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Fifth Ward Council member Bobby Burns spoke up about the need for more transparency in tenant-landlord disputes at the Sept. 20 City Council meeting.
Information regarding tenant-landlord disputes is not in one centralized location, and requests made by tenants are often overlooked, said Burns. He added that, according to residents in his ward, complaints made in the 311 system are frequently closed out before they are resolved.
“Tenants in my ward feel like they’re on an island by themselves,” Burns said. These comments followed a presentation on the City’s Landlord Tenant Services program.
The presentation, a referral made by Burns, was led by Philip DeVon, Eviction Prevention Specialist at the Metropolitan Tenants Organization (MTO). MTO works to empower tenants, and Burns said he would love to see more outreach done by this organization, including raising awareness so residents are familiar with this resource.
Free hotline for tenants
MTO partners with the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing and the City of Evanston to provide the Landlord Tenant Services program, started in 2018. The program provides free advice and guidance via its hotline, open Monday through Friday from 1 to 5 p.m at 773-292-4988 or via the City’s 311 system.
The program handles approximately 35 cases per month, which is a slight decrease from the pre-COVID numbers of 35-40. There has been a recent decrease in calls to the hotline relating to maintenance and disturbances, and most calls are about evictions and leases.
After a call is made, an MTO counselor informs the tenant of their rights and performs an intake assessment, collecting information about the case. The counselor then answers any questions and connects the tenant with the appropriate resources. Frequently, the next step involves writing a letter and MTO assists the tenant with that.
A number of other programs within MTO, including those focusing on Eviction Prevention, Healthy Homes and Building Organization, provide additional services and resources to tenets. “All these programs are incredibly successful and work with the hotline,” DeVon said.
Landlord Tenant Services also connects tenants with legal resources and refers them to legal aid agencies. Additionally, the program organizes tenant-landlord training sessions, helps solve disputes and ensures information on the City’s website is up-to-date.
Paid services within the program include tenant-landlord mediation, for $43 an hour; the organization of tenants who live in buildings with poor maintenance, for $27 an hour; and legal representation for low-income Evanston tenants, for $120 an hour.
During a Q&A session at the end of the presentation, Burns asked whether maintenance-related requests submitted through the City’s 311 process are automatically directed to MTO.
Housing and Grants Manager Sarah Flax responded that it depends on the situation. In some cases, she said, individuals are better off requesting a property standards inspection. In cases where landlords have trouble working with tenants, and tenants have trouble working with landlords, inquiries are forwarded to MTO, she said.
Burns also asked what a standard complaint about leases looks like. DeVon said usually lease calls are tenants wanting to terminate a lease due to poor building conditions or a rent increase, or landlords not renewing a lease. Lease questions can be evictions-to-be, said DeVon, so MTO takes them very seriously.
In a follow-up question, Burns asked if MTO has a program to help residents find new housing. DeVon said MTO does not provide such a program, but does have a lengthy resource list.
Finally, Burns asked how MTO handles requests made by residents experiencing a mold or water quality issue that requires testing, for which there is a cost. DeVon said while MTO does not pay for those inspections, the group’s Healthy Homes program helps facilitate the inspections and can connect residents with Chicago organizations who will fund and provide testing.
“It’s really important that people know who MTO is and have a sense of who their representative is in Evanston,” Burns said. “To fully benefit from this partnership, people need to know and trust this organization.”