Beyond the CRLTO: Other Chicago Rental Laws

In the Chicago rental housing market the CRLTO (Chicago Residential Landlord-Tenant Ordinance) gets all the glory when it comes to laws. More and more landlords and tenants are aware of it, and this is probably for the best as the penalties for violations are quite steep. However, there are other laws that also pertain to rental housing in Chicago that should not be ignored. Here are some that you may not know about. There are certainly more laws that apply, but these are some of the most crucial.

Artistic interpretation of the Chicago code of laws governing rentals

Federal Laws

Lead Based Paint Disclosure. The law requiring the disclosure of lead based paint hazards to anyone buying or renting a home has been on the books for twenty years. If a property was built before 1978 the landlord must tell the tenant about any lead-based paint hazards that they know of before renting it out. They also must provide a copy of the EPA's "Protect Your Family From Lead In Your Home" pamphlet. Read more about the law.

State Laws

Safe Homes Act. This is an Illinois law that allows victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault and stalking to break their lease in a dangerous housing situation. The landlord cannot stand in the way or charge lease break fees. If they invoke the act in order to get out of a lease, the landlord cannot reveal that they did so when providing references to other landlords in the future. It also allows tenants who fear they are at risk to request a free lock change. Very specific circumstances must be met in order for a tenant to invoke the Safe Homes Act but it does override the CRLTO. Read the law.

Lock Change Law. This is also an Illinois law but only affects apartments in counties with more than 3 million people. Currently only Cook County makes the cut. It's a relatively new law, only in effect since the beginning of 2012. Landlords must change locks between tenants. If they do not, and a tenant's property is damaged or stolen as a result, the landlord may be held liable for the loss. Read the law.

Rental Property Utility Service Act. I've spent quite a bit of time on this one before when I was talking about water. This statewide act prohibits landlords from charging tenants for more than their documented share of the utility usage. It also prevents landlords from cutting off utility service to their tenants and allows the tenants to put the building into third-party receivership if the landlord appears to be unable to pay the utility bills that they're legally bound to provide according to the lease. Read the law.

Illinois Radon Awareness Act. This one also took effect at the beginning of 2012. It affects all rentals statewide, but only if they are "below the third floor" of a building. Similar to the lead based paint law outlined above, it requires landlords to disclose any knowledge of the presence of radon to prospective tenants. Landlords must provide a brochure about the hazards of radon to their tenants at the same time. Read the law.

Botanic interpretation of Chicago rental housing law.

City Laws

Zoning and Land Use Ordinance. This is a biggie. Zoning controls how property can and cannot be used. If you live in RS1 you cannot rent out your basement as a separate apartment. Want to pave paradise to put in your own parking lot? Unless you're in RM or higher you may be out of luck. Want to run a retail shop on the ground floor? Better be on a major street zoned B1 or higher. Read the law.

Existing Buildings Code. Good old 13-196. If someone is talking about a building being "up to code" in Chicago, this is usually the code they mean. This covers everything from structural integrity to room sizes and occupancy limits. Unless you're working on a brand new apartment building, your property needs to be in compliance with the existing buildings code, or it will need to be brought up to code the next time the owner makes any alterations. Read the law.

High Rise Life Safety Ordinance. This pertains to buildings constructed prior to 1975 that are over 80 feet tall and don't have sprinklers. The management of each of these buildings must demonstrate that the building can provide adequate protection from fire for the residents. These buildings have until 2015 to make necessary changes, but there are other deadlines for milestones along the way. Read about the law.

Vacation Rental Ordinance. If you want to try AirBNB or rent out your home to tourists vacationing in Chicago, you need a permit. You also need to be in at least an RM zone. Read the law. (PDF)

Textile interpretation of Chicago rental housing laws.

Disclosure of Heating Costs. Snuggled up next to the landlord-tenant ordinance (chapter 5-12) in the city code is chapter 5-16, "Disclosure of Heating Costs to Tenants." If a tenant has to pay for their own heat in Chicago, the landlords must provide an estimate of the costs to heat the apartment before the tenant signs the lease. The estimate can be obtained direct from the utility company, and should be no more than six months old. Read the law.

Minimum Heat Temperatures. I couldn't actually find the specific city ordinance number for this one. Chicago and Cook County each have ordinances. According to both, if the landlord is providing heat, it must be available between September 15 and June 1 annually. In Chicago the apartment must be at least 68 degrees from 8:30am to 10:30pm, and 66 degrees for the rest of the night. If you're renting in Cook but outside of Chicago the minimums are 68 degrees from 8:30am to 10:30pm, 63 degrees from 10:30pm to 7:30am, and 65 degrees from 7:30am to 8:30am. Read the City Law. Read the County law.

Multi-Level Laws

Fair Housing Laws. There are fair housing laws at the federal, state, county and city level. Currently Chicago doesn't add any classes that aren't protected at the county level. Each level adds more protected classes. Here are the protected classes at each level:

  • Protected nationwide: Race, Color, National origin, Religion, Sex, Familial status (except in housing designated as exclusively for seniors), Disability status.
  • Protected statewide: Ancestry, Age (over 40 only), Marital Status, Military Status, Order of Protection Status, Sexual Orientation, Unfavorable Discharge from Military service, and all the classes from the national level.
  • Protected countywide and citywide: Gender identity, source of income, housing status.

Exemptions to some fair housing laws are available for owner-occupied small apartment buildings. However, if the owner wishes to exclude certain protected classes from living in the same apartment building with them, they cannot publicly advertise this fact nor can they use an agent to do so.

Read the Chicago Fair Housing Law.

The Social Contract of Rental Housing

Many of these laws exist because money overrides concern for the basic health and safety of others, even for those who purport to be in the housing industry. It is never forgotten that the majority of landlords are in it as investors, for money, with concern for the good of the public a distant second or third priority.

In my opinion if a landlord wants to ensure cash flow, he or she should take whatever steps necessary to ensure that the tenants remain safe, healthy and able to work. Almost every one of these laws is designed towards enforcing that idea. Also in my opinion, a business should strive to make their product accessible to as many people as reasonably possible without placing unnecessary burdens on neighboring businesses. The laws that aren't leading to the first goal are generally leading towards the second. I call these two goals the social contract of the landlord.

There is a trend these days that when the underdogs of society are taken advantage of, they ensure that the particular problem doesn't happen again by creating laws. The litany of laws above are a complex mess of a disaster. They have emerged over time due to tenants getting smacked around repeatedly by careless investors. Every law places another barrier between the landlord and tenant, making it more intimidating for either side to simply communicate and solve problems.

Tenants, you have a part to play in this too. As it gets more complicated for new landlords to enter the market, market diversity will suffer, prices will go up, and the small, private local owner will become harder to find. Eventually only big property management companies with battalions of lawyers will be able to invest in the Chicago market. The current pool of experienced landlords is getting older with very few younger members coming in. Many new investors are already avoiding Chicago due to the complex laws. Therefore, tenants, you've got some social contract goals too. The first: don't fall back to legal recourse until you've tried basic communication first. The second: remember that the laws ensure that you have safe housing, but only you can ensure that you have good housing.

In Chicago, housing is the only one of the basic human needs that isn't subject to mandatory inspection by the government at every turn. Food, water and air quality are all heavily regulated. Our economy needs housing to remain a part of the private sector.

Every time a large group of landlords starts trying to cut costs by losing sight of these two goals, more laws have to be made. Every time tenants choose to hide behind legislators instead of communicating with their landlord or voting with their wallet, more laws appear. These laws add more paperwork and disclosures to the workload of every landlord, and make the entry-level learning curve for new investors increasingly complex. Let's do what we can as landlords and tenants to keep the social contract, communicate with each other directly, and keep the business of rental housing in Chicago from getting any more complicated than it already is.