Knowing Your Tenant Rights

By: Paul Bernstein May 15, 2017

Tenants of residential apartments in Chicago have very powerful and important rights, but most tenants don't know about them.


In 1986, the City of Chicago under Mayor Harold Washington passed the Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance (RLTO). The ordinance has been called the “Tenants’ Bill of Rights” and was designed to “even the playing field” between landlords and tenants.


The RLTO’s stated purpose is “to protect and promote the public health, safety and welfare of its citizens, to establish the rights and obligations of the landlord and the tenant in the rental of dwelling units, and to encourage the landlord and tenant to maintain and improve the quality of housing.” It provides for penalties against a landlord who fails to comply with the ordinance.


The ordinance applies to all Chicago residential apartment leases, with certain exceptions. The main exception, and not covered, are apartments in owner-occupied buildings containing six or fewer units. But those buildings are also covered by the ordinance if the owner does not live in the building.  Single-family residences and condominium units are also covered by the ordinance.


If the landlord fails to maintain the premises as required by the law and if the tenant follows the strict rules provided for, then the tenants have a broad range of remedies, including reducing the amount of rent tenants will pay the landlord until the repairs are made, fixing items needing repairs themselves and deducting those sums from future rent or terminating the lease. However, each remedy given to a tenant requires very strict compliance with the steps that need to be taken to allow the tenant to exercise such rights.


Don't even try to use any of these remedies unless and until you have read the ordinance completely, have understood it and have taken the proper steps to invoke applicable provisions.  Never just stop paying any of the rent.


Another very important topic under the RLTO relates to “retaliation.” Let’s say you are a tenant in a building covered by the RLTO and make valid complaints about the need for repairs or call the City of Chicago to complain about poor conditions of your apartment or the building. Or if you join a tenants’ union, and the landlord decides that he or she wants to evict you or not renew your lease (the fixed term of which is quickly coming up), and if such actions to evict you or not renew your lease take place within 12 months of your taking such actions, the RLTO comes to your rescue. Not only does this section bar such retaliation, it provides that the eviction lawsuit is to be dismissed and you are entitled to damages of two months rent if you can prove your case in court. 


But, you may ask: “What good is this section if I can’t afford a lawyer?”  Happily, the RLTO again says that if the landlord decides to not renew your lease or otherwise evict you, that retaliation is a defense to the eviction action which is to be dismissed; you are entitled to two months rent as damages. Best of all, the legal fees otherwise charged by your lawyer are paid for by the landlord!  I repeat.  If you win based on retaliation, your legal fees are paid by the landlord!


Paul Bernstein has been an attorney for over 50 years, 25 of them focused on landlord/tenant issues. He has also been a member of the board of directors of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization and active with MTO for over two decades.