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McLean County courts and housing advocates push relief for renters as eviction moratorium expires

The basement of the McLean County Law & Justice Center had some flooding following last weekend's storms.
Eric Stock
Thirty-two residential evictions were filed in McLean County in September as an eviction moratorium expired.
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Austin Hinshaw was working as a sous chef at a local restaurant when he found out earlier this year he has lung cancer. At the time, he said it seemed like the end of his world.

“I kinda just went off the deep end,” Hinshaw explained. “I stopped working, stopped paying my rent. That’s why I’m here.”

“Here” is the McLean County Law and Justice Center. Hinshaw was ordered to appear for a court hearing after his landlord filed to evict him from his Bloomington apartment. Hinshaw said after he took leave from work, he fell months behind on his rent. The landlord gave him five days to pay up or move out. Hinshaw said he hopes his landlord will work with him to get caught up, but he's not sure that will save him.

“I feel like I put them through the ringer, so I completely understand if they did not want to,” he said.

Hinshaw is one of thousands of Illinoisans at risk of losing their home as the state eviction moratorium expires. Gov. JB Pritzker allowed the moratorium to expire after a 1 1/2 years, citing the $1.5 billion in assistance the state has made available to renters and homeowners during the pandemic.

The courthouse in Bloomington is getting increasingly busy with new eviction filings while McLean County has offered a program to help people stay in their homes.

Erin Duncan is an attorney with Prairie State Legal Services, a Bloomington agency that offers free legal help for low-income families in central and northern Illinois. Duncan helps clients in McLean County navigate an eviction diversion program, meeting with clients and with attorneys for the landlords.

She encourages tenants to apply for state and federal rental assistance if they haven't already. That includes funding through the Illinois Rental Payment Program that can pay up to a year of back rent and three months of prospective rent for people who have an active eviction case, said Duncan, adding this assistance buys time for tenants.

She said that works best for everyone.

“Because then the landlord gets paid and the tenant gets to stay and in our mind, that’s a win-win,” Duncan said. “Hopefully, folks can have some patience with the process so we can try to keep families and individuals housed.”

But rental assistance requires a lot of patience, perhaps more than some landlords may have after waiting months for rent payments from some tenants.

Duncan said the process to get rental assistance has been slow, adding she's concerned too many people will run out of time as the eviction moratorium expires.

“We are hoping to avoid a situation where we have double or more than the usual number of cases in any given month. Of course, that’s bad for community transmission of COVID-19, but also the many disruptions that come with housing instability," she said.

Eviction filings increase

Eviction filings have picked up again in McLean County. There were 28 eviction filings in McLean County in August, according to McLean County Circuit Clerk Don Everhart. That number grew to 32 in September.

The county doesn't have an exact comparison to pre-pandemic evictions, because the county did not separate residential and commercial evictions pre-COVID, but it appears McLean County is still behind pre-pandemic totals. The county averaged 48 evictions per month in 2018 and 70 per month in 2019.

Duncan said she's concerned some landlords were just waiting for the eviction moratorium to expire because of how challenging it's been to keep up with all the changes and moratorium extensions.

Mark Fellheimer is chief judge of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit that includes McLean County. Fellheimer said if ever there was a good time for eviction filings, it's now, with the diversion program in place. Fellheimer said the program has kept cases from going to trial for unpaid rent.

“Almost all of those have ended up with a dismissal of the eviction case,” Fellheimer said. “We’ve seen good luck. I can’t do much about the folks who don’t show up in court.”

Fellheimer said the court will help tenants as much as it can, but judges can no longer sympathize once a case goes to trial.

“The judges are now going to be put in a difficult spot of having to sign those eviction orders by following the law, since we are neutral to both sides. It’s a struggle judges have to deal with, but that was what we were sworn to uphold the law that’s in place,” Fellheimer said.

Keatta Davis
Eric Stock
Keatta Davis

Not every case that winds up in eviction court is simply about rent not being paid. Some cases are far more complicated.

Keatta Davis said she fell behind $10,000 in rent for her apartment. Davis said the landlord did not offer her a new lease because nearby residents complained about bugs they said were coming from her place. She blames the exterminator for that.

It turns out the eviction program couldn't help her because her hardship wasn't COVID-related. Davis agreed to move out in a week. She said she doesn't have many options, but is ready to put the legal case behind her.

“It’s a relief that I’m trying to get this done, but it’s also hard because I really don’t know anyone out here,” Davis said.

Davis said she has been in and out of the hospital being treated for diabetes and has a history of health problems. That includes sleep apnea and cognitive delays due to a lead exposure as a child, she said. Now, she's trying to get back her own kids. Child protective services took them after she was charged with child endangerment. Davis said she had trouble sleeping after her grandfather died and her 4-year-old was found alone outside. Davis is contesting the charges. But she hopes settling the eviction case can provide a fresh start.

“I just have to find another apartment so I can get my babies back,” said Davis, adding she plans to move in with her mother in Normal and find work.

The eviction diversion program also may not be able to help people like Austin Hinshaw of Bloomington. His eviction also was not COVID-related. But Hinshaw said he's grateful diversion programs are in place to help people like him.

“I’m just thankful they were able to help me as much as they did. I came in here not knowing what was going to happen,” Hinshaw said after his court appearance.

Hinshaw said he plans to move out of his apartment anyway, find a new place to live, find a new job and pay all of his back rent.

The federal moratorium expired in August after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Centers for Disease Control exceeded its authority when it tried to extend the moratorium to areas with significant COVID transmission.

Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.