McLean County dodges an avalanche of evictions, but the housing insecure still face challenges
The avalanche of evictions that advocates feared would happen this winter in McLean County has not happened.
Financial assistance has helped many people stay in their homes after the state lifted a moratorium on evictions that was in place for the first 19 months of the pandemic. But that money doesn't spare all struggling families from hardship.
Rachel Kading lives at Parkview Apartments in north Normal. Kading was working at the Afni call center in Bloomington when the pandemic hit in March 2020. Kading had to work from home. She said the job required her full attention and she was constantly monitored.
“You couldn’t have your phones with you. You couldn’t have anybody in the room with you. You pretty much had to pretty much be by yourself,” Kading recalled.
Kading's fiancé was an essential worker, repairing outdoor equipment like lawnmowers and snowblowers, so the responsibility of helping her fiancé’s 7-year-old daughter with her online schoolwork fell entirely on her. Kading said she had to quit her job.
Kading said the family got by for a few months, thanks to stimulus funding and expanded unemployment benefits. But they were living paycheck-to-paycheck and had to borrow from a friend to pay rent. Their rent also went up $100 per month. They fell months behind in payments.
Kading said a representative from their landlord, Young America Realty, came to her door with an eviction notice — not to kick them out, but to help them find rental assistance. They were eligible through the Town of Normal's rental assistance program.
Kading said she was surprised by how easy it was.
“The paperwork was only three or four pages,” Kading said. “It takes a little time to get bank statements and stuff like that, but I had it done within a couple hours.”
Kading said Young America also worked with them, even when they could only pay $40 a week.
Not everyone in housing crisis can share the same positive experience. Sagesse Mulumba lives in an apartment complex called BayOak in west Normal off Orlando Avenue. Mulumba said their financial troubles began last year when she had to leave the country for two months. She would only say it was a personal matter.
“My husband had to ask for some time off work to look after my sons who stayed with him because I left with my daughter,” Mulumba explained. “When I came back, we were financially shaken.”
The family went to the Immigration Project and applied for rental assistance. They were told they had been approved. The McLean County court system helped renters through an eviction diversion program. Landlords can get rent payments from the state's COVID emergency funding. Landlords then agree not to pursue an eviction while they wait for the money.
Mulumba said the landlord at BayOak Apartments kept telling them their funding hadn't come through. Mulumba said the family fell behind $6,000 in rent. Mulumba said the Immigration Project told them their landlords simply wouldn't apply for the money. Mulumba said her husband stopped paying rent altogether until BayOak explained why they weren't taking the state rental assistance.
“When he put his foot down, that’s when we stopped paying the September rent accordingly. Then in November, that’s when they sent us an eviction notice and we didn’t understand why.”
Mulumba said BayOak apartments threatened to kick them out. Mulumba said BayOak also never responded to her concerns about frequent flooding outside their apartment when it rains.
The family reached out to Prairie State, a legal aid firm. Prairie State got the money to the landlord and soon their eviction case was dismissed. Mulumba said their problems weren't over. She said the landlord insisted they need to pay the company’s legal bills. Mulumba said no one at the courthouse ever told them that. They refused to pay. The landlord also told them if they wanted to continue to pay month to month, their rent would go up $225.
Mulumba said she believes other Congolese-born immigrants like her are likely dealing with the same abuse.
“We work hard. Sometimes some people work two jobs to pay the rent. We always do our best,” Mulumba explained. “Then because we don’t speak English, some of them are afraid, they don’t learn English because they have to work, people take advantage of them.”
BayOak apartments has not responded to requests for comment.
Mulumba and Kading are just two examples of people who have staved off eviction in the last year. Many others have not been so fortunate. According to the McLean County circuit clerk's office, 287 eviction notices were filed in McLean County in the last three months of 2021 after the state lifted its moratorium. That number is lower than housing advocates had feared.
Eviction filings in McLean County fell to 80 in December. That's one-third less than the county saw in October when evictions resumed and it's only slightly above the county's pre-pandemic average (2017-2019) of about 70 per month.
“I would have expected the fillings to be a lot higher than they have been so far,” said Mark Fellheimer, chief Judge for the 11th Judicial Circuit that includes McLean County. “I’m cautiously optimistic, if the numbers can continue to stay where they are at, we probably dodged what we though was going to be an avalanche of evictions.”
Fellheimer said the county court system has not become overrun with eviction cases. One-hundred-nine of those filings (38%) have been approved for eviction. Many more renters are still working through the legal system as they seek financial help.
Rachel Kading of Normal said she's grateful that rental assistance has helped her avoid eviction, but that funding runs out this month. She said she continues to seek more financial help while she also tries to find work to supplement her fiancé’s income. She just hasn't been able to get hired.
“I have filled out applications and haven’t received ‘boo’ from any of them, which I think is kind of odd because right now it is a working world,” Kading said.
Kading gets some income through the Child Care Resource and Referral Network to care for her nephew, but she's nervous that all many not be enough to keep her family in their home.
The McLean County sheriff's office said it has served 23 eviction notices in January, after it processed 45 all last year. Lt. Matt Lane said in 10 of those 2021 cases, the tenants had already moved out before they were served.