Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Eviction bill deserves to get kicked to the curb

Editor’s Note: House Bill 5395 was referred back to the Illinois House Rules Committee on April 11.

By Mark Brown, Chicago Sun-Times columnist

Rep. Monique Davis has fought since 2009 to forestall being evicted from a Chicago Board of Education building she has used rent-free as her legislative office for the past 11 years.

But when the shoe is on the other foot, the Chicago Democrat takes a dim view of tenants she says “game the system” to thwart landlords — such as her — in eviction court.

At Davis’ urging, an Illinois House committee on Wednesday approved a measure she sponsored to make it easier for Cook County landlords to evict problem tenants.

The bill would impose a 45-day limit for the Cook County sheriff to carry out any eviction after a final order from a judge.

If the sheriff fails to complete the eviction in that time period, the landlord would be free to turn the job over to any legally recognized “peace officer.”

Davis envisions city and suburban police departments conducting the evictions, which I doubt they’d like, or in the alternative, landlords hiring off-duty officers to handle the task.

It’s a really bad idea, as tenant advocates and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s office tried to explain to legislators — to no avail.

Can you imagine a bunch of rent-a-cops from some of these marginal suburban police departments being turned loose like auto repo men in the city of Chicago to evict families from their homes?

I can. It gets ugly enough with the sheriff involved as the independent arbiter. The last thing we should want is somebody with a financial incentive to back the landlord being given the power to carry out this very sensitive task.

Even the 45-day limit, which might seem reasonable, is in direct conflict with a long-standing winter moratorium on evictions in Cook County. By judicial order, the sheriff can’t evict somebody if the outside temperature is 15 degrees or lower, or regardless of the temperature if extreme weather conditions exist — such as the foot of snow on the ground for most of this past winter.

That results in the sheriff falling behind on evictions every winter, but even more so this year, when the harsh conditions put the department 12 weeks behind, since whittled to eight weeks.

Davis’ legislation grew out of her personal frustration with the sheriff for not moving fast enough to evict a tenant from a South Side apartment building she owns. As of Wednesday, the sheriff’s office conceded it still hadn’t evicted Davis’ tenant, blaming paperwork delays on her part.

Davis’ bill originally would have removed weather as a consideration in evictions.

I thought that was insensitive, and said so in a column in February, where I also pointed out Davis’ personal conflict and recounted the irony of her own well-documented history as a freeloading tenant.

I figured that would be the end of it, but Davis is nothing if not persistent. Some might say bull-headed.

She temporarily withdrew as chief sponsor of the bill, which was retooled to delete any references to weather.

Then Rep. Daniel Beiser, D-Alton, took over her sponsorship duties.

You might wonder why a state legislator from down near St. Louis would be so concerned about eviction procedures in Cook County. I called Beiser, suspecting he was trying to give somebody cover. Instead of calling back, Beiser sent word through his secretary he was no longer a sponsor, having dropped the bill Tuesday. I already knew that. I wanted to know why.

Some thought Beiser’s interest might have something to do with his seatmate in the House, Rep. Robert Rita, D-Blue Island, who is one of the co-sponsors.

Rita, who is also a landlord having trouble evicting a tenant, denied any knowledge of how Beiser got involved or uninvolved.

By the time the bill was considered late Wednesday afternoon in the House Judiciary Committee, Davis was back in charge. She didn’t return my call to discuss the new developments, having made it pretty clear the last time that she’s fed up with me.

I’ve heard from enough landlords on this subject to understand there is indeed a segment of tenants — in Chicago, especially — who know how to work the laws to their advantage and evade eviction.

But this is not the solution.

In trying to carry out evictions humanely, the sheriff’s office goes so far as to use a social worker to contact the people being evicted to help them move and deal with complications that arise, such as a quadriplegic currently scheduled for eviction who has only partial use of one arm.

This is why legislators should be careful when taking on issues where they have a direct financial interest.