In 1986, the city passed an ordinance that set expectations and responsibilities for both residents and landlords. Even with this protection, stressful situations can still happen.
Most tenants are generally unaware of their rights and what they can do to advocate for themselves, said Philip DeVon, Eviction Prevention Specialist with the Metropolitan Tenants Organization (MTO) in Chicago.
A little less than half of Chicago is renting, about 43 percent, according to the most recent data from DePaul’s Institute for Housing Studies. The Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance (RLTO) outlines protections and responsibilities for both sides, so there’s a large part of the city that could benefit from learning the more. If a tenant doesn’t get a copy of it when they sign a lease, then they can terminate the agreement based on that omission, said DeVon.
The ordinance covers most housing, except for renters who might be in owner-occupied condos, co-ops, and buildings with six units or less. However, this doesn’t mean those tenants aren’t safeguarded—a lease agreement will offer many of the same protections.
No one wants to be deciphering legal language while frantically trying to figure out what a landlord can or can’t do. With the help of MTO, these are the red flags and basic rights tenants need to know about.
1. Apartments with security deposits are getting harder to find.
More frequently landlords will require a move-in fee, which can get up to a few hundred dollars. Unlike a security deposit, it doesn’t get returned to the tenant. If a landlord asks for a security deposit, they must provide a receipt, keep it in an interest-bearing account, and pay interest set by the city comptroller. If they don’t follow the letter of the law, they could get penalized so that’s why move-in fees are becoming more common, said DeVon. However, if a move-in fee is quite hefty and would be about the same as a security deposit but isn’t being treated like one—give the renters’ rights hotline a call, said DeVon. Something probably isn’t right.
2. Get everything in writing.
If you want a repair, which is within your right as a renter, it’s best not to withhold your rent. A better way to get things done is to use the repair and deduct method. A renter is allowed to hire a professional to make repairs and deduct the amount from their rent with proper notice. A letter with specific language citing the RLTO must be given to the landlord with 14 days notice, said DeVon. The repairs cannot exceed rent either, for more information review tenant self-help remedies on LCBH.
Documentation is also important when looking for a new apartment and signing a lease. Many times a broker will agree to things while showing the apartment, like replacing carpet or painting walls. “Get them to write those things down, even if it’s on a napkin and you both initial it, so that they follow through,” said DeVon.
3. Your landlord is responsible for fixing heat problems.
However, this doesn’t cover issues with tenants not paying a heating bill or the utility company turning off heat. Landlords must follow the city’s heat ordinance, which requires them to act fast if a tenant’s radiator breaks down.
From September 15 to June 1, average temperatures in a residence must be 68 degrees during the day and 63 degrees at night. Landlords should respond almost immediately if your heat goes out in winter. Call 311 to get help with relocation to a warm place or to report a landlord who can’t or won’t fix the heating problem within 24 hours. Landlords who fail to provide heat could be fined $500 per day by the city.
4. Lockouts are illegal and landlords can’t evict tenants.
Only a judge can order an eviction. If you ever find that your locks have been changed or your possessions were moved out—call the police and report that your landlord is acting illegally. Landlords can’t force you to move out by cutting off essential services like water or electricity either. If the courts do rule that an eviction is lawful, a sheriff is the only person authorized to remove your belongings from the unit. In this extreme situation, it’s best to get legal advice right away and notify the authorities about what your landlord is doing.
5. A 5-day notice is a warning—not an eviction.
If you’re late on rent, a landlord or property manager might issue a 5- or 10-day written notice. These notices do not mean an eviction is on the way, essentially it is a way of making them aware of the problem and giving them an opportunity to fix it. Once a landlord accepts late rent, there is no longer a risk of eviction. A landlord can terminate a rental agreement and begin the eviction process, which could take months, if the tenant fails to pay after the notices have been sent.
Landlords are allowed to charge late fees if tenants don’t pay on the first of the month and another payment date hasn’t been set in writing. Keep copies of everything your landlord sends and get advice if you have questions, DeVon said.
6. Chicago is one of the top cities for bed bug infestations.
In the past, it was such a big problem that the city passed an ordinance in 2013 to help address the frequent infestations. Landlords are required to notify the city if a unit has bed bugs and comply with clean-up procedure. They must treat the affected apartment and the units above, below, and adjacent. Tenants shouldn’t be charged by the landlords for any bed bug infestation care, but it does happen, according to DeVon.
7. Landlords are required to provide recycling services.
Since 1995, recycling has been mandatory for buildings and apartments (although the recycling rate for most of the city is abysmal). In 2017, the ordinance was updated which introduced steep fines for landlords and building owners that weren’t providing a recycling service for tenants. It also included new rules about what materials can be recycled and a stricter policy about how they should be sorted.
The city provides bi-weekly recycling collection for homes with four units or less, but larger buildings must supply those services on their own. If a landlord or property owner isn’t following the law, the Department of Streets and Sanitation will issue a 30-day warning and after that start with a first offense fine between $500 to $1,000 that could climb to $5,000 if there’s no action taken for the violation within a year.
8. Tenants in foreclosed buildings have options.
It’s common to find homeowners in Chicago who rent out their garden unit in a two-flat. In these mom-and-pop operations, sometimes tenants find out the building they’re living in is facing foreclosure because the owners haven’t paid their mortgage. To protect these renters from this crisis, the city enacted a Keep Chicago Renting Ordinance. The new owners of a foreclosed rental property must provide a lease renewal or extension, or pay $10,600 in relocation assistance. Many tenants aren’t aware of the ordinance, said DeVon, so when the bank knocks on their door it doesn’t feel like they have any other choice but to leave.
9. Your landlord has to help find a sublease.
There are many reasons someone may want to move before their lease is up—and your landlord can help you to look for someone to fill a sublease. Usually, this means listing the apartment on their property management website or a third-party listing website. They must make a “good faith effort” to find a replacement, and there is a reasonable subtenant they must accept without charging additional fees. However, the original tenant is still responsible for the rest of the lease no replacement is found, plus the cost of the landlord’s advertising.
10. Retaliation is illegal.
No landlord or property manager should have a problem with tenants asserting rights in a reasonable manner. Asking for a repair or complaining about a building code violation should never result in increased rent, eviction or shut off utilities—all those are considered measures of retaliation. If you’re ever in a questionable situation, give the MTO hotline a ring. Volunteers take about 10,000 calls per year and can provide expert advice on what to do next.
This article was originally published in 2013 and was rewritten to reflect the latest information.