Most residential tenants in Chicago are protected by the Chicago Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance (“RLTO”), which grants many rights and remedies to those who rent within the city. If you live in suburban Cook County, or one of the collar counties, click here to learn about your rights as a tenant.
The Chicago rental market is highly regulated; landlords must obey city ordinances, state law, building codes and federal law. Most relevant rights are provided by the RLTO, so that will be our focus here. This publication will first address the need for a lawyer and then move on to discuss your rights and remedies under the RLTO. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us.
Why should I consult a lawyer?
Before getting started with a discussion of substantive rights, I want to start off with an answer to a question I commonly receive. Tenants (and more commonly landlords) express a strong desire to prosecute or defend their own cases in an effort to avoid paying a lawyer. While it’s true that the services of a lawyer are never cheap for a landlord, they are often free for a tenant. Moreover, Bad landlords will almost always ignore demands by their tenants, even if the tenant cites the applicable law. Some landlords will even retaliate against a tenant when he makes a demand. Landlords take demands by lawyers more seriously.
Legal services are often free to the tenant. My firm offers a free initial one-hour consultation so you can sit down with an attorney and learn about your rights and remedies. Moreover, if a lawsuit is filed, and you win, attorney fees and court costs are almost always assessed to the landlord.
If you want to sit down with an attorney, click here. Otherwise, I hope the information below is helpful.
Table of Contents
Purpose of the RLTO
Properties covered by RLTO
Right to be free from unreasonable access
Right to have the property maintained
Right to a safe environment and essential services
Right to vacate if there is fire or other casualty damage
Right to fair treatment of security deposits
Right to know the identity of the landlord or agent
Right to notification of foreclosure action
Right to notification of conditions affecting habitability
Right to reasonable subleases
Right to a fair rental agreement
Right to be free from retaliation
Right to be free from lock-out
Right to a copy of the Summary of Ordinance
Remedies for violation
What is the Purpose of the RLTO?
The City of Chicago is densely populated and many citizens live in residential apartments. Chicago is concerned with protecting the health and welfare of its citizens, so it enacted a law to encourage landlords and tenants to improve the quality of housing available. The ordinance also serves to set forth rights that cannot be overridden by a lease written by an overzealous landlord. The RLTO protects the rights of most residential tenants and raises the standards for all.
What properties are covered by the RLTO?
The Chicago RLTO applies to most residential rental units located within the City of Chicago. There are, however, some exceptions. The RLTO does not apply to the following properties so long as the lease does not state that the RLTO shall govern:
- Buildings with six of fewer units when the owner lives in the building;
- Hotels, motels and rooming houses unless rent is paid by the month and the unit is occupied for more than 32 days;
- School dorms, shelters and employee’s quarters;
- Hospitals and convents;
- Nursing homes and asylums;
- Non-residential properties; and
- Owner occupied co-ops and condominiums.
What are a tenant’s rights in Chicago?
To be free from unreasonable access by the landlord
While a landlord may access a leased unit for legitimate reasons and upon proper notice, he may not harass the tenant, access the unit without a valid reason or access the unit without giving proper notice. Under the RLTO the landlord must give the tenant notice of intent to enter at least two days before he intends to enter the unit. He must give the notice in good faith using a method reasonably likely to provide the tenant notice. The RLTO suggests that notice be given by mail, telephone or written notice posted on the dwelling.
The landlord may access the unit only during reasonable times, defined as 8:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. unless the tenant consents to a different time or if there is an emergency.
There are two scenarios where notice of intent to enter is not required; those situations are in case of emergency or when repairs to other parts of the building unexpectedly require the landlord to enter the tenant’s unit. In these cases no prior notice or consent are required. After the landlord accesses the unit under these two scenarios, he must give notice to the tenant during the two days following the entry.
If the landlord violates this provision of the RLTO the tenant has a choice of remedies. He can get a court order commanding the landlord to cease making improper entry or the tenant can terminate the lease. Regardless of the remedy chosen by the tenant, he may also recover the greater of one month’s rent or twice the value of the actual harm caused to him. The tenant may also be awarded the cost of his attorney fees.
To have the property reasonably maintained
Landlords must maintain the premises in accordance with the law and must make repairs to the dwelling to keep it in compliance.
The list of examples of a failure to maintain the property is long, it includes:
- Not maintaining the structural integrity of the building;
- Not maintaining safe floors;
- Not maintaining enough sufficient and safe exits;
- Not maintaining a fire escape and stairways;
- Not having the required signage for fire escapes;
- Not providing smoke detectors, fire alarms and extinguishers when required;
- Not maintaining elevators;
- Not maintaining or providing a functioning toilet, sink, bathtub and shower/bath;
- Not maintaining heating facilities;
- Not maintaining any gas-fired appliances;
- Not providing heat;
- Not providing hot water;
- Not providing cold water;
- Not providing adequate hall and stairway lighting;
- Not maintaining the roof so it is substantially water-tight;
- Not maintaining the building so it is substantially protected against rodents;
- Not maintaining floors, ceilings and interior walls;
- Not maintaining windows, exterior doors and basement hatchways;
- Not maintaining or providing locks, security devices, deadbolt locks, sash locks and front door window or peepholes;
- Not providing screens in violation of code;
- Not maintaining stairways and porches in a safe condition;
- Not maintaining basements in a safe and sanitary condition;
- Not maintaining chimneys;
- Allowing stagnant water to accumulate;
- Not exterminating rodents, insects and other pests;
- Not providing or maintaining garbage facilities;
- Not preventing the accumulation of trash or debris;
- Not providing adequate light or ventilation;
- Not maintaining plumbing and appliances;
- Not maintaining electrical systems;
- Not maintaining equipment supplied by the landlord; or
- Not maintaining the unit and common areas in habitable condition.
Though the list of potential violations is long, it is not all encompassing. The reality is that landlords cannot let their property fall into disrepair and rent out slum-like property. The RLTO provides remedies to protect a tenant’s rights.
The remedies provided for violation of the duty to maintain the property are among the most complicated in the RLTO and all tenants should consult with an attorney before attempting to exercise their rights as landlords often seek to evict or sue tenants when they do.
If the landlord violates the duty to maintain, the tenant may:
Terminate. Give the landlord written notice of the acts or omissions that violate the RLTO or the lease and specifying that the lease will terminate 14 days after receipt of the notice if the landlord does not remedy the conditions. If the landlord does not fix the problem, the lease terminates and the tenant must vacate the unit within 30 days. The landlord must return prepaid rent, the security deposit and interest.
Notify and deduct. In cases of a minor violation, when the cost of repairing is less than the greater of $500 or one-half monthly rent, the tenant may notify the landlord, in writing, that if the condition is not fixed within 14 days of the notification (or less in case of emergency), the tenant will fix the condition and deduct the cost from rent. If the landlord does not fix the condition, the tenant may have the repair made in a workmanlike manner at a reasonable price customarily charged for such work. The tenant then may submit the paid bill to the landlord and deduct that amount from the rent. This remedy is not available if condition was caused by the tenant or his family or guests.
Notify and withhold. A tenant may withhold from monthly rent an amount that reasonably reflects the reduced value of the apartment due to the landlord’s violation. If the tenant notifies the landlord of the deficiency in writing and the landlord fails to correct the condition within 14 days after notification, the tenant may deduct the reasonable reduction in value from the rent for as long as the deficiency exists. This remedy is also not available if the condition was caused by the tenant, his family or guests.
To live in a safe environment with essential services.
If the landlord violates the rental agreement or the municipal code and such violation causes an immediate danger to the health or safety of the tenant or if the landlord fails to supply heat, electricity, hot water, running water, gas or plumbing, the tenant may:
- Obtain heat, running water, hot water, electricity, gas or plumbing and deduct the cost proven by receipts from the rent; or
- Sue the landlord for damages based on the reduced value of the apartment; or
- Obtain alternative housing, not pay rent, and recover the value of the substitute housing so long as it is reasonable and does not exceed the monthly rent.
Moreover, a tenant may also:
- Withhold a portion of rent that reasonably reflects the reduced value, if the condition is not remedied within 24 hours after notification, so long as the problem is not caused by the inability of the utility company to provide service; or
- Terminate the rental agreement if the defect lasts longer than 72 hours after notice and so long as the failure is not caused by the inability of the utility provider to provide service. The tenant must deliver possession to the landlord within 30 days and the landlord shall return the security deposit, unpaid rent and interest.
To vacate an apartment if there is fire or casualty damage
If an apartment is damaged or destroyed due to a fire or other casualty causing it to violate the rental agreement or ordinances, the tenant may:
- Vacate immediately and notify the landlord in writing within 14 days that the tenant intends to terminate the lease; or
- Vacate any part of the apartment that is unusable and reduce rent by the fair market value of the loss; or
- If the tenant remains in the unit due to promises of repair by the landlord and the landlord fails to fulfill those promises, the tenant may give 14 days notice and terminate the rental agreement and vacate.
The landlord shall return prepaid rent, the security deposit and interest as well as any portion of rent attributable to a portion of the term after the casualty.
Delivery of possession of the rental unit in suitable condition
Sometimes landlords are unable or unwilling to provide their tenant with possession of an apartment at the time the lease begins. Other times the landlord can deliver possession, but the unit is not in habitable condition. When a landlord does not deliver possession of the unit in habitable condition at the beginning of the lease term the rent abates and the tenant has two options:
- Give written notice and terminate the rental agreement; or
- Demand performance of the rental agreement and sue the landlord and any person wrongfully in possession for possession of the apartment and recover damages.
Fair Treatment of Security Deposits
All tenants know that landlords can’t steal their security deposit, though some accept it as an unfortunate reality. Thankfully, Chicago has very strict rules about security deposit abuse and any misconduct by a landlord can result in very severe consequences. The rules are numerous.
Proper handling of security deposits
Landlords must hold security deposits in an FDIC insured interest bearing account at a bank located in the State of Illinois. The funds must not be mixed with the landlord’s own funds and must not be subject to the claims of his creditors. The tenant owns the interest earned on the security deposit.
Disclosure of security deposit location
Not only must the landlord keep the money in a separate account at a qualified bank, he must also tell the tenant about it. The RLTO mandates that the name and address of the financial institution holding the security deposit be listed on the written lease or, if there is no written lease, be disclosed to the tenant in writing within 14 days of receipt of the security deposit.
The landlord must also notify the tenant, in writing, if he transfers the security deposit to a different bank. This notification must take place within 14 days after the transfer and must disclose the name and address of the institution now holding the deposit.
Receipt for payment of security deposit
When a landlord receives a security deposit from a tenant or prospective tenant he must give them a receipt that lists the amount of the security deposit, the name of the person receiving it, the name of the landlord, the date the deposit is received and a description of the unit. Additionally, the person receiving the deposit must sign the receipt. There are slightly varied rules when the landlord receives the deposit by electronic funds transfer.
Payment of interest on security deposit
The RLTO also regulates the payment of interest. If the landlord holds a security deposit for more than six months, he must pay the tenant the interest on the deposit each year by cash or credit applied to rent due. This interest must be paid or credited within 30 days after the end of each 12-month rental period. This provision is one of the most commonly violated by landlords as they often omit paying interest on the deposit when a tenant renews his lease.
Return of the security deposit
The landlord must timely return the security deposit to the tenant after the tenant vacates the premises or notifies the landlord of intent to vacate the unit due to casualty damage. The security deposit must be returned within seven days of notice when the tenant vacates for casualty damage and within 45 days of move-out in any other situation.
The landlord may deduct from the security deposit unpaid rent that has not been validly withheld and a reasonable amount necessary to repair any damage caused by a tenant or a person under the tenant’s control or in the premises with the consent of the tenant.
The landlord may not deduct money from the security deposit for normal wear and tear.
If the landlord is making deductions from the security deposit for damage to the unit, the landlord must take the following steps:
- Deliver an itemized statement of damages allegedly caused within 30 days of the tenant vacating the premises;
- The itemized statement must contain an estimated or actual cost of repairing or replacing the item;
- If the statement lists actual costs, the landlord must attach copies or receipts or a certification of actual costs of repairs (if the landlord’s employees did the work);
- If estimated costs were listed, the landlord must provide the receipts or certification within 30 days after the statement showing estimated costs was delivered to the tenant.
Transfer of the security deposit to a new landlord
The RLTO also contains specific provisions for the transfer of the security deposit and prepaid rent when the ownership or control of the real estate is transferred.
If the real estate is transferred the original landlord is still responsible for the security deposit and unpaid rent unless and until he transfers the deposit to the transferee and provides written notice of the transfer to the tenant. The notice must be made within 10 days of the transfer of the deposit and specify the name, business address and phone number of the transferee or his agent.
When the transferee receives the deposit or prepaid rent, he must deliver a written notification to the tenant. The notice must contain his name and his business address and business phone number or that of his agent.
Penalties for violating security deposit provisions
If there is a violation of any of the security deposit provisions, the landlord must pay the tenant two times the security deposit plus interest as a penalty as well as attorney’s fees and court costs. The only exception to this rule is for the miscalculation (not non-payment) of interest.
The landlord must disclose his identity or that of his agent
At or before the start of a tenancy, the landlord must disclose, in writing, the name, address, and telephone number of:
- The owner, or authorized manager; and
- A person authorized to act for or on behalf of the owner for purposes of receiving service or process, notices and demands.
This information must be kept current and, if the landlord fails to make the proper disclosures, the tenant may terminate the rental agreement. If the tenant gives proper notice and the landlord continues to fail to comply, the tenant may recover the greater of one month’s rent or actual damages.
The landlord must notify the tenant of a foreclosure action
An unfortunate reality of recent times is that many parcels of real estate, including rental properties, are falling into foreclosure. When a landlord is served with a foreclosure complaint, he must notify the tenant (and any third party that is regularly paying rent for the tenant), in writing, that the foreclosure action has been filed. If the landlord is attempting to lease the apartment, he must also disclose the pending foreclosure action prior to the lease signing.
Regardless of whether the disclosure is made to current tenants or prospective tenants, the landlord must disclose the case name, case number, and specific statutory language letting the tenant know that they do not need to vacate at this time, that they have to continue paying rent, and that ownership has not changed. The landlord must notify the tenant that he is still responsible for his obligations under the agreement and that if there is a change of owner the landlord will notify the tenant.
The landlord must disclose conditions affecting habitability
Before an initial lease is signed or the tenant enters into a renewal agreement, the landlord or his agent must disclose the following:
- Whether the common areas or dwelling unit have been cited for any City of Chicago code violations within the previous 12 months and whether there is any enforcement litigation or compliance board proceedings; and
- Whether the City of Chicago or utility provider has issued a notice of intent to terminate a utility service to the dwelling unit or common area.
The disclosure obligation is a continuing obligation.
Reasonable subleases and mitigation of damages
Landlords in Chicago must allow their tenants to sublease. The landlord can require that the tenant get his permission, but permission cannot be unreasonably withheld and the landlord may not impose additional fees or charges.
If a tenant terminates a rental agreement without cause, the landlord must make a good faith effort to rent the apartment at fair rental value. If the landlord is able to sublease the unit, the tenant who terminated is only responsible to the extent that the landlord receives less in rent than he would have under the broken lease. If the landlord tries to sublease in good faith, but fails to lease the unit, the tenant who broke the lease is liable for rent due as well as the landlord’s advertising costs.
Fair rental agreement terms
The RLTO bans a number of lease terms the City believes are abusive. The following terms are not enforceable:
- Agreements to waive rights remedies or obligations provided by the RLTO;
- Authorization to confess judgment;
- Agreements that limit the liability of the landlord or tenant;
- Agreements to waive written termination notice or manner of service;
- Agreements to waive trial by jury;
- Agreements that a tenant will pay the landlord’s attorney’s fees except as provided by court rules, statute or ordinance;
- Agreements that either party may cancel or terminate the lease in a shorter period of time than the other party unless disclosed in a separate notice; and
- Agreements for late fees in excess of the statutory maximum;
The above provisions are unenforceable and tenants may recover actual damages suffered if the landlord enforces them. If the landlord attempts to enforce a prohibited provision, the tenant may recover two months’ rent.
Freedom from retaliation
A landlord cannot retaliate against a tenant except for violation of the lease or violation of a law or ordinance. Retaliation includes, but is not limited to:
- Terminating a tenancy;
- Increasing rent;
- Decreasing services;
- Bringing or threatening to bring a lawsuit against a tenant for possession; and
- Refusal to renew a lease.
A landlord may specifically not retaliate against a tenant if the tenant did any of the following in good faith:
- Complained of code violations or illegal landlord practices to the government, media or community organizations;
- Sought the assistance of a community organization or the media for a code violation or illegal landlord practice;
- Requested the landlord make repairs required by the code, ordinances or the lease;
- Becomes a member of a tenant’s union;
- Testified in court or administrative proceeding regarding the apartment; or
- Exercised any right or remedy provided by law.
Retaliation is a defense in a lawsuit for possession and a tenant may also recover twice the rent or twice actual damages, whichever is greater. The tenant may also recover reasonable attorneys fees and may either recover possession or terminate the lease.
Only be evicted by the sheriff subsequent to a judgment of possession
Illinois is not a self-help state. Landlords may not evict tenants on their own. The sole remedy to gain possession of an apartment is to file a lawsuit for possession in court, obtain a judgment, and have the sheriff evict the tenant.
Historically landlords have attempted all manner of forcing tenants to leave apartments without going to court. The following actions are specifically prohibited:
- Plugging, changing or removing locks;
- Blocking an entrance;
- Removing doors or windows;
- Interfering with utility services;
- Removing the tenant’s personal property;
- Removing or incapacitating fixtures and appliances;
- Use of or threat of force or violence; or
- Rendering any part of the apartment inaccessible or uninhabitable.
Violations on the prohibition of self-help are taken very seriously. The Chicago Police Department must investigate alleged violations and shall fine the landlord $200 to $500 per day the violation continues. Tenants may recover possession of the unit and the greater of two months’ rent or twice actual damages.
Receive a copy of the Summary of Ordinance
The Commissioner of the Department of Housing and Economic Development has prepared a summary of the RLTO that must be attached to each rental agreement or renewal thereof. When there is an oral lease, the landlord must give the tenant a copy of the summary.
What Happens if the Landlord Violates the Law?
As noted above, there are many remedies available to tenants when their landlord violates the law. These remedies include:
- Statutory damages in multiples of rent or the security deposit;
- The right to terminate the lease;
- The right to sue for actual damages;
- The right to withhold rent;
- The right to make repairs;
- The right to possession; and
- Attorney fees and court costs.
If your lawsuit is successful, the landlord almost always pays attorney fees and court costs. The other remedies are specific to the type of violation.