RIVER FOREST, Ill. (WLS) -- The I-Team investigated a growing number of local renters who say they're being illegally kicked out of their homes during the pandemic, despite moratoriums on evictions.
People have lost their jobs, gotten sick and fallen on hard financial times during the pandemic, so Illinois' moratorium on rental evictions remains in effect. But the I-Team has learned that some landlords are still seeking to remove their tenants.
"He asked me to leave in the middle of a pandemic without proper notice, without any empathy or compassion for my situation," Selina Stokes said.
Stokes has been laid off from two jobs during the pandemic. With little money coming in, she turned to the government for rental assistance. Stokes received $3,500 for her landlord for rent at her River Forest apartment.
"He gave me a written notice to leave and, and when I, I asked for a proper time frame to make arrangements for myself, he began to take the locks off," Stokes said. "That's really what ultimately led me up to leave."
Why was that lock removed? It all started in early February when Stokes' landlord, LonMu Liu, was cited by the Village of River Forest for illegally turning his single-family home into a multi-unit rental. In a court filing, the village said the home "represents a threat to the health, safety and welfare of residents".
In a phone conversation, Liu told the I-Team "the village deemed everyone needed to be out." But in a statement, the Village of River Forest told the I-Team they "quickly began working with the property owner to address the violations but did not require that anyone move out of the home."
Liu said he removed Stokes' single-sided door lock because it was illegal, but he did not replace it. It's something Metropolitan Tenants Organization Executive Director John Bartlett said should have been done.
"It's completely illegal and tenants can call the police," Bartlett said.
Bartlett said they've had a surge of tenant complaints about landlord bullying since the pandemic started.
"We've received twice as many calls per day about lockouts from tenants - all of a sudden their locks are changed, doors off the hinges," he said.
According to data from MTO, almost 600 people across Chicago have filed reports with the agency about being bullied out of their homes since the pandemic began in March of 2020.
The agency said the complaints range from lockouts, taking off a door or locks, turned off utilities and violent threats.
Chicago's 6th Ward on the South Side had the most complaints with 31. The 22nd Ward on the West Side had 30 complaints.
"The landlords are just harassing, calling up tenants all the time. Larger landlords are actually filing breach of contract issues with tenants," Bartlett said.
He added that it's essential that tenants know their legal rights and encourages landlords and renters to work together to resolve problems.
"It's a hard time for both landlords and tenants and good communication can make that go smoother," he said. "Put things in writing when you can."
Unfortunately, that didn't work for Stokes, who is now living in a motel and is struggling to save enough money for another security deposit.
Catholic Charities is working to assist her.
"I just want to be strong, I just want to get through this," she said.
Because the eviction process is temporarily halted, tenants' rights organizations said landlords are suing renters for breach-of-contract. Those organizations also say they're struggling with how to handle this new tactic.
The owner of 212 Lathrop Avenue illegally rented rooms in his single-family home. Upon inspection, the Village confirmed the illegal rentals and code violations. The Village quickly began working with the property owner to address the violations but did not require that anyone move out of the home. Without notice, the property owner required that the tenants move out. When a tenant informed the Village that the property owner did not offer alternative housing, the Village immediately connected the tenant with River Forest Township, Housing Forward and Thrive Counseling Center, which provides emergency housing assistance.