On Monday morning, the young Latina and husband approached the bench in Cook County Eviction Court, taking their place by the sign marked "Plaintiff." A few feet away was a scruffy, string bean of an even younger man, an Iraq War vet, standing before the "Defendant" marker.
"What's going on here?" said a semi-incredulous Judge Diane Shelley, looking at the woman. "You're filing against your brother?!"
Indeed, sister is trying to evict brother from a house she owns on Chicago's Northwest Side; a home once in the name of her parents, before it was given to the brother and, when he went to war, to the sister. But Shelley instantly realized that the woman has a second pending proceeding: trying to evict the parents from the same house for similar non-payment of rent.
"You believe in tough love!" said Shelley, slightly raising her eyebrows and shaking her head.
Amid the more academic debate over President Obama's Supreme Court nomination, there's a melancholy reality check, and street-level window onto harsh times, at what's formally known as Forcible Entry and Detainer Court in Cook County, the nation's largest unified court system.
There's no debate here over affirmative action, abortion, legislative redistricting, or whether a Latina judge of a certain pedigree can reach smarter conclusions than white males. There's no inspiration for cable television duels, like those over Sonia Sotomayor. There are only the quotidian matters of mostly little people in trouble, with a distinctly primal element at stake: the roof over their heads.
It's an assembly line of pathos unknown to the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices, who've never been trial judges of this sort and live in a comparatively rarified sanctum where they need not look a litigant in the eye each day, change that person's circumstances in a heartbeat and must sleep with the consequences. If this is mixed martial arts, the Supreme Court is lawn bowling or badminton (with America's longest summer vacation).
There are landlords trying to extract rent from poor residential tenants, who tend to represent themselves. There are upscale condo residents who've lost jobs, can't make ends meet and are being shown the door by the condo board. There are small business owners with fewer customers and now under the gun.
There are public housing tenants given the boot and, in a city of jam-packed shelter and scant affordable housing alternatives amid unceasing gentrification, forced to mull leaving the only town they know and heading to faraway, unknown places like Rockford or Elgin. I saw one retiree, an Eastern European immigrant with a sick wife, stunned upon realizing that the end was imminent and they'd now have to leave their government housing and go somewhere else.
Those found by the "Defendant/Tenant" in Judge Joan Powell's court (or sometimes in the conference room she must use at times, given a space shortage) have recently included teachers, a mother-son Subway restaurant franchisee, the operator of a day care center, bridle shop proprietors and car dealers, many plainly embarrassed to be there and scared of what may come.
There are tenants who stand before Powell's "Defendant-Tenant" sign and bring bags of cockroaches, dead mice, feces and asbestos, to make a case for their victimization. Some bring small children, to underscore the traumatic ripple effect of being dispatched to, well, nobody really knows. Some cry when a judge, even if reluctantly, orders them to move.
And there are the scammers and their victims, as well as the tenants who game the system, deceive and stall. Some tenants know full well that the county sheriff is backlogged two to three months in carrying out evictions when necessary, meaning landlords essentially subsidize them as they delay.
Judge Leonard Murray, a tall and elegant man who was once an election lawyer, catches one defendant bending the truth when she challenges a landlord's claim that the landlord served an eviction notice on her. New technology undermines her via a retained text message to the landlord from her son. "That's a lie, that's a lie!" she responds, proceeding to seamlessly deny that she even owes the disputed $2,200 in back rent.
"I need a lawyer, I need a lawyer!" she defiantly announces after multiple court appearances. Murray tells her to pay the $2,300 and the landlord's court costs. Outside the court, I catch the tenant heading to the bathroom, on her cell, deriding the landlord to someone: "She's a bitch! I ain't payin' nothin'"
This is a pre-foreclosure world, where plaintiffs are generally not stereotypical, cold-blooded slumlords or insensitive banks but often harried, working stiffs trying to get their money and stay a step ahead of a bank by paying their mortgage. Watching the firm but compassionate Powell in action, one sees some landlords willing, even desirous, of having tenants stay and pay rent....if they somehow can pay. You see landlords both partial to tenants who've lost jobs or face sickness and yet unable to handle month after month of non-payment.
Foreclosure is in a different area of the system, with eleven courtrooms now devoted to that single topic because the county's foreclosure caseload soared by 11,000 last year, to more than 42,000 heard in the chancery division.
The lair of judges like Shelley, Powell, Murray and Sheldon Garber is where landlords and lenders seek evictions. And it's just as busy as chancery. Eviction filings in Cook County were around 50,000 last year, or up by 13,000 since 2005, according to Garber, boss of the division.
The distinctly magnanimous Garber, 70, needs a walker these days, given diabetes and kidney ailments and an amputated leg, all perhaps an inadvertent metaphor for the ills afflicting so many of the litigants he sees. Like all the judges I encountered, he's mildly desperate to strike some balance between the system's mandates and a desire not to ruin lives, especially in a world with precious few housing alternatives nearby.
It's a fluid world with its own, mostly depressing trends. For one, Garber sees more foreclosed properties that are multi-unit buildings, with the tenants not knowing what's going on and not named in the initial lawsuits. When ownership changes or the banks take over, the owners "come our way to evict them (tenants). That's increased dramatically. We never used to get these sorts of cases."
Second, there are predator lenders who target and screw the mostly uneducated (often elderly blacks, already behind on their mortgages, says Garber). The slimeballs sell the unwitting a bill of goods about helping them out, then go through a distinct fraud to get the deed on the property. End result: people lose their homes.
Indeed, mortgage fraud by the foreign-born has been a largely unreported phenomenon, according to John McCarron, a former longtime Chicago Tribune urban affairs writer and columnist who's kept abreast of the housing scene. One newsletter opus he crafted underscores the awful tension between rising evictions and declining rental units.
Russians, Serbians and others have bought crappy, multi-unit walk-ups in poor neighborhoods, like Chicago's Lawndale, not all that far from President Obama's Hyde Park home. They file with the county assessor for a condo conversion and get PIN numbers for each condo. They then get straw buyers with bogus appraisals to apply for mortgage loans. And, amazingly, these loans get approved.
In many cases, says McCarron, they've been approved by the most mainstream of banks. The condo converters disappear with the loan proceeds and, ultimately the lender forecloses. And the tenants are clueless that this has been taking its course, all the while paying rent to a "building manager."
A third trend spied by Garber, the chief of Eviction Court, and colleagues involves scammers renting what are actually foreclosed properties. They put up "For Rent" signs in a neighborhood, and then get a security deposit and one-month's rent for apartments in abandoned buildings. They give the unsuspecting tenant a key for the apartment (perhaps the scammer changed the locks) and aren't seen again.
It's a small reminder to the politically conservative pundits with whom I may faceoff on cable TV that, sorry, Fannie and Freddie aren't solely to blame for the housing mess. But even if the scammers' skullduggery is abating, the damage is done, as McCarron notes, with much of the urban redevelopment progress of the past two decades in Chicago simply undone.
For the judges here, these larger urban affairs and planning issues are ancillary to their professional mandate. Their courtrooms are packed for at least several hours a day and they must keep the trains moving. They're not social workers, and aren't supposed to dispense legal or housing counsel, but it's almost impossible to avoid same.
I saw Powell and others suggesting calls to HUD, to a shelter, to relatives or to some out-of-town housing agency. I saw them clearly agonizing in trying to be sensitive and heed the law. "They're people just like you and me, with three kids in school, and maybe they've just lost a job," Powell told me about so many of those who appear before her in trouble.
In some cases, of course, they're different. One defendant before her was $30,000 behind in back rent in his subsidized housing, with a daughter and her children illegally living with him, and so clearly paranoid that he let his formal certification for such housing lapse and refused to see that it was renewed. She continued his case but the die is cast.
Even losing litigants, and their attorneys, come away with a sense that Powell is being fair. One tenant, who hadn't paid her $1,375 in monthly rent since February, heard Powell bend by giving her three weeks to get out. She ambled away, in her frayed Chicago Bulls jacket, knowing it could have been worse.
"Ma'am, I have to balance your interests with those of the landlord," Shelley told one lady, many months delinquent in her rent, on Tuesday. "The owners are an elderly couple who need the money so that the bank doesn't foreclose on the property. Ma'am, I'd start packing up and talking to relatives about staying with them. Good luck to you."
In a whirlwind of activity, she's alternatively tough on a bank lawyer she finds "disingenuous," since he both wants his money and to evict a tenant pronto, and solicitous but unwavering toward a defendant, who is chattering nonstop out of apparent anxiety amid the realities of having lost a small business, dealing with a wife who lost her job and facing a judgment for possession.
And, yet, the law's the law and he's in the wrong.
"Sir, make sure you're out by the 16th," Shelley says in the quiet finale in her doleful courtroom. She adds a sentiment both pro forma and sincere.
"Good luck to you, sir. I hope you and your family make it through this difficult time."