During a press conference held Friday outside of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced the launch of a new $20 million COVID-19 rental assistance program. Preckwinkle said the Cook County Board of Commissioners approved the program at a meeting last week.

“In Cook County alone, there’s a 16 percent unemployment rate and in the African American community that’s usually double whatever the going rate is,” Preckwinkle said. “Scared renters are facing eviction when [Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County Timothy C. Evans’] moratorium expires in a few weeks.

“The number of people sheltered by homeless agencies continues to increase by 320 people per night and Congress seems nowhere near ready to approve continued unemployment benefits,” Preckwinkle said.

Preckwinkle said the rental assistance program, launched in partnership with the Housing Authority of Cook County, is part of a series of new initiatives the county will launch in the coming weeks to distribute $82 million in federal CARES Act funding.

Cook County officials said the rental assistance program is for any suburban Cook County resident who rents, has experienced financial hardship and makes below the 80th percentile of Area Median Income.

For example, for a 1-person household, the AMI in the Chicago area is $51,000. For 2-person, 3-person and 4-person households, AMI is $58,250, $65,550 and $72,800, respectively.

Residents also have to have been past-due on rental payments starting March 27 and they cannot be recipients of other rental assistance programs.

Richard Monocchio, the executive director of the Housing Authority of Cook County, said at Friday’s press conference that 25 percent of the rental assistance funds will be set-aside for renters in suburban Cook County areas that have been hardest hit by COVID-19, such as Maywood, Bellwood, Broadview and Melrose Park.

He said the program pays up to three months of overdue rent payments missed since March 27, with a maximum payment per family of up to $4,500. Monocchio said eligible applicants who live outside of the hardest-hit communities will be selected based on a randomized lottery system. The money will go directly to the landlord, Monocchio said.

The application period is from Aug. 10 to Aug. 18. Renters can apply online. For questions about the application, contact: eorenstein@thehacc.org. Interested applicants can also visit regional housing centers like the one in Oak Park to inquire about the rental program and other resources.

Athena Williams, executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, said during Friday’s press conference that the assistance is much needed during a time when demand for assistance is particularly high.

“In the month of July alone, we took phone calls from over 800 individuals requesting assistance for rental help, requesting assistance for mortgage help, requesting assistance for utility help,” Williams said.

Williams said the Housing Center has an office in Chicago’s Austin community, a satellite office at 411 Madison St. in Maywood and have been establishing pop-up locations throughout the greater West Side region.

“With this help from Cook County, we’re going to be able to help more people stay in their homes,” Williams said.

First District Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who represents much of Proviso Township, said he’s grateful for Preckwinkle and other politicians “for recognizing that this crisis requires government to act with all expediency” before comparing how the federal government handled similar crises in the past.

“What’s actually very striking, as we recognize that unemployment has reached Great Depression-era numbers, that when our country faced those very difficult times a generation ago, our government did everything it needed to do. Particularly when unemployment had reached 35 percent for white men. Our country called it a crisis. And from that crisis you had the GI Bill, white men had shovels before there was even anything to dig.

“I believe that was the right thing, but we’re faced with that crisis right now, particularly in Black and Brown communities,” Johnson said. “In Maywood, 25 percent of that village is unemployed — that’s a quarter of an entire village. And the frightening part is that in a couple of weeks, people will no longer have stability within something that is very basic and fundamental and that’s housing.”