BERNSTEIN, ESQ., ON CHICAGO TENANTS' RIGHTS
By: Paul Bernstein, Attorney At Law
© Paul Bernstein, Esq. 1998, All Rights Reserved
Chapter 19: TENANTS' "RENT-REDUCTION" AND OTHER RIGHTS
As noted previously, the City of Chicago has given tenants of residential apartments in the City of Chicago (with the largest exception being six-flats or smaller buildings that are owner-occupied being exempt) very substantial rights when dealing with their landlords.
In the very first sentence of the Chicago Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance (the RLTO), the City Council stated that the RLTO was to be
"liberally construed and applied to promote its purposes and policies" (Section 5-12-010.)
In the very next sentence, the RLTO goes on to say:
"It is the purpose of this chapter and the policy of the city, in order to protect and promote the public health, safety and welfare of its citizens, to establish the rights and obligations of the landlord and the tenant in the rental of dwelling units, and to encourage the landlord and the tenant to maintain and improve the quality of housing."
Section 5-12-070 of the RLTO states that:
"The landlord shall maintain the premises in compliance with all applicable provisions of the municipal code and shall promptly make any and all repairs necessary to fulfill this obligation."
The RLTO gives the tenant certain remedies under Section 5-12-110, if there has been "material noncompliance with Section 5-12-070". That section goes on to list 27 un-numbered and un-lettered circumstances that constitute material noncompliance, including but not limited to the following:
Failure to provide smoke detectors....or fire extinguishers.
Failure to provide and maintain in good working order a flush water closet, lavatory basin, bathtub or shower, or kitchen sink.
Failure to maintain heating facilities or gas-fired appliances in compliance with the requirements of the municipal code.
Failure to provide heat or hot water in such amounts and at such levels and times as required by the municipal code.
Failure to provide adequate hall or stairway lighting.
Failure to exterminate insects, rodents or other pests.
It is strongly suggested that the reader obtain a copy of the RLTO from the City and become familiar with all 27 of the listed items.
Perhaps the strongest remedy available to a tenant by the RLTO, as noted previously, is the ability to withhold from the monthly rent an amount which reasonably reflects the reduced value of the premises due to the material noncompliance by the landlord. In order to be able to pay reduced rent, the landlord must be given fourteen full days after the receipt of written notice during which the landlord may effect those repairs. Based on current law, it is best for the tenant to give the 14-day notice well before the tenth day of the month, so that the 14-days will end before the end of the month in which the demand for repairs and the giving of 14-days is received by the landlord. Then, if the landlord has not complied by making the needed and requested repairs, the tenant may then begin to pay reduced rent on the first of the following month.
Because the payment of reduced rent generally makes landlords angry, you are strongly urged to consult with a community-based organization and an attorney before exercising these rights under the RLTO.
Another section of the RLTO gives tenants strong protection if an angry landlord decides to evict the tenant in the face of good faith efforts by the tenant to cause the landlord to make repairs to the landlord's building. Section 5-12-150 prohibits the landlord from retaliatory conduct. This section states:
"It is declared to be against public policy of the City of Chicago for a landlord to take retaliatory action against a tenant, except for violation of a rental agreement or violation of a law or ordinance. A landlord may not knowingly terminate a tenancy, increase rent, decrease services, bring or threaten to bring a lawsuit against a tenant for possession or refuse to renew a lease or tenancy because the tenant has in good faith:
(a) Complained of code violations applicable to the premises to a competent governmental agency, elected representative or public official charged with responsibility for enforcement of a building, housing, health or similar code; or
(b) Complained of a building, housing, health or similar code violation or an illegal landlord practice to a community organization or the news media; or
(c) Sought the assistance of a community organization or the new media to remedy a code violation or illegal landlord practice; or
(d) Requested the landlord to make repairs to the premises as required by a building code, health ordinance, other regulation, or the residential rental agreement; or
(e) Becomes a member of a tenant's union or similar organization; or
(f) Testified in any court or administrative proceeding concerning the condition of the premises; or
(g) Exercised any right or remedy provided by law."
The RLTO goes on to provide that if the landlord acts in violation of this section, then the tenant has a defense in any retaliatory eviction action against him for possession and is entitled to certain remedies, including: recovery of possession or terminate the rental agreement, and
"in either case, recover an amount equal to not more than two months' rent or twice the damages sustained by him, whichever is greater, and reasonable attorney's fees."
Tips for Tenants
If you have the courage to differ with your landlord and if you follow the RLTO, it would seem reasonable that you would take several of the actions, (a) to (g) noted in Section 5-12-150.
Thus, if you are making a written 14-day demand for repairs, why not send copies to your Alderman, to the Building Department of The City of Chicago and to your community-based organization? If conditions are severe enough, you should also contact the press. In order to help your community-based organization help you, join a tenants' union or the community based organization. And, if the City asks you to testify in Court, then do your duty as a concerned citizen and take the time to do so.
If you follow the requirements of the RLTO and exercise your rights as provided for in the Ordinance, then you should be on solid ground when either you take your landlord to court or your landlord tries to take you to the eviction court. In two cases I recently handled in both the trial and appellate courts, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed orders of eviction entered by the trial judge and, in strong language confirmed the above quoted sections of the RLTO and reaffirmed the protections afforded tenants in Chicago thereby.
Keep in mind, as noted in previous chapters, that there are no guarantees in life. The eviction courts in Chicago are very busy courtrooms and judges often have little time to completely hear any one case, although they try to do so. As always, I strongly urge you to get a lawyer to represent you and if the lawyer is not that familiar with the ordinance, show the lawyer the protections you have under the RLTO and how Section 5-12-180 provides for the payment of the tenant's attorney's fees by the landlord if the tenant prevails. A lawyer will act as your protector and champion and guide you through the procedural aspects of a trial.
A final word of caution. A judge might take the position that you can't expect perfection if you are living in a lower-income residential apartment unit and that therefore some discomforts are not to be unexpected. The problem, in my opinion, with such a position is that the RLTO requires the landlord, under section 5-12-070, to maintain the premises in compliance with all applicable provisions of the municipal code and to promptly make the repairs necessary to fulfill this obligation. Judges are bound by their oath to follow the law and the RLTO is the law in Chicago. Accordingly, as long as your apartment unit is covered by the RLTO, the landlord must comply with the Chicago Municipal Code.
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