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Chicago’s Bankruptcy Boom

ProPublica’s analysis of racial disparities in bankruptcy revealed a skyrocketing number of filings in Chicago’s black neighborhoods. But most of the cases will fall apart before the debts are wiped away.

This week we published a deep look at why bankruptcy frequently fails to provide relief to black Americans struggling with debt. The story focused on Memphis, Tennessee — the bankruptcy capital of the nation — where black debtors have for generations been funneled into Chapter 13, which usually requires five years of payments most have no chance of making.

Debt-laden consumers outside the South overwhelmingly file under Chapter 7, which wipes away most debts, our story and analysis shows.

But in recent years, there’s been one big geographic exception: Chicago.

In Northern Illinois, Chapter 13 Filing Rates Have Been Rising Steeply in Black Areas

Chapter 13 filings per 1,000 residents - black census tracts vs. white census tracts

Source: Department of Justice data, ProPublica analysis by Hannah Fresques

Because of a boom in Chapter 13 filings, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Illinois, which includes Chicago, had more consumer filings in 2015 than any other district in the country.

Almost exclusively fueling this rise are residents of the district’s black communities, where the rate of filings has doubled since 2009. This racial disparity isn’t unique to the Chicago area, but there’s hardly anywhere else in the country where the gap is quite so wide. Even controlling for income, the odds of a black debtor in the Northern District of Illinois choosing Chapter 13 instead of Chapter 7 were about four times as high as those of a white debtor. And, as we found nationally, black debtors were less likely to successfully complete their Chapter 13 plans and have their debts discharged.

Why this is happening can be traced to the sort of run-of-the-mill financial hit many Americans face: traffic-related tickets. In Chicago, the failure to pay such tickets can result in a suspended driver’s license or impounded car, crucial lifelines to many low-income families.

In our analysis, we note that the rise in Chapter 13 filings has mainly been driven by black, low-income debtors unable to pay tickets owed to the City of Chicago. By filing under Chapter 13, these people are trying to keep their cars or licenses. Chapter 13 stops seizures and suspensions as long as debtors can keep up payments, but the data shows that most can’t. We also found that the Semrad Law Firm, also known as DebtStoppers, played an outsized role. The firm’s clients are largely black and overwhelmingly file under Chapter 13. From 2012 through 2015, DebtStoppers accounted for about 40 percent of Chapter 13 filings by debtors who lived in mostly black areas.

Semrad did not respond to several requests for comment.

Although the attorney fee for a Chapter 13 in the district is a steep $4,000, debtors typically pay very little of that — anywhere from $0 to a few hundred dollars — up front. The rest is paid through the Chapter 13 payments over time. As we detailed in our story, this gives bankruptcy attorneys an incentive to file cases even when their low-income clients’ prospects for debt relief are poor.

You can read our story on Memphis, which clearly has implications for Chicago as well, here. Our data analysis both explores the racial disparities in bankruptcy on the national level and more locally in the Memphis and Chicago areas.

News applications developer Mike Tigas contributed to this story.

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Portrait of Paul Kiel

Paul Kiel

Paul Kiel covers business and consumer finance for ProPublica.

Portrait of Hannah Fresques

Hannah Fresques

Hannah Fresques is a data reporter at ProPublica.

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