Could the scenario from ‘Rent’ really happen in Chicago?

The musical "Rent" was a seminal piece of theatre for me and a lot of my peers when we were in college in the 90's. For many of us, it colored our perspective of landlord-tenant issues for years to come. The actual plot of the musical doesn't really depend on the apartment issues - the characters could have the same conflicts and growth without the framing device of the rent scenario that gives the show its name. However, as a framing device to drive urgency and establish the setting, the choice to focus all of the action around a particular apartment building in New York serves as effective shorthand for establishing a villain and the low-income, counter-culture status of the main players.

Today I want to take a look at the various problems in the landlord-tenant relationship and living situation portrayed in "Rent" from a perspective of the Chicago market. Is there any way that this could come to pass in Chicago? How can it be avoided? What parts of the assorted conflicts do we take for granted as likely to occur in a renting situation, and how can a landlord structure their business to keep it from arising?

Before we get started, though, I want to see how far we've come since you started reading this blog. If you're familiar with the plot of "Rent," see how many potential problems you can identify if those people were renting in Chicago. If you're unfamiliar with the show, I've included a video of the final Broadway cast performing the first 7 minutes, which should give you a good idea of what's happening. Then come on back and we'll go through them together.

Part One: The Date.

It's established in the very first words that the show occurs starting on Christmas Eve. The second act starts on New Year's Eve. We've already go a problem. You see, in Chicago there is a moratorium on evictions that spans the entire Christmas holiday, from mid-December to mid-January.

While Mark, Roger and crew would very likely get evicted for their actions, it wouldn't happen starting on December 24, 9pm, Eastern Standard Time.

Part Two: The Utilities

That brings me to the aspect of the utilities in general. First of all, the character of Mimi says that "they" turned off her heat. Since the power is out for the whole building, but only Mimi doesn't have heat, we have to assume that they do not have electric heat. In New York they might well use heating oil, but out here in Chicago the only likely choice would be gas. Now, she doesn't specify who "they" are, but any of the three most obvious options as to who turned off Mimi's heat are unlikely to do so in the Windy City.

People's Gas does not usually turn off heat in the winter, especially if the weather is supposed to be below freezing. They offer many options for dealing with delinquent accounts in the winter to prevent people from dying of the cold. They might well turn it off for repairs to the lines, but if so nobody in the building would have heat.

The city would certainly not intervene to turn off heat to an occupied building. If they were condemning the building all of the tenants would be removed and the property boarded up before the city would cut utility service.

That leaves the landlord, Benny, as the only possible cause for Mimi's lack of heat. Landlords are prohibited from terminating utility service to tenants even if those tenants are very far behind on rent. The penalties are very steep and doing so would completely shutter any hope Benny might have of properly evicting everyone later on.

The power to the whole building is also out for the duration of the first scene - this is due to shoddy wiring, as it blows due to one of the characters using a guitar amplifier. Is it likely that an entire building would lose power because a single circuit overloaded? No. Possible, certainly, but not likely.

The functioning land-line phone that serves as a plot-furthering device is also unlikely to exist in a modern Chicago apartment occupied by twenty-somethings. I mention this because many landlords still go to extra lengths to install phone lines into their apartments when they are no longer necessary.

The lack of heat and power serve well to establish that the building is a slum and that the occupants are poor and suffering. It allows for lots of awesome lighting angles and an excuse to set things on fire. However, from a realistic point of view, if these kids were living in Chicago the whole situation would be very unlikely to occur.

Logo from "RENT" the musical

Landlords, if you don't recognize this logo, you should. Most of your tenants will.

Part Three: Landlord Behavior

When I first got into rentals, I would joke that "I grew up sympathizing with the tenants in 'Rent' but now I feel bad for the landlord." This is true to a large extent, although Benny does make some pretty stupid moves over the course of the show that would put him at risk of some major lawsuits if the building were in modern-day Chicago.

Benny (the landlord) takes over the lease of Mark & Roger after he purchases the building. This is customary as leases run with the building, regardless of who owns it. He then proceeds to make every stupid landlord mistake over the next year.

First of all, there's the rent collection issue. He doesn't collect rent for a year, despite having a verbal agreement with the leads that they were "golden." Mark clearly thinks that this meant "rent free." Given that no mention is made of a written agreement, it would be assumed in Chicago that the occupants were living there on a month-to-month basis. This would mean rent due each month. While failure to collect or even request rent on a regular basis is not necessarily lawsuit material, it would make any eviction case very tricky.

Secondly, Benny gives Mark & Roger only a few minutes notice that he's on his way over to collect a year worth of rent. In Chicago he'd need to give at least two days notice, and notices of past due rent would need to be issued in writing.

Benny wants to tear down the building and turn it into a "Cyber Studio." He chooses to force the current tenants out by threatening eviction. For month-to-month tenants in Chicago, a simple 30 day written notice to vacate the premises would suffice. If the tenants don't leave voluntarily at the end of those 30 days, that's when the eviction proceedings begin. It's much easier to get possession by taking that route than by suddenly reneging on a verbal agreement of free rent.

And then there's Benny's big mistake at the end of Act I. As a reaction to the riots in the vacant lot next door, he calls the police and locks all of the tenants out of the building. If he pulled this stunt in Chicago he'd be subject to fines of up to $500 per day for each day that the lockout continues, plus a penalty of two months' rent and attorney fees, for each apartment in the building. Of course, in this case the tenants choose to break back into the building instead.

I'm not saying that Benny's actions are not going to happen in Chicago. He's not likely to get away with the behavior for very long, though, and it's all definitely problematic.

Problem 4: Tenant behavior

As far as Chicago rentals go, the following issues might be seen as problems by landlord but are theoretically possible.

  • The building contains HIV patients, multiple races, unmarried singles living together, and tenants of alternate sexual orientation. When the show was originally produced in the 90's, the selection of characters were considered far more outrageous than they are to a 2013 viewer. And yes, some landlords might have problems with the tenant pool living in Benny's building. However, all of these groups are protected by fair housing law. In fact, as a Realtor, even if I know that a resident of the property is HIV positive I cannot disclose that fact to potential buyers or incoming renters.
  • Over the course of the show, the tenants commit a whole range of likely lease violations. They burn everything they can get their hands on in the fireplace. They host a rotating roster of houseguests for vague periods of time. They stage protests in the adjacent lot, probably without permits. When they're (illegally) locked out of their building, they (illegally) break back in and continue living there. They do heroin. They commit suicide. They depart for places unknown in the middle of the night.They don't pay rent for an entire year, and then surprisingly refuse to start paying again when the landlord requests it.

    All of this really happens.

    All you can do to prevent it is to screen your tenants very closely and visit your property regularly.

What can the new landlord learn from "Rent"?

So it's obvious that the landlord-tenant situation displayed in "Rent" is unlikely to occur in Chicago. The behavior that leads to it, though, is universal even if ill-advised.

It's true that the tenants are portrayed as counter-culture, rebellious types who are unlikely to call for help from "the man," so some of the safeguards in existence like city inspectors might not be used to their full advantage. With the drug use in the building the tenants would be doubly reluctant to bring in anyone from the outside who might be able to help improve their living situation. However, unless those kids are squatting in a foreclosed building it is extremely unlikely that they'd be without heat or power and locked out of their building over Christmas week.

As far as Chicago is concerned, it's possible that the exact scenario shown in "Rent" could happen, but it's very very unlikely.

What's more important for the landlord to realize is how easy it is for all of us to take for granted the entire situation as possible. It is very likely the rental population on both sides thinks that landlords padlock their tenants out of the building on a regular basis. It's easy to accept poor kids living in a building without heat and power.

More importantly, it's easy to assume that Benny is the villain of the entire musical just because he's the landlord. The real "bad guys" of the musical are AIDS, intolerance, poverty and drug use. However, the role of the slumlord/bad landlord is so ingrained that we jump to that conclusion automatically. Benny is made out to be a buffoon, existing as a wealthy and selfish counterpoint to further highlight by contrast the poverty and selflessness of the main cast.

Landlords, your identities have been stolen by this guy.

Landlords, your identities have been stolen by this guy.

Landlords, this is how the public sees you. Every profession has its verb. Doctors heal. Lawyers sue. Policemen protect. As for landlords? They evict. Each time you enter a conversation with a tenant, you have to fight against this reputation. And you have to understand that sometimes all of your good faith efforts will not be enough to push back against the massive cultural trope assuming that all landlords are greedy slumlords who will evict at the drop of a hat.