When your apartment is a crime scene

I don't recommend reading this article while eating. We're getting a little gross today.

Crimes and situations requiring the presence of the police unfortunately happen quite often in apartment buildings. As the density of people living together increases, so do the odds that one of them is doing something illegal. As we discussed on Monday, sometimes all the background checking in the world can't clue you in to a tenant's mental illness, deranged behavior or upcoming nervous breakdown.

We've spoken before about how landlords can prepare for worst case scenarios but we haven't discussed what really happens when the first responders have to step in and take over. Unfortunately I've had to deal with many situations of this nature - I've dealt with stalkers, domestic violence, parking lot hit & runs, drug busts, marijuana gardens, suicides, gas leaks, hoarders, fires, break-ins and death from natural causes. (This would be one of the reasons I left property management in favor of brokerage.) If your apartment becomes a crime scene, here's what to expect, what to do, and what to avoid.

Know when to ask for help.

First of all, regardless of if you are a tenant or a landlord, if you sense that something is very wrong with an apartment in your building call the police. Tenants, definitely call your landlord too, but remember that this is not a dormitory. There are no RA's to intercede. This is Chicago. Call 911. I have seen any number of tenants expressing concerns on Facebook about their neighbors' behavior, to which my only response is "you need to call the police." From neighbors burning trash on their porch to cats howling unattended for days on end, even if you're just a renter it doesn't excuse you from making that call. On a block full of renters you might be the only one who does.

Landlords, I cannot say this enough - you need to be familiar enough with your property to know when something is amiss. If you cannot be there in person, make sure you have a trusted representative who's serving as custodian and can be on the ground on a regular basis. If Mrs. Jones usually goes to the store on Tuesdays, you're right to be worried when you don't see her. If Mr. Nesbit starts looking very thin and his eyes are always bloodshot, you should be concerned. If strange cars are pulling up to the building at regular intervals, you may want to let someone know about the patterns you observed. If you notice when reviewing your tenants' electric bills that is much higher than the others, you may want to have a little chat and find out if they're unnaturally interested in certain types of horticulture. Don't worry about being nosy - it's your property, you are entitled to be nosy as long as you don't enter your tenants' space unannounced.

Know when you can try help.

If you disturb the scene of the crime you could be held liable for impeding an investigation. Therefore it is absolutely critical that you call the police before you enter a situation that you think might involve criminal activity or a medical emergency. If you happen to enter and find a dead tenant by accident, do not touch them or move them.

If someone is in obvious medical distress and you know first aid or CPR, use your judgment. As they teach you in first aid classes, do not endanger yourself to save the life of another.

Their adventures all get worse when they split up. Learn from their mistakes. (Scooby Doo & Co are property of Hanna-Barbera, Inc.)

Do not go into a potentially hazardous situation alone. Landlords tend to get a kind of Superman complex when it comes to their property. Those who are investing in rental property in Chicago tend to be more open to high risk situations anyhow, so there's a certain bias towards landlords trying to bust up criminal activity on their property alone. I'd strongly recommend against doing this. Your job is to maintain the value of the property, and if anything your secondary job is to look out for the good of your building's community at large. Work the rest of the tenants to make sure they're OK and to keep the criminal influences from spreading. Work with the police to contain the problem.

Know what to expect.

If a crime has occurred, the unit may be sealed. Roommates may or may not be able to enter the scene to retrieve life-essential items and pets, and you may be able to enter with police escort, but once it's sealed you will not be able to get in on your own for possibly a very long time. I recall one case where an elderly lady died intestate and we were unable to enter for over 3 months while her assorted heirs worked out the distribution of her personal effects.

If the crime involves the manufacture of crystal meth you're in for a very expensive hazmat cleanup and a major issue with reselling the property. The chemicals used in the production of methamphetamine are persistent, destructive and highly toxic. The Real Property Disclosure form that sellers must complete in order to sell a property requires you to disclose any knowledge of whether or not the property has been used for this purpose. Needless to say it will limit the possible buyers of the property by a considerable factor.

If the crime involves biological waste the landlord will need to contact a hazmat cleanup team. Hazmat cleanup is expensive but your insurance should kick in for some of it. In the case of larger buildings you may need to prove that you worked with them before you can start renting the unit again. If you have your own untrained crew do the cleanup, you could be liable if they contract blood-borne diseases. Besides, one missed spot could attract pests, spread disease, or cause a horrible stench.

If tenants cannot enter their apartments due to fire or crime investigation they can break their lease. In Chicago if the apartment is covered by the CRLTO they can do so up to two weeks later, backdated to the first day when they were sealed out of the apartment. If they cannot enter one room of their apartment, they can pay a lower amount of rent that proportionately reflects the smaller available space. If the tenant breaks their lease, the landlord must be able to immediately return their deposit.

You always should have enough in the security deposit escrow account to refund everybody simultaneously in case of a fire, long-term evacuation or other major destructive event.

If someone has died the heirs will need to clear the apartment out. They will probably not be willing to pay rent while this happens, and it will probably take some time. Landlords, plan accordingly.

The police will notify you when you can re-enter the property. Yes, it's annoying to have to wait. If you're working with an overloaded district you may need to bug them occasionally to get the property unsealed.

Know the possible consequences.

Tenants, your landlord will not replace your stuff. Sorry. Your stuff is not covered by the landlord's insurance. In the case of fire the insurance might cover restoring the building, but not your stuff unless you can prove outright that the landlord was at fault for the damage. I read a recent statistic that only 30% of tenants carry renter's insurance. You guys make me sad. That being said...

Landlords, if you didn't change the locks in between tenants you may wind up paying for stolen goods. A new law in Illinois effective this year (2012) makes the landlord liable if a tenant's belongings go on walkabout because the locks weren't changed. Even if your keys are stamped wit "do not copy," keep a couple of different tumblers and swap them out in between. (PS: I've covered how to change locks a ways back.)

Repeated incidents can cause a landlord serious grief. If you are living in one of the many suburbs that require landlords to be licensed and adherent to crime-free housing laws, a landlord may find himself fined or jailed for repeat criminal offenses on their property. This is not the case in Chicago, although landlords have certainly been called down to building court in Chicago for major problems.

Do you recognize this building on sight? No? Good for you.

If a tenant goes to jail and the rent stops, the landlord may need to serve their eviction notice to them by visiting them in jail. Obviously if their roommates stay on and keep paying the rent, this becomes a non-issue.

In case of terrorism there are special considerations. If the FBI is investigating terrorism in your apartment building the landlord has to let them do whatever they want. The Patriot Act protects the landlord in this case. On the other hand, if the landlord rents to or has any financial dealings with someone who has been deemed to be a terrorist by the Office of Foreign Asset Control, they could wind up in serious hot water.

If there are devices on the property that look like surveillance equipment, they'd best be working. Picture this scenario. A tenant is attacked in the lobby of your building. He runs towards the obviously placed security camera in hopes that it will capture the face of his attacker. Later it is discovered that the camera was a fake, or otherwise out of service. Fake home security system decals might be an acceptable deterrent in your own home, but when you're dealing with the safety of others it's best to either go all in or skip the cameras altogether.

Hopefully you will never need this article. It is my sincerest wish that this article winds up never getting a single hit after day one. But if you found it helpful or you think I missed something critical, please don't hesitate to let me know.