New Diversion Program Looks To Minimize Evictions As Moratorium Ends
McLean County's legal community and housing advocates have a new plan to avoid—or at least minimize—a spike in evictions once the statewide moratorium is lifted in August.
The group of judges, landlords' attorneys, social service agencies, and local governments worked together to craft McLean County's first Eviction Diversion Program.
Here's how it works: Early in the eviction process, on a person's first court date, they’ll have the opportunity to meet with a Prairie State Legal Services attorney right at the courthouse. Rental assistance services will also be available on site, and clients can fill out applications for rental assistance money.
Prairie State managing attorney Adrian Barr said the goal is to strike a deal.
“That is the hope, that rental assistance can pay, the tenant can stay, and the eviction will be avoided,” said Barr.
Some tenants who can’t make their rent may not know just how much rental assistance money is out there. And they may not have a lawyer. The Eviction Diversion Program puts both right in front of them.
So, ironically, Eleventh Judicial Circuit chief judge Mark Fellheimer said it's almost better for tenants if an eviction lawsuit is filed against them.
“When they come in on the first court date, even though it can be apprehensive for those people, they are probably in the best position of anyone to get something worked out,” said Fellheimer, who helped craft the program. “They walk in and everything’s here.”
"The moratorium was a safety net, but this is like a double safety net."Chief Judge Mark Fellheimer
COVID-19 and related closures and reduced capacities have done a number on the local economy, especially those working in leisure and hospitality jobs. That includes a lot of renters.
The statewide and federal moratoriums have helped. Now that they're ending, Fellheimer said the new diversion program fills a need.
“The moratorium was a safety net, but this is like a double safety net,” Fellheimer said. “I think it balances both the landlord’s interest and the tenant’s interest if there’s money available.”
And there is a lot of money available right now. The state launched a massive $1.5 billion rental assistance program last month. Eligible tenants and landlords can apply to receive a one-time grant totaling up to $25,000 to cover a maximum of 15 months of missed rent. There is also separate local money available.
So Barr said there are options if it's about money. Evictions may still happen if someone has violated the lease in some other way, or owes more than 15 months, or didn't apply for help for some reason, he said.
“That’s why we’re really making a push here locally to educate tenants, educate landlords, and encourage them all to seek rental assistance so that we can minimize those evictions that don’t have to occur,” Barr said.
Prairie State, a legal aid firm, is staffing up. It has four volunteer attorneys regularly attending eviction court right now to get trained up, Barr said. Another attorney comes on board in mid-July to help with the extra load.
Only a handful of eviction cases are in process now, even during the moratorium.
“We’ve been able to test this out on a small scale to try and make the tweaks necessary for presumably August when the moratorium ends,” Barr said.
“We’ve yet to have a trial proceed on evictions for rent-based claims,” Fellheimer added. “And in every one of those—other than folks who just don’t show up—they’ve had successful outcomes so far.”
Barr and Fellheimer say nobody knows just how many evictions will happen when that moratorium lifts. If the evictions that should have happened during a normal year are pending, McLean County could see 18 months’ worth of evictions (or more) in 2-3 months, Barr said. That would be unprecedented.
Fellheimer said they also don't know how long the diversion program will be up and running.
“We’re going to continue doing it until we think it’s no longer needed. I can’t put my thumb on that date. But I suspect when rental assistance runs out, those folks will probably drop out. Then we’ll still concentrate the evictions on dedicated days and times to make it easier for Prairie State to come in and still offer advice (at the courthouse),” Fellheimer said.
Barr said the Eviction Diversion Program is something McLean County should be proud of, as it's not something every community has up and running.