Chicago garbage pickup (or “scavenger service” as we Realtor wonks like to call it) is a bigger deal than you’d think for landlords. It tends to get overlooked by newer landlords, and even the experienced ones don’t like to spend too much time dwelling on the topic of handling other people’s junk. However, there are some laws to keep in mind and best practices to follow when it comes to dealing with your tenants’ trash. Today I’ll be reviewing the basics for you.
Trash pickup is also called “scavenger service.” This little guy is also a scavenger, but of a different kind.
First off, the city sanitation ordinance can be found here. Additionally, the recycling regulations can be found here. Regardless of the size of your building I’d recommend that you give it a glance. Violations are penalized with tickets from the Department of Streets & Sanitation, which are just as annoying as parking tickets.
Who Pays for Trash Pickups in Chicago?
If your building has four units or fewer, the city will pick up your trash as if it was a single family home. You pay for this service through your property taxes and sales tax. This also goes for individually rented condos in buildings with up to four units.
If the building has more than four units, you will have to hire a private hauler to collect your tenants’ trash. There are several private haulers that work the Chicago grid – most are Teamsters. Larger condo developments will also have to hire private haulers – this is paid for out of the owners’ assessments.
The most common private haulers that I see around here are Waste Management, Lakeshore Recycling, Groot, Allied/Republic, Flood Brothers and Veolia.
Either way, tenants in Chicago expect landlords to pay for scavenger service.
How Much Trash Is There?
The trash carts supplied by the city for small buildings hold 96 gallons of waste, or a little less than half a cubic yard. Based on my observations, a family of three will fill approximately one of those carts per week with regular trash, and another one every two weeks with recyclable trash. (If you have a bunch of dirty hippies living in your building it may be the other way around.) The last week of the month in moving season will see far more trash, as will the holiday season.
If you’re buying an apartment building, the prior owner will probably have trash containers out back that you can use to gauge how many you’ll need once you take over the reins. It’s possible that the trash contract may be passed over to you at closing. It’s a good idea to check out how the trash looks on the last day of a month to gauge if more containers are needed. Overflowing dumpsters lead to tickets – it’s always better to err on the side of too much space and downsize later if it isn’t needed.
It’s important to communicate with your tenants regarding how they handle trash if you want to keep the ticket brigade at bay. Make sure that tenants know to bag their trash and secure the bags firmly. Make sure they know that trash needs to be removed from the building regularly, not left to pile up inside their apartments. Take time to inform them about which materials are considered to be hazardous – this includes batteries, toner cartridges, paint and lighter fluid. If you allow cats in your building, make sure your tenants dispose of the cat litter with the trash instead of flushing it.
Also make sure that they notify you if the dumpster is too full. It’s better to head over and pack down the trash or schedule an additional pickup than to incur a $200 fine because a nosy neighbor got annoyed and called 311 on you.
What About Recycling?
According to city ordinance, renters must have recycling options made available to them, even if you’re in a small building in an area without blue cart service. The recycling method you provide must allow for separation of recyclables at your building. You also need to make an effort to educate your renters on what items to separate. Unfortunately for the planet, the recycling ordinance is pretty toothless and rarely enforced. However, it’s important to remember that the tenant pool tends to consist of younger residents with very eco-conscious leanings. A visible recycling program is not only good for staying on the good side of the law, but it’s also a great marketing tool.
Blue recycling carts in their natural habitat. (Photo by Mick Dumke, Chicago Reader)
Most private haulers will offer specifically marked recycling-only dumpsters. If you’re hiring regular dumpsters make sure you also provide a separate container for recyclable items.
How about Big Stuff?
Sometimes your tenants will need to discard larger items. Without proper preparation, this can lead to a big mess in your alley. Furniture left outside of dumpsters can lead to broken glass littered across the alley, thieves picking over the items, and the general enmity of your neighbors. Mattresses left lying out are a sign of a bedbug infestation, which can cause panic among your other tenants even if no problem actually exists.
Therefore it’s important to communicate to your tenants in the lease and explicitly in conversation that large items need to be placed in the dumpster. If they have something that’s too big to fit, they need to warn you immediately so that you can schedule an extra pickup with the city or with your private hauler.
Similarly, if you’re planning on doing any renovation work or clearing out an apartment formerly occupied by a hoarder, you may need to hire an extra dumpster on your own even if the city provides pickup. These types of projects create far more trash than your standard equipment will be able to contain.
By the way, if you do schedule a last minute extra pickup with a private hauler, be prepared to pay them in cash with a nice tip for going out of their way for you. Even if you have a contract for regular service, these kind of trips are above and beyond a trash hauler’s normal duties.
What About Shops and Restaurants?
If you’ve got a mixed use building, you’ll probably wind up with a few retail shops or restaurants renting from you in the commercial spaces. Unlike residential renters, most commercial tenants in Chicago are expected to pay for their own scavenger service (along with all the other utilities). Sometimes a very small office can piggyback onto your dumpsters, but any business that requires a sanitation license will probably be required to demonstrate that they’re in charge of their own trash collection.
This is about as close as you ever want to get to a grease dumpster. (Photo by TrashMonkey29 on Flickr.)
If you’ve got restaurants, doctor’s offices, hair salons, catering businesses, childcare facilities or anything that generates a lot of icky trash, you’ll want to ensure that you leave enough space in the rear of your building for each business to provide their own dumpsters. Restaurants in particular may need space not only for a regular dumpster and a recycling container but also a grease dumpster.
Grease dumpsters require their own special precautions – while they’re designed to contain liquid waste, it’s easy to spill when you’re pouring hot grease in the dark. Hosing down the ground around a grease dumpster is actually illegal. You’ll need to make sure the ground nearby is fully cleaned with detergent to keep rats away and make sure the alley doesn’t become a skid hazard for passing cars.
What if There’s No Alley Access?
In order for trash to be collected, it needs to be accessible. For most buildings in Chicago this is an easy task. Dumpsters live in the alley, trucks pick them up there. No fuss, no muss. However, there are a few locations in the city where alleys do not exist, or if they do, there is no way to get to them from the house without a very long walk.
Before you purchase a rental property you need to consider how trash pickup is handled. If there is no way for you to leave trash containers in a place where both tenants and trucks can access them, you will need to make plans to haul the trash out to the street for pickup on a regular basis. Unless you’ve got a good crew of workmen on hand or plan to live on site, I guarantee that this will get old really fast. In theory you could offer a barter deal to a reliable tenant to haul the dumpsters out on trash day, but you’ll still want to follow up regularly to make sure they’re actually holding up their end of the bargain. This is probably not a situation that you will be able to resolve on your own, either. You can’t just go adding alleys on your block.
Should I Chain My Dumpsters?
Yes. Illegal dumping – that’s when other people put their trash in your containers – is a “three strikes and you’re out” offense in Chicago. The first two times you get a ticket, the third time is a felony with jail time. Building contractors in particular are notorious for dumping their construction debris in any nearby unsecured container. Make sure it isn’t yours.
Additionally, dumpster diving is not just for thrift shop loving hipsters anymore. Identity thieves have a field day rummaging through tenants’ discarded papers. Grease theft from grease dumpsters is also common, since grease is used to make biodiesel and can therefore be resold at a high price. (Most grease dumpsters are designed to have higher security than your normal dumpster for just that reason.)
However, before you go chaining up your trash containers make sure you’ve considered the tenant training you’ll have to do to make this kind of precaution successful. Tenants will need to have keys to the chains’ padlocks. They will also need to be instructed to re-secure the dumpsters after depositing their trash. Your success rate will depend a lot on how well you convince your tenants of the necessity. Better pest control and protection against identity theft should be your two biggest talking points on that front.
Private Hauler Gotchas
Long Term contracts. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could sign your renters to a five or ten year lease that allowed you to raise their rents arbitrarily at any point? Well, private trash haulers do exactly that. And they generally require four to six months advance notice to get you out of the contract. Make sure you negotiate heavily before you select a hauling company.
Graffiti. You’d think that for the cost of service, the haulers would regularly swap out dumpsters that get tagged, right? Unfortunately this is not the case, and the taggers know it. Dumpsters are one of the most popular locations for graffiti, since landlords assume that the haulers will clean them and vice versa. If your building’s dumpsters are located close to the street or an alley intersection they will be particularly likely targets for tagging. Make sure that you keep some paint on hand to cover any tags.
Next week I’ll be doing a three part series on the quality of building materials. (Trust me, it will be more interesting than it sounds!) See you then!