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Eye On Illinois: Eviction freeze only a short fix for long-term problem

When will the time be right?

That’s the question supporters of extending Illinois’ eviction moratorium must eventually answer, because saying “not yet” isn’t sufficient, even when it’s the right answer.

The U.S. Supreme Court vacated a federal moratorium Thursday, and already there are stories from other states of landlords exercising their authority to reclaim property from tenants without a valid lease. Among the more harrowing is a Mississippi Free Press account of the eviction of all 61 units at the Catherine Street Apartments in Starkville, where new owners want to renovate the property and are forcing everyone to leave, regardless of whether they’re paid up on rent and with no concern for an inbound hurricane.

The Supreme Court ruling doesn’t prevent statewide eviction freezes, so in Illinois the pressure is off until at least Sept. 18, because it was Aug. 20 when Gov. JB Pritzker last signed a 30-day disaster declaration. The moratorium isn’t all-inclusive, it covers only people who earn less than $99,000 on their own or $198,000 in a joint-filing household, according to Capitol News Illinois. Tenants must have financial hardships related to COVID-19 and certify they’re making “best efforts to make timely partial payments that are as close to the full payment.”

So it’s possible the administration could say the moratorium will last as long as there are people in those circumstances. Theoretically the pool could dwindle smaller with each month until no one qualifies. There’s paperwork involved – of course there is, it’s a government program – as tenants must submit an Illinois Housing Development Authority declaration, and now landlords are able to contest their tenants’ claims.

It’s worth noting the last bullet point on the declaration form is an understanding that when the state lifts the moratorium, the landlord can require full payment for any rent not submitted during the freeze. Also notable is that the IHDA paid out nearly $228.5 million in rental assistance to 26,434 applicants – but didn’t fulfill another 72,372 requests.

These are just a few data points in what clearly is a complex issue. Increased homelessness negatively affects local economies as well as the employment market. Lack of housing also correlates to negative impacts on mental and physical health, which should always be a community concern.

But rental housing also impacts the economic climate. Hurricane Ida timing notwithstanding, the Catherine Street Apartments owner surely will pay workers and buy materials to overhaul 61 units, likely resulting in increased property value and tax revenue.

I’m glad Illinois isn’t Mississippi, but I’ll feel better when it’s clear there’s a real long-term plan to address these and other affordable housing challenges. State government can’t afford to house every resident, but neither can it withstand a homelessness epidemic.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.