Housing Activists Take Action: An Update


This update will provide useful information together with insights into issues that draw the attention of housing activists citywide. I recently took another look at the Chicago Landlords and Tenants Ordinance to see what it was meant to do, exactly.

Really, it is not often possible for those of us lacking specific training to penetrate the sometimes obscure pathways of professional jargon, or language that seems to make more of an effort to conceal information than to reveal it.

But by all means, go to the City of Chicago’s web site where you will find both the Chicago Landlords and Tenants Ordinance, as well as the summary, which you also should be able to locate on the back of every lease offered to you by any landlord in Chicago: http://www.cityofchicago.org/content/dam/city/depts/dcd/general/housing/RLTOEnglish020911.pdf

After focusing on the summary, I realized that I have been duped by unscrupulous landlords – either that, or there are a lot of landlords who are unaware of the facts about what is actually dictated or allowed by the municipal codes of this city.

I have had landlords charge me anywhere from $20 to as much as $50 for late fees when my monthly rental was less than $500, which was clearly in violation of civil laws. The municipal code to which I am referring [cf. Mun. Code ch.5-12-140(h)] states that I was to pay no more than $10 late fee under such circumstances.

One other thing which seems to be suggested by the summary of this city ordinance is that it would be to our advantage to photograph the condition of our apartment – using any device which indicates the date the picture was taken – at the time in which our deposits are placed into the landlord’s hands.

According to the summary, city codes lists at least five things referred to as “Tenant’s General Duties Under the Ordinance,” which include items such not damaging your unit and not disturbing other residents.

The photos will be proof in case you are accused of damaging your unit. I also think it’s a good idea to address any imperfections in the unit to the landlord at the time your deposit is given.

Also, it’s a good idea to take photos after the time repairs are made, always documenting the dates whenever possible. In such a calm and professional manner, we could remain a step ahead of the landlord for our own protection.

One large concern of local housing activists a year ago was related to the amendments put forth by Mayor Richard M. Daley to the Chicago Residential Landlords and Tenants Ordinance. This ordinance, which was passed back in 1986, extended new rights for both tenants and landlords.

Ald. David Orr originated the Chicago Residential Landlords and Tenants Ordinance and got it passed in 1986. Orr served as mayor for a brief interval after the sudden death of Harold Washington in 1987, and now serves as Cook County Clerk.

In the spring of 2010, a bunch of meetings were convened by the Building Committee of the Chicago City Council and later by a sub-committee pulled together by Ald. Helen Schiller (46) to work out details of an amendment put forth by the Mayor Daley meant to hold banks accountable for tenants’ security deposits in the case of foreclosures. Schiller was unavailable for comment, as of this writing.

On April 27, 2010, the Building Committee voted to pass the mayor’s amendment to the existing Residential Landlord and Tenants Ordinance without additional amendments suggested by Schiller and fellow Ald. Bernard Stone (50), who is also chairman of the Buildings Committee.

This represented a significant victory for tenants and activists, in that they were opposed to Stone’s amendment, which was put forth on behalf of the Chicagoland Apartment Association, whose membership primarily consists of landlords.

According to a statement forwarded to Residents’ Journal from the Metropolitan Tenants Organization and Cook County Clerk Orr’s office, they jointly rallied last April in support of the Mayor’s amendment compelling banks to be held responsible for security deposits in cases of foreclosures. John Bartlett of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization (MTO) said that members of the Building Committee listened to nearly three dozen testimonies that day but “were unable to reach a consensus.”

Bartlett said that Stone’s amendment would have compelled tenants to present their landlords with a written notice 14 days prior to taking any legal action against them for any violations of the ordinance so that they might correct them. Bartlett said, “Tenants might not be aware of their rights, or they could very well forget. Not only that, landlords are expected to know the laws related to their business and follow it.”

Bartlett further stated that while the MTO and their partners were against Stone’s amendment, they were fine with Helen Schiller’s proposal, which would have capped the penalty landlords would pay for miscalculation of interest. When this occurs, Schiller’s proposal would have the offending landlord recalculate the interest correctly and pay only a $50 fine for the mistake.

Virginia Hester, a tenant activist, listed some of the problems many tenants face in dealing with landlords: “There are many landlords not even living in the city of Chicago who actually live in other states or sometimes out of the country.

In running down landlords’ records in order to find out who the owner was and how to locate them, after some time I discovered there was an office you could go to at City Hall which held all this information. I would go to Room 1240 at 69 West Washington Street. I learned to start there first in tracking down landlords.

In the meantime, I had to learn to deal with pro se courts, where tenants are helped to get back from landlords or their managers any amount under $1,000. However, on one occasion, with the help of a lawyer, I managed to receive a full refund of my deposit plus something extra for damages. The court found that was caused by the new landlord taking over the property. The total amount I was able to receive came to $1,800, although, I expected more.”

In a subsequent interview, Hester added that not everything related to the city’s Residential Landlords and Tenants Ordinance was applicable to those tenants coming under guidelines for programs under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), such as tenants with Section 8 vouchers.

Right at the beginning of the summary of the Chicago Residential Landlords and Tenants Ordinance, it states what kinds of units are covered in general by the Ordinance and which units are not covered: This is good stuff. I recommend all renters and landlords to read and learn their rights and obligations.

After a few more meetings, the City Council voted. Stone’s motion was put forward and passed. Both Stone and Schiller got something. Tenants must submit a written statement 14 days before disputing the amount of interest or claiming there is a miscalculation by the landlord.

If he was found to give back the incorrect security deposit, the landlord must then pay the correct amount plus $50, or else explain how the interest was calculated and why it is the correct amount paid. Banks are to be held responsible for the return of security deposits to tenants in cases of foreclosures, as well as new owners, if properties are transferred.

Many details exist in the Chicago Residential Landlords and Tenants Ordinance, and I hope this article clarifies some points of interest regarding the continuing battles between local housing activists and landlords. These municipal codes affect all renters – and landlords – regardless of income and status.

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