and with wages remaining far below a living rate for most working families, it’s no wonder that evictions have only grown to be a bigger concern in the last several decades.

Just Cause cannot solve every problem for low-income renters. It cannot make up for minimum wage being too low despite being raised to $15 citywide, nor can it prevent landlords from raising the rents to a level that becomes unpayable for regular people. (Hello, rent control!) But by preventing landlords from kicking families out in retaliation for raising concerns about unhealthy living conditions, or displacing entire buildings to move in higher-income renters, Just Cause gets us closer to the moral framework that Housing is a Human Right. Whatever the components of that enforceable “right” may be, it must begin with “security of tenure”; the sense that one can lay down roots and become a participating member of a community.  Just Cause, then, is an important step in democratizing the landscape. We’re not there yet, and we know that too many Chicagoans are already paying the price for our society-wide failure to make this commitment. But as socialists, we know that this is a fight that’s worth fighting, one that would keep 10,000 working-class Chicago households in their homes each year once Just Cause is enacted. It’s why Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez, one of the bill’s strongest champions in City Council, came to the rally and told the crowd, “People are waiting for a solution. Just Cause for Eviction provides just that.”

We know that Just Cause will help families at schools like Goudy Elementary, where we held our rally. As a neighborhood school in a gentrifying neighborhood, it’s seen enrollment decline at double the rate of CPS, losing nearly 30 percent of its student body in recent years. Just a few years ago, a nearby apartment building housed 81 Goudy students; now, its home to just two. The building, now renting $1,200, 400-square-foot studios, tells prospective renters, “We’ve been waiting for you.” But as Nicholas Ward, an organizer with 48th Ward Neighbors for Justice and Goudy LSC member, asked the crowd, “Families used to live there, and now they can’t, so who’s the ‘we’ here? It’s the developers. It’s the developers who exploit, but the neighbors, we build.”

Those developers are the same that often have the ear of our elected officials. We held the rally in Alderman Harry Osterman’s ward, and ended the march at his office, because in his role as chair of the Committee on Housing and Real Estate After a year of waiting, the bill is now scheduled for a subject matter hearing on Friday, September 17, giving it the chance to be up for a vote in City Council in October, we know that these measures are still going to come too late for thousands of renters who deserved these protections long ago. We need officials like Osterman and too many others who have yet to commit to the ordinance to show some moral courage, backing an ordinance that will materially improve the lives of working-class Chicagoans.

To learn more about Just Cause, please find more information on our website: www.JustCauseChicago.org. We also have a petition in support of the bill; in addition to being an opportunity to talk to your neighbors about housing justice, signing that will ensure you receive regular updates, including future actions in support of Just Cause.