Families in Little Village face utility disconnections as they wait for financial relief


By the time Patricia Vazquez was approved for funds through the Chicago Emergency Rental Assistance Program, she was struggling to keep her utilities in her Little Village apartment.

Vazquez, a single mother of two, said gas to her apartment was cut because she owed about $ 1,400. She had sold clothes and jewelry to make a payment to keep her electricity, and she was six months behind on the rent.

“Sometimes I say, I can’t anymore, what am I going to do,” Vazquez said in Spanish. “But I see my sons and I continue. ”

The program is the third round of rent assistance the city administered during the coronavirus pandemic that comes from federal relief funds. In June, residents across town requested this round of funds, which includes up to 15 months of rent assistance and financial assistance to pay utility bills. Nearly two months after filing the claims, Little Village housing advocates said many, like Vazquez, were eagerly awaiting the money.

Through Únete La Villita – a community organization – Vazquez received an email on July 23 telling her that she had been approved for the program. But by then, the gas in his apartment had been disconnected and it would take about a week of phone calls before the utility was reconnected.

Simone Alexander, who is part of Únete La Villita, said the group heard from other families struggling to keep basic utilities in their homes while awaiting funds from the city. The group worked with local aldermanic offices and other organizations to keep tenants in their homes.

The city’s housing department, which oversees the emergency housing assistance program, said it was “processing requests as quickly as possible,” department spokeswoman Eugenia Orr said in a report. -mail. The department has started releasing funds and expects to approve 8,000 to 9,000 applications in this latest round, Orr said.

The Housing Department plans to open another round of rent subsidies in the fall, Orr said.

The need for funds comes as the moratoriums on evictions end in Illinois and across the country. Beginning August 1, Illinois landlords can file eviction requests for tenants in arrears with rent, although eviction orders are not enforced until August 31.

Since the annual winter moratorium on utility disconnections ended on March 31, companies have been able to continue to disconnect, according to an earlier press release from Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office.

Although Únete La Villita received an email stating that Vazquez had been approved to receive funds, Alexander said it was not clear when exactly all funds would be released to help pay off rent and utilities. suffering public.

Vazquez said she and her sons lived without gas by using an electric stove to cook and taking showers without hot water.

Patricia Vazquez says her gas was cut off when she fell behind on payments.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

A letter the family received on July 19 said the gas was being used without an active account and would be disconnected. Vazquez said she was told she had to pay whatever she owed before her account could be reconnected.

Vazquez said she felt more in debt than ever. She bounced around different factory jobs without being able to land a stable one during the pandemic. And after her son developed medical problems, she had to stay home during the day.

“God willing, help will come and everything will work out,” Vazquez said before his gas was restored.

In a statement, People‘s Gas said the company offers its customers longer and more flexible payment plans that include a 10% down payment.

“As the conditions surrounding COVID-19 continue to change, we remain committed to providing the safe and reliable energy our customers depend on,” the company said in the statement. “We have provided additional benefits to help customers facing economic hardship due to the pandemic, including $ 18 million bill payment assistance.”

People’s Gas had not received funds from the city to cover unpaid customers’ bills on Saturday.

Tom Dominguez, a spokesperson for ComEd, said the company has tried to identify customers who could benefit from state and city-run assistance programs. The company has sent letters to customers eligible for the city’s emergency rental assistance program and has also attempted to refer customers to other assistance grants or extended payment plans, said Dominguez.

Last fall, the number of ComEd customers signed up for payment plans increased 98%, Dominguez said.

Another woman from Little Village said her power was cut days before housing advocates with Únete received an email stating that her request had been approved for emergency rent assistance.

The 32-year-old woman, who asked not to be named, said her electricity was cut off for about a week before receiving help from community organizations who helped her pay off her account balance. She spent part of that week with a relative seeking refuge from the summer temperatures while taking her daughter to a park to cool off.

The housing department eventually sent funds to ComEd to cover the woman’s account as well, Alexander said.

She said she felt elated when her power was restored, turning on the family’s air conditioning unit and charging their electronics.

The woman said her family, which includes two daughters and her partner, began to struggle after her partner lost her job at the factory shortly after the coronavirus pandemic caused a shutdown across the country. ‘State. Since then he has worked in construction when he could or taken odd jobs with his neighbors, she said.

“Thank God many people have been put in our way to help us and fight for our rights,” she said.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.

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