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Cook County launches legal aid program for those facing eviction, foreclosure or massive debt tied to COVID-19

Tuesday, November 24, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by Lisa Donovan

Anticipating a “wave” of evictions in the coming months triggered by COVID-19's ongoing health and economic crises, Cook County officials on Monday announced a free legal services program for those at risk of losing the roof over their heads.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Chief Judge Tim Evans and others, along with the charitable arm of the Chicago Bar Association, announced the Early Response Program, part of a new initiative called Cook County Legal Aid for Housing and Debt. The program will provide legal assistance, counseling, pre-court mediation and case management — regardless of income — for residents and landlords dealing with evictions or delinquent property taxes, and creditors and debtors with issues related to consumer debt.

Looking at national studies showing 30 to 40 million Americans could be at risk of eviction in the coming months, Preckwinkle said during a virtual news conference Monday she knew Cook County would be hit by the “wave,” too, and that she along with elected leaders and community groups “understood that we needed to step in and provide solutions.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has placed a temporary moratorium on evictions amid the ongoing pandemic, but officials say that has not staved off the economic hardships the virus is causing now and likely into the future: layoffs that have seen renters fall behind on their rent payments, homeowners fall behind on mortgages and taxes, along with those also facing mounting personal debt to stay afloat. But once this and other moratoriums are lifted, the economic crisis is expected to deepen.

Comparing what’s unfolding now with the housing crisis of 2008, Preckwinkle said those facing eviction, foreclosure and “unmanageable” amounts of personal debt have disproportionately affected Black and Latino people. The aim of the county’s just-launched Early Response Program is to head off a case before it lands in court, if possible, said Evans, who is chief of the county court system that handles foreclosure and eviction cases.

It could be a matter of legal counsel working with the renter and landlord to set up a payment plan, Evans said. If that’s not doable, he said, “we would expect to see a negotiated dignified exit by the tenant. That is the kind of exit that would give the tenant enough time to find another place to embrace housing for him or her, and the family that would not lead to homelessness,” Evans said during the virtual news conference.

In some instances, there may be a need to “negotiate sealing of the (court) records” in eviction cases, Evans said, pointing to the difficulty some may have finding another place with that on their record.

The court launched a similar foreclosure mediation program in the wake of the 2008 recession. Based on that, estimated costs in fiscal year 2021 for the new legal aid program ranges from $4 million to $7 million, county officials say.

The county is directing an initial $1 million in seed money from federal coronavirus relief funds to get the program going in suburban Cook County, but Evans cautioned that more money will be needed and that they’ll be looking to the federal government for help. The city of Chicago separately provided federal coronavirus relief funding for the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing to similarly serve city residents.

As a result of that partnership, city and county residents can inquire about services either online or by calling 855-956-5763 to be directed to the appropriate organization.

“We’re proud of these efforts,” Preckwinkle said. “But we’re not naive. This won’t be enough to deal with what’s coming. That’s why ... we’re committed to continuing to support (legal aid) programs, even after the pandemic has passed.”

Lisa Donovan is the host of The Spin, the Tribune’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox weekday afternoons.

Twitter @byldonovan

Lisa Donovan

Lisa Donovan is a veteran Chicago journalist and host of The Spin e-newsletter. An Omaha native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate, she’s called Chicago home for more than two decades. While Donovan and her husband live on the North Side, they trek all over the city, including to see their beloved White Sox play (and sometimes win).


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