What Happens When a Sheriff Challenges an Eviction Order?

Millions of Americans risk losing their homes when back rent comes due in 2021. These two sheriffs, working decades apart, sought compassionate treatment for renters facing eviction.

By Emily Orr
An image from RetroReport

The Trump administration has ordered a moratorium on most evictions through the end of this year. But sooner or later back rent will be due, and with unemployment soaring because of the coronavirus pandemic, millions of people may be at risk for eviction in the coming months.

For decades, the task of eviction has fallen on law enforcement officials. Many sheriffs have expressed concern about removing vulnerable tenants, especially now, during the pandemic. Back in the 1970s, San Francisco Sheriff Richard Hongisto laid the groundwork for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who has transformed the eviction process in Chicago. Both sheriffs intentionally delayed evictions, standing up for the belief that renters facing the loss of their homes should be treated with compassion. In the case of Sheriff Dart, resistance during the 2008 housing crisis led to an innovative program that loops in support from social services.

“When I used to go out on evictions, I was appalled and sickened by what I'd see,” Sheriff Dart said. “If you physically went out to evict, your heart would be torn out. It was a process that clearly didn't need to be so thoughtless and traumatic, but that was the norm.”

The eviction process typically begins with a notice the landlord writes to a tenant with instructions to leave, usually as a result of nonpayment of rent. The landlord then initiates a judicial eviction lawsuit, filing court records that indicate a deadline. A hearing follows, ending with a ruling and — if the judge rules on the landlord's behalf, which is usually the case — a sheriff is ordered to carry out an eviction.

Tenants know that a sheriff's knock on the door means they must vacate the property and that their belongings will be removed. The tension of those last few moments are the opposite of the sense of security associated with home.

Here is a tale of two cities and two sheriffs, decades apart, who forged new paths to eviction enforcement.

The eviction battle at the International Hotel in the 1970s

Richard Hongisto was elected sheriff of the city and county of San Francisco in 1971. During his six-year tenure, he was ordered to remove a group of about 75 elderly Filipino and Chinese immigrants from the International Hotel, a residence hotel where some had been living for decades. The hotel had provided safe and affordable housing, but the landlord wanted to demolish the building and develop the property. The landlord and tenants fought in the courts for nine years, until a judge, a landlord himself, ruled that the evictions must proceed.

Sheriff Hongisto, a man of his times who wore a special badge with a peace sign in the middle, objected. He stood with the tenants and fought to allow them to remain in their homes. In 1976 he deliberately missed a court deadline to evict residents and was charged with contempt for refusing to carry out the eviction order. He served five days in jail.

Under pressure from the judge and city officials, Hongisto eventually capitulated, even taking a sledgehammer to a resident's door on the night of the eviction. Hundreds of police officers broke through a human barricade of protesters who had locked arms outside the building.

“I think it's certainly the most distasteful thing I've had to do since I've been in office,” Sheriff Hongisto said to reporters at the time.

Hongisto's resistance was a hallmark of his time as sheriff, one that distinguished him among the ranks of law enforcement. One biographer called him “unorthodox” and “the notable exception.” (He also allowed his deputies to have beards and long hair.)

Bringing social workers into eviction enforcement in Cook County

Decades after Hongisto stood up for tenants, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart refused to enforce court-ordered foreclosure evictions resulting from the 2008 housing crisis. As landlords failed to make mortgage payments, many rent-paying families in the Chicago area were being evicted from foreclosed buildings without notice. Critics argued that Sheriff Dart's decision to stop eviction was outside the scope of his office, but Sheriff Dart felt he could not facilitate unannounced evictions that he believed were “inherently wrong,” even if it meant risking contempt charges.

“I was outraged that banks and landlords at the time could be so nonchalant and perfunctory about handing me papers that required my office to throw people out of their homes when they had done nothing wrong,” Sheriff Dart said. “It wasn't right, it wasn't thoughtful, and the notion that I should have just said, oh well, it's too bad, and then put innocent people out on the street — No, I wasn't going to be part of that.”

Sheriff Dart's approach to circumventing forced, confrontational evictions is a social work model that emphasizes communication and compassion. Weeks in advance of scheduled evictions, a team from the Evictions Social Services Unit visits tenants to offer assistance, particularly to the elderly, people with mental illnesses and families with school-age children. Social workers connect tenants with agencies that offer transportation, food, emergency shelter, mental health and substance abuse programs, clothing and school placement.

From the first contact until the eviction date, social workers help tenants find affordable housing. Deputies are trained to handle evictions peacefully.

During the coronavirus pandemic, there has been an emphasis on making tenants aware of how to qualify for the federal moratorium and apply for Illinois emergency rental assistance programs. Sheriff Dart said that for the first time, his staff has received social service requests from landlords who have lost income and need assistance to provide for their own families. He's worried that without federal relief, millions of tenants as well as many landlords will face eviction come 2021.

“I cannot conceive how the federal government would not intervene here,” Sheriff Dart said. “We could be facing a massive disaster throughout the country.”

This article is part of Retro Report's “Hitting Home”, a multicity, multiplatform reporting project that examines the process and impact of evictions, providing historical context for the nation's growing lack of affordable, safe housing. Want to stay up to date on this reporting project? Follow Retro Report on Medium, subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.