Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Eviction situations are too complicated for Rep. Davis’ simplistic bill

Cook County Sheriff's Police Officer James Clemmons and Officer Kevin Johnson stand outside of a home where they had to serve people with eviction papers. (Photo by Brian Jackson/Sun-Times)
Cook County Sheriff’s Police Officer James Clemmons and Officer Kevin Johnson stand outside of a home where they had to serve people with eviction papers. (Photo by Brian Jackson/Sun-Times)

By Mark Brown, columnist

State Rep. Monique Davis really ought to meet Kathryn Pieri.

Davis is the veteran Chicago Democratic legislator who won’t back off her misguided plan to allow landlords to hire off-duty law enforcement officers to evict tenants as a way to avoid dealing with the Cook County sheriff’s office.

Pieri has spent seven years as a social worker for the sheriff’s office with responsibility for working with the 20,000 people who get evicted in Cook County each year. She helps ease them through the complications that can surface in an eviction.

Davis, a landlord herself, believes any tenant whose eviction case advances far enough for a judge to order them out of their home is a “scam artist” who has been manipulating the system to avoid paying rent. She reiterated this view to me Wednesday.

If Davis were willing to broaden her perspective, Pieri could tell her stories of temporarily delaying scheduled evictions while she worked with desperate tenants to avoid allowing the eviction to result in homelessness or worse.

There was a Mount Prospect woman suffering from stage four bladder cancer who Pieri helped get into treatment and find a new apartment.

In another case, she stalled the eviction of a Des Plaines disabled veteran for a month while waiting for him to find a new place and someone to help him move.

It took two months to help a wheelchair-restricted South Side woman receive support services for her multiple sclerosis and to relocate.

Just Wednesday, Pieri was on the street in her bullet-proof vest with a sheriff’s eviction team as they went to take possession of a Berwyn apartment from what they were surprised to learn was a woman in a hospital bed who had a note from her doctor that she was not to be moved for another week.

Sheriff’s deputies decided they could put off that eviction a bit longer while Pieri hunts for a new apartment for her, too.

Pieri says that sort of thing happens two or three times every week.

This is the world of evictions, which indeed is inhabited in part by the deadbeats Davis describes but also by people with real-life complications that may have never made it to the attention of an Eviction Court judge.

The question is who we should have on the front lines carrying out the evictions and sorting through these complications.

Do we want hired guns working for a landlord with a financial incentive to remove the tenant as quickly as possible, or the sheriff’s office as an independent arbiter with a responsibility for fairness to both parties—and the experience that comes from having a staff that specializes in this work?

Davis is determined: she wants the hired guns. She would require them to be off-duty “peace officers” employed by licensed private detective or security companies.

Why? Because Sheriff Tom Dart’s office moves too slowly in carrying out evictions to suit her taste.

Indeed, the sheriff is four to five weeks behind in carrying out eviction orders at present, down from a much longer backlog over the winter, a point of frustration for many building owners.

Those of you who have been following my ongoing battle with Davis on this issue may recall it started in February when she attempted to pass a law to stop the sheriff from using cold winter weather as a reason to delay evictions.

It turned out Davis was particularly piqued because the sheriff hadn’t moved fast enough to evict one of her own tenants (who by the way still hasn’t been evicted.)

I would gladly stop writing about this issue, but Davis keeps advancing new versions of her bill, recently dropping the weather issue altogether in favor of focusing straightaway on wresting control of evictions away from the sheriff.

On Wednesday I accompanied Cook County Sheriff’s Deputies Jim Clemmons and Kevin Johnson as they served eviction notices to South Side residents, the first step in a process that months later could result in somebody’s forcible removal.

They showed me how they question each tenant about issues that could cause a problem on that sure-to-be-tense future day: Are there children in the home? Seniors? Anyone with a disability? Pets?

I don’t see the rent-a-cop eviction crews showing the same concerns.

Sheriff Dart, who met us outside one Englewood home where we learned the tenant had been paying rent to a landlord who hadn’t paid the mortgage, said he started putting a social worker on the eviction team after seeing how many complications arise.

Dart believes turning over eviction work to private operators “would be an absolute nightmare.”

I think he’s right, and I can’t understand how a legislator who represents so many poor people can’t see that for herself.