Larry Wood, Director of LAF’s Housing Practice Group, shares the story of a chance encounter that ultimately kept an elderly man threatened with eviction in his home. Stories like this remind us why legal aid is so vital for Chicagoans living in poverty, and how a little bit of advocacy can go a long way.
A couple weeks ago, while I was in one of the city’s eviction courtrooms waiting for my case to be called, I watched a landlord’s attorney obtain orders for possession against a long line of unrepresented, low-income tenants, including one elderly man in a wheelchair who lost his subsidized housing. It was depressing.
Then I saw Jesse approach the bench. It took him a while because he’s 82 and he moves slowly, but he told the judge he needed time to get an attorney and the judge continued his case for a week. Jesse then left the courtroom. I followed him outside.
Jesse was a voucher-holder facing eviction from the mixed-income development where he had lived for more than fifteen years. According to his landlord, he owed almost $1,200 in rent for the period October 2017 through January 2018. “That’s wrong,” Jesse told me. “I have paid my rent every month since leaving Clarksdale, Mississippi and coming to Chicago in 1953!”
A couple days later Jesse sent me money order receipts showing that he had paid rent every month during the period at issue. He had even paid for February on time. I called the currency exchange where he had purchased the money orders and learned they’d all been cashed shortly after being purchased.
When I brought this to the attorney’s attention, he said the rent ledger showed that Jesse incurred his rental debt in 2014 and 2015 – not last year. He said his client had been trying to resolve this issue with Jesse for years, and would cut Jesse a break because of his age and dismiss the case in exchange for just the rent claimed. “He won’t have to reimburse my client,” the attorney said, “for its costs and fees.”
Jesse could not afford to give his landlord an additional $1,200 on his fixed and limited income. I told the attorney that Jesse would assert two defenses. First, the landlord’s unreasonable delay in collecting rent unfairly prejudiced Jesse, who no longer has receipts for rent payments he made more than three years ago. Second, the landlord waived his right to rent accrued during and before 2015 when he signed a new lease for the apartment in 2017.
Last week, the attorney called me and said that his client will dismiss the eviction action with prejudice and seal the court file.
It’s just one more success for LAF – for a client who had done nothing wrong, in a case he most certainly would not have won had we not been there, against someone taking advantage of him simply because he is poor. Jesse’s case is an exemplary illustration of the importance of LAF for people living in poverty.