From the Field: Illinois Advocates Make the Case for Sealing Many Eviction Records

Housing advocates in Illinois are proposing new legislation that would protect renters unfairly penalized for being a defendant in an eviction hearing. Currently, thousands of Illinois renters are routinely turned away by landlords even though their eviction cases were dismissed. Renters with eviction records face such discriminatory treatment even when they won in court, the disputes were settled before trial, or the evictions were filed in error. House Bill 4760 (HB 4760), introduced by Representative Theresa Mah (D), would address such unjust disqualifying rejections by requiring that all eviction records to be sealed at the time of initial filing and that only final eviction judgements be made public. Leading the charge in support of the bill are Housing Action Illinois, an NLIHC state partner, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing (LCBH). The two organizations co-authored a March 7 report, “Prejudged: The Stigma of Eviction Records,” which presents a compelling argument in support of HB 4760 with data and personal stories.

Data analysis in Prejudged shows that of the 105,272 completed residential eviction cases in Cook County from 2014 to 2017, only 61% ended with a ruling of eviction in favor of the landlord. The success of landlords in eviction hearings might not be even that high if not for the fact that only 12% of renters have legal representation during the court process, compared 81% for landlords. In addition to this disparity in access to counsel, many renters may not be getting a full and fair hearing before the court: Prejudged shows that 33% of all completed eviction cases and more than half of all eviction judgements were determined at the initial court appearance, most often decided after mere minutes with a judge. Housing Action Illinois and LCBH estimate that each year more than 15,000 renters in Cook County were saddled with public eviction records despite having no eviction orders issued against them.

In addition to data showing issues related to eviction proceedings and judgements, Prejudged includes several accounts and perspectives from attorneys, renters and landlords, including one from a landlord who argues that a broader consideration of the context related to an eviction case` when screening prospective tenants can lead to better outcomes. The report features the story of one woman who agreed to an “as-is” lease extension but who then faced eviction when her apartment became difficult to inhabit during building renovations. Another story is that of an individual who was never evicted or given an eviction notice, but his landlord had filed for eviction before immediately settling the matter; eight years later, the renter was denied an apartment for an eviction filing he had never even known about.

Sometimes eviction filings list renters who have done nothing wrong. Prejudged tells the story of a renter in a condominium whose landlord was being evicted by the condo association for unpaid fees. Despite a perfect rent payment history and no lease violations, the renter would later face discrimination because of the hearing where she was listed as a defendant. She would later get her eviction record sealed through a complicated legal process that is difficult to navigate without an attorney.

Staff at LCBH point out that eviction filings, regardless of the judgement, are extremely detrimental to a renter’s ability to find housing and can often even prevent a household from accessing subsidized affordable homes. Many examples shared in Prejudged were resolved with the help of legal assistance, but there are not nearly enough low-cost or pro bono attorneys to serve all renters being incorrectly rejected for eviction filings.

The policy recommendations in Prejudged go beyond HB 4760. The report also urges giving Illinois residents the civil right to counsel when faced with evictions, as has recently been established in New York City. Funding for court reporting is also highlighted as needed in Cook County, where court reporters have been absent from eviction court since 2006. The report goes on to suggest limits on apartment application fees, which can be costly for many renters unjustly rejected because of eviction records. And the report recommends greater support for the Illinois Homeless Prevention Program, which provides eviction prevention services and leads to fewer court filings.

“People shouldn’t be harmed by online court records that don’t accurately reflect their ability to be a good tenant,” says Bob Palmer, policy director at Housing Action Illinois. “HB 4760 is intended to protect tenants whose cases could eventually be sealed under current law and others and others from ever having the case come up in online records that unfairly damage their ability to secure housing in the future.”

Read Prejudged: The Stigma of Eviction Records at: