CHICAGO - It first appeared in patches - dark and spotty.
Then with each rainfall, it started to spread across the ceiling, taking on a life of its own.
Mary Williams said that when her landlord neglected to fix her leaking roof and clean up the mold in her bedroom, she stopped paying rent.
"I kept telling them, and they didn't care," Williams said. "In my mind, I was saying they'd have to take me to court. Once they take me to court, I'm going to go to the court and show them my living conditions because they won't come to fix the problem."
After the landlord filed a complaint to have Williams, a 52-year-old Chicago Public Schools Safe Passage worker, evicted, the two parties settled, allowing her to move out of the South Chicago apartment next month without having to pay the roughly $5,000 she withheld in rent.
In African American neighborhoods like Williams' South Chicago, landlords file for evictions at a substantially higher rate than in other parts of the city, according to a new report from the Lawyers' Committee for Better Housing, a local housing advocacy organization that reviewed nearly 300,000 Cook County eviction court records for 2010 through 2017. In 2017, landlords in majority-African American neighborhoods filed for evictions four times more often than in white neighborhoods, the report found.
"This is not acceptable," said Randall Leurquin of the Lawyers' Committee, who analyzed the data for the report.
"We have a requirement to affirmatively further fair housing, and that's just not about obtaining a house, it's also about maintaining a house," he said.
But seeking an eviction is often the last recourse for landlords after tenants fail to pay rent because filing an eviction case is a costly process for landlords, according to property managers and attorneys who represent landlords. For example, Chicago ordinance keeps landlords from recovering attorney's fees in eviction cases.
"The idea that landlords who go to these communities, rebuild these properties and, in most cases, provide good housing would venture on a money-wasting and -losing process by filing disproportionately against communities of color is so nonsensical it boggles my mind," said Michael Griffin, attorney at Sanford Kahn, a Chicago-based law firm that files thousands of eviction cases every year.
Fair housing advocates said the racial disparity in eviction filings is linked to poverty, instability and other historical racial dynamics that warrant further exploration.
Peter Rosenblatt, an associate sociology professor at Loyola University Chicago, said the large disparity between minority and majority-white neighborhoods isn't likely the result of widespread intentional discrimination by landlords but rather comes from structural racism, which he defined as the historical and contemporary reinforcement of inequality along racial lines.
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One contributing factor, Rosenblatt said, could be the high proportion of African Americans and Hispanic renters who pay more than 30% of their incomes for housing, the maximum level recommended as affordable by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In Chicago, about two-thirds of African American renters and more than half of Latino renters pay above that threshold, compared with only 40% of white renters, he said.
Having to pay that much for housing "can lead to evictions because there's less wiggle room when other expenses come up," Rosenblatt said.
"But the reason I say look at structural racism because it's still the question of how do we get to the point to where there are more African American and Latinx renters being cost-burdened compared to white renters?" said Rosenblatt, using the gender-neutral term for Latinos.
In their report, the Lawyers' Committee pointed out that in the cases they examined, 79% of landlords were able to hire attorneys to represent themselves in court, while only 11% of tenants had lawyers. Tenant advocates say that imbalance creates an uneven playing field for tenants who already are on the brink of homelessness.
Tenant rights advocates describe the eviction court process as too fast and convoluted, which can easily overwhelm tenants trying to defend themselves.
On a recent Friday morning, tenants and lawyers paced the halls on the 14th floor of the Daley Center, bouncing from door to door and checking the bulletins posted outside each courtroom listing each day's cases. Just a few courtrooms on the 13th and 14th floors handle most eviction cases in Chicago.
A little before 9, the courtroom doors had yet to open. Cases weren't scheduled to begin until 9:30 a.m.
When the doors opened, lawyers and defendants filed into one of the courtrooms. Inside, the line swelled as people waited to check in with the clerk.
The clerk repeatedly told defendants to get a case number from the list.
Tenants piled into the benches, awaiting their fate. Attorneys moseyed into the courtroom carrying documents and manila folders. Most of them, relaxed, wore dress shirts and suit jackets. Some defendants dressed in business casual attire, while others wore jeans and T-shirts.
When the judge entered the courtroom, the proceedings began. The judge moved through the cases at a rapid pace, most times in a matter of seconds.
Here in court, the landlords' attorneys usually meet the defendant for the first time, oftentimes trying to negotiate a settlement.
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Williams was among those who made their way up to the 14th floor that day, with pictures of the mold and discolored ceiling in her bedroom. She was ready to make her case to the judge.
But she didn't understand the process. When she was called to the bench, Williams' attempt to show her photos was quickly rebuffed by the judge, who informed her she could not present any evidence until a trial. And a trial date couldn't be set until the following week.
Williams said she declined to go to trial because she couldn't afford to take another day off work.
"I think tenants look at eviction court as being something like Judge Judy or how one of those television courtroom dramas are," said John Bartlett, executive director of Metropolitan Tenants Organization executive director. "And that's just not the case."
Advocates described the eviction court process as too fast but also convoluted, often overwhelming tenants.
Calls for more legal representation undermine the "exceptionally good" job the judges do parsing and adjudicating eviction cases fairly, said Griffin, the eviction attorney.
"Tenants get a say," he said. "They get a fair shake."
However, Griffin said, small "mom and pop" landlords can be left struggling to pay their expenses when tenants fail to pay their rent.
"You can't discount the number of small-time landlords who are working every day at regular jobs and who are renting out trying to make their mortgage payment," Griffin said. "And when their tenants don't pay, it's a real hardship to them."
But the Lawyers' Committee report found it's tenants who are more likely to lose in court. Without attorneys, tenants avoided an eviction order 38% of the time; with private attorneys, 50% of the time; and with legal aid attorneys, 78% of the time.
Bartlett said having legal representation is indispensable for tenants fighting eviction.
"They don't know what the laws are so they don't know how to present their case in a way that a judge might actually know what they're saying and make a determination based on the law," Bartlett said.
Williams said she thought it was unfair to keep paying rent while the landlord failed to provide a livable apartment.
One recent evening, the brown marks from where the water seeped through the roof and leaked onto her mattress were still visible. She keeps the window in the bedroom ajar, relying on the wind to combat the stench of the mold.
She hasn't slept in her bedroom in almost a year. The living room is her new bedroom.
Williams slept on a pallet on the floor before buying an air mattress a week ago.
A thin bedsheet is spread across her air mattress with two pillows on top. There's no need for a blanket. The air mattress is positioned next to the baseboard heater in her living room, which keeps her plenty warm.
The past year has been a blur for Williams as she tried to balance her work schedule and deal with a leaky roof and mold. She got caught up in a legal system that she admittedly does not understand.
And now she faces a hurdle that many other Chicagoans are confronted with - preparing to pack her bags, searching for another place to live.
She has one month to find a new apartment. But that also means she has one month before she moves into a place she hopes will be mold-free.
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