By Tim Kirsininkas
Capitol News Illinois
State Rep. Delia Ramirez, D-Chicago, reintroduced a bill on Wednesday that would offer emergency support to tenants, landlords and homeowners struggling to make payments in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
House Bill 2877, known as the Federal Emergency Rental Assistance Act, would create a process for allocating funding for rental support that was made available in federal stimulus packages since December. It would also expand the sealing of eviction records in the state through July of 2022.
Ramirez, who previously introduced the legislation during the lame duck session in January, said the new bill offers “a comprehensive approach” to addressing what she referred to as “a crisis of housing instability” as a result of COVID-19.
Since the outset of the pandemic, Ramirez has been working to introduce legislation that would provide additional support to renters, landlords and homeowners who are unable to make rent or pay their mortgage due to financial hardship during the pandemic.
The legislation Ramirez originally introduced in January aimed to back Gov. JB Pritzker’s moratorium on evictions through state statute until late 2022.
“Since January, we’ve been working really hard to make some technical changes to address concerns from opponents to the finance industry,” Ramirez said. “We have now come to an agreement.”
Ramirez and proponents of the legislation said the new version would primarily aim to protect rental tenants from additional financial hardship if faced with an eviction notice.
Emily Coffey, a housing attorney with the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, called the bill a “vital step in the right direction” to offer support to tenants, landlords, and homeowners.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a housing crisis that has long existed, but became all the more urgent to address,” Coffey said.
“(The bill) ensures that tenants who are unable to pay their rent do not have lasting permanent consequences, and that landlords are able to access a rental assistance fund,” she added. “The bill also ensures that homeowners and small landlords have additional time to avoid foreclosure.”
Opponents of the bill, including State Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, R-Elmhurst, cited concerns that the legislation does not require a written lease to apply for additional rental support, which she argued could lead to fraudulent claims.
“That failure to have some type of two factor authentication for someone without a written lease, I think, is going to be an invitation to fraud,” Mazzochi said.
Ramirez responded that in order to attain additional rental assistance in accordance with federal requirements, residents would have to provide written documents proving their residency that their landlord would need to sign.
Ramirez also said the U.S. Treasury Department was clearer on eligibility requirements in the latest COVID relief package, allowing the state to ensure that residents who most need rental support would be the ones receiving it.
“The federal government will be auditing the administering agencies to ensure they’re living up consistently with the federal guidelines,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez said that new stipulations from the federal government focusing on area median incomes would also allow the state to ensure that rental relief is going to those who need the most support.
“Those that need it the most are able to access this assistance, and we can prevent people from becoming homeless,” Ramirez said.
HB 2877 was advanced to the house floor with support from only Democrats.
The bill was one of three advanced by the House Housing Committee Wednesday.
The other two bills would aim to give additional rental support to low-income individuals and those living with mental illness.
House Bill 449, introduced by Rep. Kathleen Willis, D-Addison, would create a “Housing is Recovery” pilot program. The five-year pilot program would offer bridge rental subsidies to those who are at high risk of unnecessary institutionalization and over- doses related to mental illness.
House Bill 648, introduced by Rep. Denyse Stoneback, D-Skokie, would establish new, more flexible rules for family median income level requirements in order to qualify for subsidized housing.
The bill as amended would allow residents to qualify for subsidized housing through the state’s Rental Housing Support program if their household income is at or below 30 percent of their area median income.
“More assistance is on the way, but we must do more to ensure continued housing stability for the people of our state,” Stoneback said of the bill.
Both HB 449 and HB 648 passed committee by a unanimous vote.