Katrina Bilella – A Small Property Owner’s Nightmare Come True

Katrina Bilella never wanted to be the poster child for small property owners struggling with deadbeat tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic. But that is exactly what she became in the wake of the eviction moratorium, first enacted by Governor Pritzker in March, with no end in sight.

Katrina was already having difficulties with her tenants before the COVID-19 emergency hit. But once it did, her tenants smelled an opportunity, and decided to milk it for all it was worth. Like many small property owners, Katrina found herself caught in the cross-hairs of an eviction moratorium that guaranteed her tenants free housing while providing no protections or relief to her.

Katrina Bilella never wanted to be the poster child for small property owners struggling with deadbeat tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Happily for Katrina, her tenacity in the face of long odds, and her willingness to go public with her story, paid off. The tenants loaded up their BMW and moved out at the end of September, apparently succumbing to the pressure of the negative press and unwanted attention that Katrina’s advocacy brought. And while we celebrate Katrina’s success, we also acknowledge that too many other property owners remain trapped in this nightmare without end.

Make no mistake. Before it was all over, Katrina’s tenants were able to live rent-free for a good part of 2020, racking up $12,000 in unpaid rent, not including late fees, attorney’s fees (probably $3,000) and any repairs to the apartment that will be needed now that they are gone.

Happily for Katrina, her tenacity in the face of long odds, and her willingness to go public with her story, paid off.

In a fairer system, the responsibility of providing rent relief to the millions of tenants suddenly thrown out of work by a pandemic that was not their fault and that they could not have foreseen might have been shared by all members of society. In a fairer system, the government might have stepped in to provide meaningful rent relief to help tenants get through this unprecedented economic upheaval.

But Illinois has a different definition of “fair.” In Illinois, the government did what it always does – it shifted this responsibility squarely onto the shoulders of the people who own the housing. This was easier to do by scapegoating property owners as uncaring and deep-pocketed, a tired cliché that has been used before and will be used again.

In a fairer system, the government might have stepped in to provide meaningful rent relief to help tenants get through this unprecedented economic upheaval. But Illinois has a different definition of “fair.”

The problem is, most property owners are not uncaring. Most of them, particularly small owners, are not rich. Katrina is a prime example. She owned all of one rental unit and was just starting a career that had nothing to do with real estate.

But Katrina was exceptional in one very important way. Despite her young age and inexperience, Katrina decided not to suffer silently when the eviction moratorium began and the rent checks stopped coming. Katrina decided to go public – very public – with her story. Her bravery in doing so put a human face on a situation that most of the media and key politicians (we’re looking at you, Governor Pritzker) chose to ignore.

Her rationalization was – better to get rent from a so-so tenant than no rent at all. This was perhaps Katrina’s first hard-earned lesson in the rental business.

With that as an introduction, here is Katrina’s story as she described it to me in an interview in late August while she was still neck deep with tenants she could not evict, rent that she could not collect, and a mortgage that she still had to pay.

Katrina was both excited and optimistic about the future when she bought her first home three years ago – a beautiful, two-bedroom condominium in a renovated, vintage courtyard building in Logan Square. She fixed the unit up just the way she liked it and was thrilled with her building, her neighbors and her new life in the hip Northwest Side neighborhood. She told me she envisioned herself living there for many years.

But life had different plans for Katrina. Not long after she purchased the unit and settled in, Katrina was offered a new and better job in Denver. Both the job and the opportunity to live for a few years in Denver were too good to pass up. Fortunately for Katrina, her friend and roommate at the time was interested in staying in the unit and was able to pay close to market rent. With the rental arrangements made, Katrina moved west in September 2018.

The irony of her tenants using the state moratorium on evictions as an excuse for ceasing all rent payments while Katrina, a genuine a victim of the COVID-19 crisis, was getting absolutely no help or protection from the government, is hard to miss.

The friend turned out to be a good and reliable tenant, and the arrangement worked out well for about a year. The friend decided not to renew, and moved out in mid-summer 2019.

Like many first-time owners, Katrina was not experienced with marketing her unit and screening tenants. Finding a new tenant proved difficult after her former roommate moved out. After a couple months without rent, Katrina decided to loosen her standards to fill the unit. Her rationalization was – better to get rent from a so-so tenant than no rent at all. This was perhaps Katrina’s first hard-earned lesson in the rental business – she knows now that the opposite is true.

Right from the start, the new tenants proved to be difficult, making lots of demands for services, but always finding new and creative excuses for why rent was always late. Things got worse early in 2020. By the middle of March, the tenants had only made a partial payment of that months’ rent. She didn’t know it at the time, but that was the last rent she would ever see from them.

The rest of the story is as predictable as it is infuriating. Governor Pritzker announced his eviction moratorium early in the second half of March and has continued to extend it as the months have ticked by. Katrina’s tenants immediately realized they had been given a gift and, soon thereafter, stopped returning her calls. Despite repeated attempts, the tenants refused to talk to her as they dug in for the long haul.

Katrina was not willing to accept defeat without a fight.

The lease expiration in May did not change the equation. The tenants stayed put, continuing to enjoy the benefits of rent-free living.

To make matters worse, Katrina herself was downsized out of a job in June – unlike her tenants, a legitimate casualty of the COVID-19 emergency. Unable to pay her expensive apartment rent in Denver and her mortgage in Chicago, Katrina left Denver and moved to New York where she had family and friends who could provide her a place to live. She continues to look for work in New York – not an easy task when we are still in the middle of a recession and the pandemic rages on.

The irony of her tenants using the state moratorium on evictions as an excuse for ceasing all rent payments while Katrina, a genuine a victim of the COVID-19 crisis, was getting absolutely no help or protection from the government, is hard to miss. In some ways, the reality is even worse. Katrina was being deliberately harmed by the government, all in the name of protecting tenants who, in too many instances, don’t need or deserve the help.

But Katrina was not willing to accept defeat without a fight. Faced with what seemed to her an absurd situation, and despite everyone all around her telling her “there’s nothing you can do,” Katrina decided that there HAD to be something she could do.

“I never want to be a landlord again. If I somehow ever do end up being a landlord again I can guarantee you it will not be in Chicago.”

Her answer was to start researching the plight of other small property owners, and advocating for herself and for them. She did countless tv and newspaper interviews and was even interviewed by Scott Simon on Weekend Edition, a nationally syndicated broadcast from NPR. In all these media interviews, Katrina’s honesty and forthrightness about her plight made clear the hardship many property owners were suffering as a result of the eviction moratorium.

She also started a petition on Change.com, encouraging Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and Governor Pritzker to ease the moratorium restrictions. At last count, it has gathered close to 3,000 signatures. RPBG members are encouraged to read it and sign on.

Balancing job search and national spokeswoman for small property owners is not easy, but Katrina did not shy from the challenge. We all owe her a debt of gratitude for having the courage and the tenacity for going public with her story and for working so hard to let the media and politicians know that there are two sides to the tenant-property owner story.

All during this time, Katrina had to use up more and more of her limited savings to pay her mortgage. Even now that the tenants have left, the mortgage obligation continues, the apartment is empty and work will be required before it can be sold. At least now, with possession of the unit, an end to the bleeding is in sight.

We congratulate Katrina on her advocacy and success in regaining control of her property.

And yes, Katrina is done being a property owner. She intends to repair the unit, get it ready for sale, and be done with it once and for all. In a subsequent communication, Katrina wrote, “I never want to be a landlord again. If I somehow ever do end up being a landlord again I can guarantee you it will not be in Chicago.”

Of course, it’s true that many tenants have been impacted by COVID-19 and are at risk of eviction due to their inability to pay rent. It’s also true that the federal government has done too little to help these people in greatest need. And it’s downright shameful that Illinois has put the onus of this catastrophe on property owners, and property owners alone.

We congratulate Katrina on her advocacy and success in regaining control of her property. But we recognize that far too many other property owners are still carrying tenants who have long since stopped paying rent, and who only the Sheriff can remove.

In a best case scenario, that is unlikely to happen before the spring of 2021. In a worst case scenario, it could be much later in 2021 or even beyond. Evictions are never quick in Cook County. Throw in a gigantic backlog of cases and limited court dates during the pandemic and there’s no telling how long it might take to complete a legal eviction.

Of course, that all supposes that the moratorium gets lifted, something the Governor has shown no inclination that he will do anytime soon. In Chicago, in Cook County, and all across Illinois, property owners will continue to pay the price.