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COMMENTARY: Every tenant deserves safe, decent housing

by Susana Sandoval Vargas | January 24, 2023 at 3:00 a.m.

Last year, many states ended pandemic-era assistance programs including programs protecting tenants, leaving renters facing an uncertain future.

Latinos, who were among the hardest hit by COVID-19, are sure to be disproportionately affected by the affordable housing shortage. That is because many Latinos live in urban areas where rents continue to rise and safe, affordable housing stock is low. Immigrant renters are particularly vulnerable to dealing with unscrupulous landlords who will seek to weaponize their tenants' perceived immigration status to impose unlawful rent hikes or evictions.

Fears that immigrants may face increased exploitation are not misplaced. Consider the case of Jose E. Zavala-Padilla, a Chicago-area resident who lost nearly everything in 2020 following a rent dispute with his landlord.

In a 2021 lawsuit filed in state court, Zavala-Padilla said immigration officials detained him for nearly a month because his landlord grew angry after he raised concerns over the condition of the $600-a-month basement unit he rented. Zavala-Padilla asked the landlord to repair a leak that was making the unit uninhabitable. When the landlord refused, Zavala-Padilla made the repairs himself. The next month, he paid his rent a few days late and deducted the cost of the repairs. His landlord demanded the full amount and threatened to report Zavala-Padilla to immigration officials, the suit said. He agreed to move out before month's end, but his landlord retaliated by locking him out of the unit and then calling immigration officials.

Fortunately, Zavala-Padilla lives in a state with an anti-discrimination law that provides robust protections for immigrant tenants. A 2019 law, the Illinois Immigration Tenant Protection Act, bans landlords from harassing, intimidating or threatening to disclose a tenant's perceived immigration status. The ITPA allows tenants like Zavala-Padilla to sue landlords who violate the ITPA and recover damages. But more importantly, it sends a message to these landlords that they will have to pay for their unlawful behavior.

With help from Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, Zavala-Padilla became one of the first people in Illinois to use the ITPA's protections to sue his landlord. The case is ongoing, but since then, MALDEF has filed a similar case on behalf of a couple whose landlord threatened to report them to immigration authorities over a rent dispute.

Zavala's case should be a reminder to landlords who may attempt to skirt the law that they could face consequences. And it may also be a source of hope for tenants who may not be aware of the 3-year-old law's protections and may fear speaking out about poor housing conditions. Everyone deserves to have safe and affordable housing to call home, regardless of their immigration status.

Untold numbers of tenants struggle to deal with abusive landlords who act with impunity, believing housing protections do not apply to immigrants. These tenants fear exercising their rights could have unintended consequences, like being separated from their family. They are often unjustly faced with having to choose between asserting their right to safe housing and keeping their families together.

The problem is exacerbated by the dearth of states that explicitly address the plight of immigrant renters.

As of last year, Illinois, California and New York are a few states to explicitly recognize more must be done to ensure every tenant, regardless of immigration status, is entitled to safe and fair housing.

Some states with large immigrant communities are considering similar measures or have a patchwork of laws that fail to provide uniform protections. For example, New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination bars discrimination against renters, but it does not include immigration status as a protected class.

Immigrants are an integral part of the fabric of this country. A person's basic right to decent and safe housing should not be a fight in 2023, yet stories such as Zavala-Padilla's are all too common. While Illinois is a leader in this fight, the rest of the country must step up to protect immigrants who play such an important role in keeping this country's economy functioning.

Susana Sandoval Vargas is a staff attorney at MALDEF's Midwest regional office in Chicago.

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