About a year ago I encountered several urban legends about the Chicago rental environment that circle around the idea that the system is biased against landlords. I don’t like to see assumptions go unchallenged, so I set out to find out the statistical truth behind each of the component parts. Here are the original assumptions, with their results.
- The courts favor tenants over landlords in eviction cases. FALSE.
- The suburban courts, especially in wealthy areas, are more favorable to landlords when it comes to eviction. FALSE.
- The evolution of the CRLTO is making the landlord-tenant situation progressively worse. TRUE.
- Eviction only happens to bad landlords in bad areas of town. FALSE.
- Lawyers and Juries have a marked effect on the outcome of eviction cases. POSSIBLE.
- The CRLTO is biased against landlords. POSSIBLE.
The courts do not favor landlords in eviction cases.
Across Cook County, the courts have not historically favored landlords over the past 8 years. Just over 62% of landlords won their cases. Therefore, we can say based on raw stats that the system does not empirically favor the tenant. However, the surrounding research shows that the entire justice system favors the plaintiff by default, and with good reason. If someone is going to bring a case to court, chances are they have very good reason for doing so.
When that 62% number is weighed against some of the stats for other types of trials, it comes up short. Compared with felony trials, traffic court, and even housing court in other areas of the country, landlords do have a harder time winning their cases than other types of plaintiffs. So no, officially there is no gross bias, but winning an eviction case isn’t a walk in the park either.
We do need to stop and consider what happens with the cases where the landlord doesn’t win, though. Many of them don’t make it to trial. Sometimes it’s due to successful pre-trial mediation, other times it’s due to clerical errors. Either way, a lot of the “losses” will come back with the errors corrected and “win,” or the tenant will wind up leaving the apartment before trial anyhow, which also counts as a “win.”
Overall, I’d say based on the research we’ve done here that there is no bias at the court level.
The suburban courts don’t make it easier for the landlord.
Some landlords seek to use loopholes in order to file their city cases in suburban courthouses, assuming that they’ll have an easier time winning in an area surrounded by people just like them. If they were going through a jury trial and had to assemble a jury of their peers, maybe this would be the case. But most eviction cases are bench trials, heard only by a judge.
Looking at the five outlying courts in Cook County, especially the ones in the wealthier northern sections of the county, it is actually harder for a landlord to win an eviction case. If you’re trying to win both parts of a joint action case (possession and a money judgment) it’s even tougher.
Additionally, the suburban courthouses are simply not equipped to handle the overflow of Chicago’s massive eviction caseload. The judges aren’t as well-versed in Chicago-specific rental laws. All told, it’s a far better idea to stay within the expected boundaries and file your case in the city where the apartment is located, like you’re supposed to.
The evolving CRLTO is making it tougher to avoid eviction court.
Over the past 8 years, the number of apartments in Chicago has decreased and the population has decreased while the number of evictions has remained consistent. This tells me that it’s getting tougher for landlords and tenants to handle their business on their own without involving the court system. I would suggest that this is related to the evolution of the Chicago Residential Landlord-Tenant Ordinance, and the associated awareness campaigns that have brought it to the attention of more tenants in recent years.
When it comes to interpersonal conflict, especially over money matters, it is a human tendency to seek an outside authority figure to make the final call. As laws and regulations become more complex, it’s easier for both sides to pass the buck to a higher power instead of trying to work things out between themselves. In the case of Chicago rentals, landlords are afraid (with due reason) of taking any action on their own, lest they be accused of retaliation or “self-help evictions,” both of which are illegal. In the case of tenants, many are all too willing to leverage their landlords’ fear of the city codes in order to get more time in their apartments without paying.
As the CRLTO gets more complicated, it will by default funnel more of these disputes into the court system.
Evictions happen to everyone and affect everyone.
With a 1 in 20 chance of eviction distributed across 550,000 Chicago apartments, it is entirely possible for the owner of a three-flat to dodge eviction court for a decade or so. However, it’s more realistic for a landlord to expect at least one eviction over the course of their investing career and enjoy the pleasant surprise if you manage to avoid it.
Tenants also need to be aware of the odds, especially if they’re rooming with strangers. If your roommate has been evicted before you will have a much harder time finding an apartment. You may wind up having to pay higher rents and more cash up front in order to be considered for any housing at all, let alone your ideal apartment.
Overall, the cost of evictions affects the entire population of Chicago, funneling huge amounts of cash and time away from productive use and into the justice system. That money could be used to purchase and rehab additional apartment buildings, allowing more residents to find housing. Even a 1/3 decrease in eviction filings in a year could potentially free up enough cash to purchase and renovate every bank-owned apartment building in Cook County.
Landlords use the “bias” as a reason to avoid investing in the Chicago market. A far better reason would be the cost of evictions. However, cost is something you can plan around and should not be used as an excuse to avoid an entire market.
Lawyers and Juries don’t win cases. They win Time.
The average eviction case lasts only 3 minutes in the courtroom. Most cases are eventually found in favor of the landlord. The presence of juries make only a 1-2% difference in the final rulings of most court cases. The role of supporting players at eviction court has to be discounted. However, this does not mean they are totally ineffective.
A lawyer representing a landlord does most of their job in the preparation. Many of the 38% of failed eviction cases are due to inadequate preparation or clerical errors, and a good lawyer who knows their stuff can make sure that the landlord gets it right the first time. A lawyer representing a tenant has a better chance of getting a continuance, which buys the tenant more time in the apartment before the axe falls.
If a tenant exercises their right to a jury trial, it will likewise not win the case for them. They will drive up the landlord’s costs and buy themselves even more time in the apartment, but chances are very high that they will still eventually get a visit from the sheriff.
Tenants can “win” eviction cases. There are a handful of reasons why they could get the case thrown out. There are ways they can get the landlord slapped with enough fees to negate any back rent they might owe. They can even appeal or file a countersuit in the event that an eviction goes through unfairly. However, for the most part if a tenant has not paid the rent and the landlord knows what they’re doing, the eviction case will probably be found in favor of the landlord regardless of what happens and who helps out in the middle.
The CRLTO is biased against landlords, and for good reason.
My investigation of the CRLTO was completed well before this series on the courts. However, I wanted to close by referring back to it, as I did find it to be biased in favor of the tenant. Line for line, more duties are loaded onto the landlord and the penalties for infractions are steeper on the landlord side as well. If there is a systemic bias against the landlord in Chicago, it lies within this document, not at the court level. The courts are merely enforcing and interpreting the laws as they stand.
I would argue, though, that there is a good reason for the CRLTO’s strictness. Of the four major things necessary for human survival – food, air, water and shelter – shelter is the only one that is largely handled via private enterprise. It’s also the least easily renewable resource of the four. If you’re a utility or agricultural enterprise dealing with any of the other three, you’d better believe that you will be dealing with government restrictions coming out your ears. Like the CRLTO, most of those laws are to keep the providers from causing harm to the general public. As much as the 1% might dislike it, most laws are written to protect the consumer majority, even if it’s to the detriment of the provider minority. However, for food, water and air quality the restrictions are implemented on a large-scale basis and mostly out of sight of the average layperson.
Housing is the only sector of basic human needs where strangers are regularly providing the raw materials via private commerce. It stands to reason that the government-mandated quality standards for housing are just as robust as they are for the other “big three.” However, because they have to be understood and followed by the common man, housing laws are more “in your face.”
Chicago is a massive city, encompassing all races, ages, income levels and nationalities. There unfortunately cannot be separate rental laws for cold water flats and high rise lofts. The rich and poor cannot be held to different codes. In my opinion, the CRLTO may be beastly and complicated, but so is the Chicago rental population. The two go together perfectly.
Conclusion: It’s not about bias, but about knowing your role.
The greater issue here is tiny private landlords being held to the same standard as massive public utilities companies by the public at large. It isn’t political, nor is it class warfare. Rental housing is a bizarre hybrid of bare necessity and finite resources, slammed into a commercial framework. When you decide to invest in rental property, you are positioning yourself among utility companies and government agencies that provide necessary things for Chicagoans to keep existing safely. Like many of those agencies, the public who uses your services will view your line of work with a culturally acceptable amount of disdain. They will forget that you are running a business, until such time as they’re unhappy with your service.
Is Chicago biased against landlords? Commerce may be biased against housing. Courts may be biased towards the plaintiff. Laws are generally tilted in favor of the consumer. But is Chicago anti-Landlord? Let’s say no. Let’s say, once and for all, no.
Thanks so much for reading this series. Thanks also to the support folks who have made this possible: The Hon. Timothy Evans of Cook County Circuit Court, Rob Boyke at the Cook County Clerk of Court’s IT department, Rich Magnone of Reda, Ciprian, Magnone LLC, and Taylor Southworth.
I’ll be taking Friday off. See you Monday.