The rent is due today, but you were laid off from your job due to the coronavirus shutdown and don’t have the money. So what now?

According to the Autonomous Tenants Union, an Albany Park renters' rights organization, you should get a group of tenants together and negotiate with your landlord. The ATU recently published a “Covid-19 Tenant Organizing Toolkit,” which includes guidelines for collective action in our moment of isolation.

Among their advice:

  • "Form a tenants union … if tenants band together we are able to get huge concessions from landlords."
  • "Set up a group communication channel … a group text, email thread, WhatsApp, a Facebook group."
  • "Schedule a meeting to vote on next steps. Although in-person meetings are not a good idea, tenants can still meet using Zoom, Google Hangouts or a conference call."
  • "Get your fellow tenants to sign on to a “Got Your Back Pledge” letter [notifying] the landlord that tenants who cannot pay are asking for a rent suspension … The maximum tactic on the table is a rent strike, although other actions may be taken."

Chicagoans have been asked to shelter in place to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. But due to the economic slowdown caused by Gov. Pritzker's stay-at-home order, there's never been a more important time for tenants to get to know each other, says Elaine Cleary, an ATU organizer.

“Millions of people are suddenly unemployed because of statewide shutdowns,” Cleary says. “They’re suddenly without incomes. Nearly the entire service sector, which tends to have the most vulnerable people, is suddenly affected.”

In turn, the ATU, along with several aldermen and state legislators, is asking Pritzker to issue a statewide rent and mortgage freeze.

Just over half of Chicagoans are renters, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That's higher than the national average of 43 percent, which is itself the highest level in more than 50 years. Additionally, more than half of tenants in Cook County are “rent burdened,” meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent, according to a 2019 study by DePaul University.

Renters have a little more leverage than usual right now: On March 14, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart suspended evictions through May 18 after deputies serving a notice were exposed to a tenant displaying COVID-like symptoms. Landlords can still file for an eviction, but they won't get an order until at least mid-May.

According to Cleary, a rent and mortgage freeze would protect both tenants and landlords. Currently, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are extending a grace period of up to twelve months for single-family homeowners unable to pay their mortgages. But for landlords who own multifamily buildings, the window is tighter — 90 days — and is contingent upon their agreement to suspend evictions.

That's why Cleary wants a statewide freeze.

“We are not out here trying to screw landlords,” she says. "Owning a property is an investment, and having safe housing is a human right.” 

There is, however, a legal obstacle to a statewide rent and mortgage freeze: the Illinois Rent Control Preemption Act of 1997, which states that a "home rule unit may not regulate or control the amount of rent charged for leasing private residential or commercial property.”

In response to a question submitted by Chicago during his Tuesday briefing, Gov. Pritzker said he doesn’t have the power to issue a statewide freeze.

“There’s currently in state law a moratorium on rent control, so that’s not something that under an executive order I can overturn,” the governor said. “However, we’ve issued executive orders to ban evictions across the state, to make sure that people are not having their utilities turned off, so we have a moratorium on shutoffs.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who in last year’s election differed from opponent Toni Preckwinkle in opposing rent control, is trying to provide some assistance to out-of-work Chicagoans with the COVID-19 Housing Assistance Grant Program, which will issue $1,000 checks to 2,000 Chicagoans chosen by lottery. (You can apply here.)

It’s a noble gesture, says 40th Ward Ald. Andre Vasquez, but far from a citywide solution. In his ward, Vasquez is busy helping a group of ten suddenly unemployed tenants in Lincoln Square negotiate with their landlord. But he’s also in touch with neighborhood legislators, hoping for a statewide measure.

Vasquez doesn’t want to see rent strikes, which could lead to gatherings of potentially sick people at a time when we're supposed to be staying home. But tenants of Mac Properties buildings in Hyde Park have been threatening just that, unless their April rents are cancelled.

“We’re in a situation that I don’t think anybody has ever lived through,” Vasquez says. “We need to make sure that people have enough food to survive, and rent isn’t tenable. The best solution would be for the governor to issue an executive order to lift the ban on rent control.”

But overturning the rent control ban would require an act of the General Assembly, which is not in session due to… coronavirus. That means your rent is going to be between you and your landlord.

If you can’t pay and you’re looking for help, the Chicago Rent Freeze Coalition is holding a Virtual Town Hall at 3 p.m. on April 1, with Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, Ald. Rossana Rodriguez, and Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates. You can watch here.