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Housing advocates say there’s plenty of emergency relief going to waste, including for noncitizens

McLean County Law and Justice Center
An advocate with the Immigration Project said nine evictions were ordered in McLean County court last week after defendants failed to appear in court.

A housing advocate in McLean County says she's concerned too many families are getting evicted without seeking financial help for the financial hardships they have faced because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sarah Mellor is social services director with the Immigration Project in Normal. Mellor noted nine families in McLean County were evicted last week after they skipped their eviction court hearing.

“We are hoping it’s not because they felt there was no hope because there is rental assistance available even when you are already in court,” Mellor said.

The Immigration Project works with Prairie State Legal Services on Illinois’ Court-Based Rental Assistance Program (CBRAP). It provides up to $25,000 or 15 months of rent and utility assistance for families who have been served an eviction notice to appear in court.

The Immigration Project also manages a separate program that offers emergency housing relief specifically for noncitizens. The program through the Illinois Department Human Services has doled out $96,000 in the first year in McLean County and $2 million statewide. That program covers back rent and utilities up to $15,000 for low-income families. Mellor said the program has about $270,000 in funding available, but she expressed confidence funding would be expanded if there is a need.

"We’ve been expecting this eviction crisis since the end of the moratorium, but it hasn’t approached crisis level yet."
Sarah Mellor, Immigration Project

“I really think there’s enough money out there to prevent a huge wave of evictions, if people are diligent about accessing the funds and collecting the documentation that’s needed in order to apply for the funds,” Mellor said, adding families have to show their income is less than 80% of the area's median income. Applicants must show a government-issued ID, proof of residence, the bills for late utility payments, the lease agreement and proof from the landlord that payments are late and the email address of the tenant and landlord.

Mellor said filing for financial help also buys them time as landlords have to agree not to evict or charge late fees if they are to receive funding through the program.

Mellor said the Immigration Project office has been busy with an uptick in requests for funding, but the eviction epidemic advocates fear has not yet materialized.

“We’ve been expecting this eviction crisis since the end of the moratorium, but it hasn’t approached crisis level yet,” she said. “Maybe it’s because of all these assistance programs or maybe because the moratorium just ended and a lot of landlords are trying to work with their tenants to be able to keep them in their home and recover those months of back rent.”

Mellor said there's still plenty of funding available for everyone, which is different from pre-pandemic eligibility for relief. Noncitizens were typically not included in government aid programs. She noted legal permanent residents typically would have to have been a green card holder for five years to be eligible for government assistance, so noncitizens have been generally unable to access government help before these COVID programs.

Mellor said some families may not know about the assistance and she's concerned immigrant families fear they will be detained if they show up in court.

“Immigration and Customs Enforcement has previously executed public actions. They have caught and detained people at courthouses because they know they person is going to show up,” Mellor said, but indicated she is not aware of any ICE arrests in McLean County court during eviction proceedings. She said anyone who doesn't want to go to the courthouse or lacks transportation can sign up for a virtual hearing.

Mellor said there have also been instances where the relationship between landlord and tenant has become so strained that the tenant simply wants a fresh start.

The state of Illinois has handed out nearly $500 million in emergency rental assistance to keep families in their homes during the coronavirus pandemic. Mellor predicted that could total could approach $1 billion as the state catches up on applications that were filed at early as July.

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