The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated or created financial difficulties for many, and renters may still face difficulties paying rent and utilities. A Cook County program is available for those who qualify for rent assistance who apply by Oct. 29.
Program managers at Housing Forward and the Oak Park Regional Housing Center note that there are additional relief programs available, and both agencies can offer aid in the application process to those who need a helping hand.
Cook County Emergency Rental Assistance Program
Now in its second round, the Cook County COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program is open for applications through Oct. 29. Tenants are eligible if they live in suburban Cook County and rent, have current or future obligations to pay rent, utilities, and/or other housing-related expenses, have proof of financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and have an income at or below a certain level.
Details on income thresholds and applications are available at cookcountyil.gov/rent-help.
Housing Forward Prevail Program Manager Romiesha Tucker says tenants can apply themselves but notes that many choose to reach out to agencies like Housing Forward for help with technology and uploading the necessary documents.
“Tenants initiate the process, but landlords are a part of the process as well,” Tucker said. “Tenants will need to provide the landlord’s name, mailing address and email address. This is very important because it ensures the landlord gets a link that links the two parties together. The application is not complete until both the tenant and landlord submit their documents.”
Tenants can receive up to 18 months of assistance and up to three months of future rent needs.
Deborah Williams, program director with the Oak Park Regional Housing Center (OPRHC) also works with renters on obtaining assistance.
Williams notes that while tenants who received assistance during the first round of relief in the spring of 2020 can reapply for this round, the limit for assistance is 18 months.
She says a number of criteria can help tenants qualify, but they have to be able to show that their ability to pay rent or utilities has been impacted by COVID. She offers examples of situations that might qualify, including “if your job laid you off or cut your hours due to the pandemic, or you had to stay home and take care of a child because school was closed.”
Existing assistance programs
Williams stresses that tenants should not be afraid to reach out if they are past the Oct. 29 application deadline, noting that there are other assistance programs the OPRHC can help with. She also notes that it is not too late if a landlord has begun eviction proceedings.
“A landlord can start the eviction process, but we can help if it’s ongoing,” Williams said.
The pandemic has increased the number of people who need help, but Williams says not all of them can tie their need directly to COVID-19.
“You had to be working when COVID hit to qualify,” she said. “My concern is people who were working to find a job but they couldn’t find a job during COVID.”
Housing Forward’s Tucker says the county relief programs are a good starting point, but says there are other ways that those in need can get help.
“Even in a non-pandemic world, there is rental, utility and mortgage assistance available,” Tucker said.
She points out that suburban Cook County residents can seek help by calling 1-877-426-6515, and Chicago residents can dial 311 to ask for help with rental assistance and notes that Catholic Charities mans both call centers and can direct tenants to an agency in their area.
Utility assistance is available from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program for those whose income does not exceed 60 percent of the state median income. In addition, Nicor has a gas-sharing program which offers grants to qualified residents.
Williams says the OPRHC is also available to help those who need mortgage assistance and notes that often the agency can help those who are behind on payments or who are coming out of forbearance.
“A lot of times, it’s more helpful to come in here than just calling yourself because we know all the rules and regulations,” Williams said.
Long-term implications and relief programs
Tucker says that when the pandemic began in the spring of 2020, the need for rent relief was great.
“There was a huge need because there were a lot of unknowns,” Tucker said. “Things were happening very fast, and everything was shutting down.”
Today, she says, Housing Forward continues to work with many clients who are out of work due to the repercussions of the pandemic, but the eviction moratorium changed the response for many tenants.
“A lot of people took advantage of the eviction moratorium, and a lot of people weren’t paying their landlords even when they had money from unemployment because they didn’t have to,” Tucker said. “Now that the moratorium has been lifted, there’s a mad dash for assistance.”
Many clients haven’t paid rent since March 2020, and they didn’t apply for rental assistance even though assistance programs existed because they relied on the eviction moratorium. With the moratorium lifted and unemployment benefits waning, Tucker says it has created a difficult situation for tenants and landlords.
“We 100 percent want to do what we can to keep a person housed, but this is not one-sided. Landlords were affected too,” Tucker said. “Tenants refused to seek out assistance programs when the moratorium was in place. Now that it’s not, landlords often want to either just evict or they are increasing rents because of what they lost during the pandemic.”
Tucker says these unusual circumstances are changing the face of the rental market. She points out that, historically, rental assistance programs were in place for tenants who were experiencing an unusual type of hardship — something that was out of their control such as an unexpected expense or loss of job. Landlords could easily work with one tenant seeking help if the rest of their tenants were paying rent.
This fall, she notes it’s not unusual to have all of a landlords’ tenants claiming hardship and not paying.
“This has been a difficult experience on both ends,” she said.
Tucker says she strongly encourages tenants to work with their landlords whenever possible and to apply for needed relief.
“There is assistance available, and they should apply,” she said.