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Your Stimulus Check Will Cover May Rent, and That’s About It

A new report says 76 percent of Chicagoans will be able to pay in full next week — with $90 left for everything else.

Photo: Terry Harris/Chicago Tribune

First, the good news.

Most Chicagoans will be able to pay their May rent with the $1,200 stimulus checks that started hitting bank accounts last week.

The bad news: With Chicago’s median monthly rent coming in at $1,110, that leaves only $90 for everything else, from groceries and utilities to price-gouged toilet paper.

Nationally, the number of tenants who failed to pay rent in April jumped to 31 percent, up from 18 a year ago, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council. That figure looked only slightly better in Illinois, where 10 percent fewer tenants made some sort of payment in April, including partial rent.

Many believe that May could be even more disastrous for landlords, as the economy continues to ice over and more Americans are out of work. In the past five weeks, more than 26 million people have filed unemployment claims in the U.S.; about one in six Americans have lost their jobs.

It’s difficult to quantify how those figures will affect May rent specifically, but online brokerage Redfin tried. Last week, they published a report estimating that three-quarters of Chicago renters receiving a single $1,200 stimulus check will be able to pay in full next week, and 96 percent of households receiving two payments will be covered.

The study uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey. The idea was to measure the success of the federal government’s plan to soften the economic blow of COVID-19 through direct cash payouts, according to Taylor Marr, lead economist at Redfin.

“Housing is people’s biggest expense and biggest worry right now, and so this is an attempt to answer the question: Will this payment keep people in their home or apartment?” says Marr. “Hopefully for most Chicagoans, it will.”

The report, however, doesn’t account for factors like income, a person’s number of roommates, or dependents in a household. It also focuses on rent alone, leaving out food, utilities, medicine, and other essentials. According to the crowd-sourced consumer database Numbeo, Chicago is the 29th most expensive city in the world in terms of cost of living, with a single person’s monthly expenses beyond rent totaling $1,035.

“A check for one month’s rent is not going to go very far, especially for the people who have lost their job or wages due to COVID-19,” says Bob Palmer, Policy Director at Housing Action Illinois. His group is one of several in the state pushing for a more targeted approach to rent assistance, asking the federal government for $100 billion in emergency rent for low-income residents, along with a national moratorium on evictions and foreclosures to supplement state mandates.

At least 51 U.S. Representatives, including Chicago’s Jesús “Chuy” García, support the idea, and on April 10 sent a letter to House and Senate leaders urging them to adopt the measure in the next COVID-19 stimulus package.

But so far, it’s not looking good: The latest federal relief package, which passed the Senate on Tuesday and allots $480 billion for small businesses, hospitals, and increased testing, doesn’t issue another dime to renters.

“Do I have the faith that the federal government will come through?” asks Palmer. “I try to stay optimistic. What I’m confident of is that this is worth continuing to pursue.”

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