Chicago Tenants Rights

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.

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.

Estimated reading time: 20 minutes

What Is the Purpose of the Chicago Tenants Rights law?

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 Chicago Tenants Rights Law?

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:

  • Units in suburban Cook County (but see Cook County tenants rights);
  • 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
  • Co-ops where the tenant is a shareholder in the co-op.

What Are Chicago Tenants Rights?

 To Be Free from Unreasonable Access by the Landlord

While a landlord may access a leased unit for legitimate reasons and upon proper notice, the landlord 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 the landlord intends to enter the unit. The landlord 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 does not give proper notice, enters for an improper reason, or makes unreasonable entry (or demands for entry) the landlord has violated Chicago tenants rights and the tenant has several remedies.

First, the tenant may get an order from a court that mandates the landlord stop unlawful activity. Second, the tenant may give notice and terminate the lease. Third, the tenant may assert a claim against the landlord for the greater of one month rent or actual financial harm suffered. In any instance, the tenant who hires a lawyer is also entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees.

To learn more about the rules regarding entries in Chicago, our dedicated article about a landlord entering a unit in Chicago can be found here.

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. If a landlord fails to maintain a rental unit, the landlord has violated Chicago tenants rights.

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 Chicago tenants 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.

Damages and injunctive relief. The tenant may sue the landlord for damages or claim the material noncompliance as a defense. The tenant may also obtain an injunction against the landlord. If the tenant is successful, the tenant is entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees.

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 landlord has violated Chicago tenants rights. When this violation occurs, the tenant has no duty to pay rent and may elect either of the following remedies:

  • 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 as well as reasonable attorney’s fees.

Moreover, if the failure to deliver possession of the apartment was willful, the tenant may recover the greater of two months rent or the actual damages sustained, plus reasonable attorney’s fees.

Fair Notice of Lease Termination and Rent Increases

In 2020 Chicago updated the RLTO for the first time in years. This update provided a new right for tenants in Chicago, the right to fair notice before a rent increase or lease termination.

Under the Chicago Fair Notice Ordinance, a tenant is afforded a certain notice period before their landlord can increase rent, refuse to renew or terminate a lease. The notice period applies regardless of whether a tenant is on a written lease for a term or a month-to month tenancy. The amount of notice required depends on how long the tenant has been in the unit.

Tenancy of less than six months: If a tenancy is for less than six months, the landlord must give at least 30 days’ written notice to terminate a lease or raise rent. If the landlord fails to give the required notice, the tenant will be permitted to remain in the unit for 60 days after the notice was provided at the same rental rate previously paid.

Tenancy of six months to three years: If the tenancy is for six months to three years, the tenant is entitled to 60 days’ written notice before the lease is terminated or rent is raised. If the landlord fails to give proper notice, the tenant is entitled to remain in the unit up to 60 days after notice is given at the same rental rate previously paid.

Tenancy of three years or more: If the tenancy was for longer than three years, the landlord must give 120 days’ written notice prior to termination or a rent increase. If the landlord fails to give 120 days’ written notice, the tenant may remain in the unit up to 120 days after notice is given. During that period, the rental rate will be the same as previously paid.

Click here to learn when a landlord can increase rent in Chicago.

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 federally 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, the landlord 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 common Chicago tenants rights violations. Landlords often omit paying interest on the deposit when a tenant renews their 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

Chicago tenants rights law 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 Chicago tenants rights with respect to security deposits, the landlord must pay the tenant a penalty of two times the security deposit plus interest as well as attorney’s fees and court costs. In most cases, the tenant also has a right to return of the deposit itself – making the total claimed up to three times the deposit.

Click here to read our article dedicated to Chicago security deposit law.

If your landlord is stealing your deposit, it is important to get legal help as soon as possible. If you are a Cook County tenant click here to talk to us.

Chicago Tenants Rights Law Requires the Landlord 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 and does not remedy the violation within 14 days of notice, the landlord has violated Chicago tenants rights law. If the landlord violates the law, the tenant may terminate the lease or recover one month of rent, plus attorney’s fees and case costs.

The Landlord Must Notify the Tenant of a Foreclosure Action

Unfortunately, sometimes a landlord falls behind on their mortgage and a rental unit may be subject to foreclosure. When a landlord is served with a foreclosure complaint, the landlord 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 leasing a unit in foreclosure the landlord 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.

If the landlord does not make the proper disclosure they have violated Chicago tenants rights. As a result, the tenant may give written notice and terminate the agreement. The tenant may also recover $200.00 in damages, plus reasonable attorney fees.

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.

If the landlord does not make the required disclosures and does not cure the violation within 14 days of notice, the landlord has violated Chicago tenants rights. A violation of this rule gives the tenant the ability to terminate the lease or recover a penalty of one month of rent, plus attorney’s fees and case costs.

Reasonable Subleases and Mitigation of Damages

Landlords in Chicago must allow their tenants to sublease. The landlord can require that the tenant get their 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 re-rent the unit, the tenant who terminated is only responsible to the extent that the landlord receives less in rent than they would have under the broken lease. If the landlord tries to re-lease 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 under Chicago Tenants Rights Law

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 an attempt to enforce a prohibited provision is a violation of Chicago tenants rights law. A violation results in a penalty of two months’ rent, plus reasonable attorney’s fees and case costs.

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.

If the alleged retaliatory conduct occurred within 12 months after a tenant took protected action, the conduct will be deemed retaliatory, and a violation of Chicago tenants rights, unless the landlord proves the act was not in retaliation for protected conduct.

Retaliation is a defense in a lawsuit for possession. Additionally, the tenant may recover possession, terminate the lease or sue. If the tenant sues, the successful tenant will recover the greater of twice the financial value of the actual harm suffered or two months rent, plus reasonable attorney’s fees.

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 and a violation of Chicago tenants rights:

  • 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.

If a tenant is a victim of an illegal attempted eviction, the tenant may recover the greater of two months’ rent or twice actual harm suffered, plus reasonable attorney’s fees.

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.

If the landlord fails to attach the summary, the tenant may give written notice and terminate the agreement and may also recover $100 in damages, plus reasonable attorney’s fees.

What Happens If a Landlord Violates Chicago Tenants Rights 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.

The remedy available depends on the specific violation and, of course, it is always best to consult with an attorney before a tenant starts a dispute with their landlord.