• Alex Nitkin
    FEB 01, 2022
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    UNLOCKED

    Cook County ‘Just Housing’ rules struggle to take root, nearly 3 years after passage

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    Deon Hudson was denied an apartment he had sought so he could live closer to his sister Darlene, for whom he works as a home health aide. [Provided]

    Deon Hudson didn’t think much of the low-rise apartment community in south-suburban Chicago Heights where he sought to move last May. It was a dangerous area, and the building wasn’t a “five-star complex,” Hudson said.

    But it was close to his sister Darlene, who has a stroke-related disability, with whom he’d been living with and working for as a home health aide. And it was close to the Metra Electric line and the No. 357 Pace Bus, making it possible for him to get by without owning a car.  

    Hudson filled out an application and handed it to the property manager. He’d hear from them soon, she said — they just needed to run a background check first.   

    Days later, he got a letter in the mail. He was rejected.  

    “It just said ‘criminal history,’” Hudson said. “It just felt like a boulder jumped on my shoulders. I felt dejected and humiliated.”  

    Hudson had been arrested in 2012 when police pulled him over and found drugs in his car. He disputed the charge in court for years before taking a plea deal that resulted in a 2018 conviction on a traffic-related charge.  

    But what Hudson didn’t know last year was that Cook County commissioners had already passed an ordinance to prevent his exact experience. 

    The county’s Board of Commissioners voted 15-2 in April 2019 to approve the Just Housing Ordinance (19-2394), sponsored by Comm. Brandon Johnson (D-1).  

    Related: Freshmen progressive commissioners notch win with approval of ‘Just Housing’ ordinance 

    The new rules, which went into effect in January 2020 after a month-long battle over the ordinance’s finer details, make it illegal for Cook County landlords to deny housing applications based on a conviction that occurred more than three years ago. And even then, any rejections must only occur after applicants have been given a chance to dispute the findings.  

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    “The ordinance lays out a pretty clear process by which landlords are supposed to use convictions within the last three years, and none of that process was followed,” said Charlie Isaacs, an attorney with the Uptown People’s Law Center. “He was not given any disclosures about his rights under the ordinance. He was not given a bifurcated process to see if he pre-qualifies before they do a background check. He was not given the opportunity to submit additional information showing evidence of rehabilitation or disputing the accuracy or relevancy of the background check.”  

    Isaacs filed a legal complaint on Hudson’s behalf. It was just the latest in a swell of violations the Uptown People’s Law Center and other groups have caught wind of since the Just Housing Ordinance went into effect.  

    “If I had a glass jar filled with housing applications, and I reached in and pulled any one of them at random, I’d probably find a Just Housing violation,” Isaacs told The Daily Line. “Landlords don’t know about this law. Tenants don’t know about it. We know there are people all over the place that are getting denied housing, and they have no idea.”  

    One of Isaacs’ clients saw his apartment application denied because of a 40-year-old conviction. Multiple others were turned down for apartments on Chicago’s North Side, only to be offered another unit in lower-income neighborhoods on the city’s South or West Side.  

    “It’s no secret that we’re one of the most segregated populous places in the entire country,” Johnson said of the new rules as they were passed into the county code more than two years ago. “And why are we segregated? We’re segregated based on housing.”   

    But that segregation will only harden as long as the new rules are widely ignored and apartment applicants are being rejected for their criminal histories, Isaacs said.  

    “We have clients who want to move into neighborhoods with more grocery stores, more parks, all sorts of amenities, and they get closed off because of something on their record,” he said. “It goes against one of the key goals of the Just Housing Amendment, which was to allow for more mobility and opportunity for people who are trying to get a restart in life.”  

    The lack of public awareness about the tougher new rules is a problem for landlords, too.  

    “When you’re on the smaller, leaner operational side and you’re trying to manage a property, it’s really tough to understand what this law is requiring you to do,” said Adriann Murawski, government affairs director with Illinois Realtors.  

    Illinois Realtors hired the polling firm American Strategy to conduct a survey last November of 457 Cook County landlords, most of whom own five apartment units or fewer. More than four in five had never heard of the Just Housing Ordinance. Similarly overwhelming majorities were unfamiliar with other Cook County tenant protections, like rules that forbid landlords from denying apartments based on how applicants earn their income.  

    “These small owners rely on rental income, so this speaks to a sense of urgency for both the landlord and the tenant” for awareness of the rules to spread more widely, Murawski said. “The tenant is looking for housing, and the landlord is looking to fill that space.”  

    Illinois Realtors has launched its own education campaign to get the word out about the tougher new rules for apartment owners, including by distributing fact sheets and step-by-step checklists for landlords to follow to make sure they’re giving applicants due process, Murawski said. But the responsibility ultimately falls on Cook County officials, who “need to be doing more,” she said.  

    “Most small landlords find out about new rental regulations on their own, either through their own internet research or by following the local news,” according to a presentation Murawski made to the Cook County Commission on Human Rights during its Dec. 9 meeting. The survey found 44 percent of responding landlords rated the county’s “job performance on communicating new laws and regulations” as “poor,” compared to just 18 percent who gave the county an “excellent” or “good” rating.  

    The Commission on Human Rights, which investigates and adjudicates violations of county anti-discrimination rules, has received 22 complaints of Just Housing Ordinance violations — including Hudson’s — since it became law in January 2020.  

    The number is almost certainly a narrow snippet of the landlords who violate the rules across the county, according to Julia Epplin-Zapf, outreach and training coordinator for the Cook County Department of Human Rights and Ethics.  

    “There’s a notable learning curve for any new legislation, especially for something as progressive as the Just Housing amendment,” Epplin-Zapf said. Although the new housing rules had already been on the books for more than a year when her position was created last July, education had been hobbled by the COVID-19 pandemic, which “really changed the space of outreach dramatically,” Epplin-Zapf said.   

    “We’ve really had to rethink how we reach people,” she said.  

    Epplin-Zapf oversaw a survey and report late last year that reached a similar conclusion to the Realtors’ survey, finding a “consistent emphasis on the need for additional outreach to housing providers and housing seekers” so they understand the reach and ramifications of the Just Housing Ordinance.  

    The report led the commission to tweak the ordinance to clarify the required screening steps and to add a requirement for landlords to provide contact information for the commission so applicants can more easily file complaints.   

    It’s still common for landlords to flout the rules by denying tenants based on convictions that are more than three years old, according to Gianna Baker, co-executive director of the Chicago-area Fair Housing Alliance. Baker was a key advocate for the passage of the Just Housing Ordinance in 2019.  

    But Baker also said she was “very encouraged by the proactive steps” the county’s Department of Human Rights and Ethics has taken since last year — especially its hiring of Epplin-Zapf to expand and sharpen the county’s educational tools.  

    “Having that additional capacity is really going to support that process of education that needs to continue taking place,” Baker said. “I think it puts us in a better position this year.”  

    Since Epplin-Zapf was hired, the department redesigned the human rights commission’s website to make the rules more prominent. Officials have printed and distributed literature on the Just Housing Ordinance in seven languages. Epplin-Zapf now hosts regular trainings and “walk-throughs” for landlords and tenant advocacy groups, and the department posts updates in a twice-monthly newsletter.  

    Officials are also working on a “fair housing video library” that will publicize bite-sized, streamable video explanations of the Just Housing Ordinance and source-of-income rules, Epplin-Zapf said. And her office is toying with other ideas, like printing information about the new rules on property tax notices mailed across the county.  

    “We’ve been conditioned for decades to other-ise, to not give the benefit of the doubt or share resources with people who have justice involvement,” Epplin-Zapf said. “So we have to acknowledge that it’s going to take a lot to reverse that conditioning, to move toward acceptance and welcoming and sharing resources.”  

    She added that interest and advocacy organizations like the Chicago-Area Fair Housing Alliance, Illinois Realtors and Uptown People’s Law Center all have a part to play in spreading awareness of the tenant protections across the county.  

    Hudson learned about the rules after his case worker attended a workshop on the Just Housing Ordinance that was hosted by Isaacs, he said.  

    “It was like a miracle,” Hudson said of a phone call he received from Isaacs telling him that he had been illegally denied housing. “It was like, God does hear my prayers.”  

    Isaacs filed a complaint on Hudson’s behalf with the Cook County Human Rights Commission alleging multiple violations of the Just Housing Ordinance, including that Hudson was “treated unfairly, discriminated against, and denied a basic need on account of a relatively minor issue on his record.” The complaint wound its way through the process until January, when the owner of the complex agreed to settle with a $12,000 payment to Hudson and a legal commitment to train the apartment staff on county housing rules.  

    “Housing discrimination is alive and well, and people are suffering from it,” Hudson said. “This is not only for me. It’s something that needs to be addressed and taken seriously for the future, for my grandkids and everyone else’s.”  

    Housing applicants who believe their rights were violated under the Cook County Just Housing Ordinance can fill a complaint form and email it to [email protected] 

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