Before the Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance was passed in 1986, renters had little recourse when landlords refused to make repairs or return security deposits. Credit: Chicago Reporter file photo by Angela Caputo

Thirty years after passage of the Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance, advocates are celebrating its success — and warning that a two-word change being pushed by the realtors could seriously weaken the measure.

Sometimes called the Tenants Bill of Rights, the ordinance was passed on Sept. 8, 1986, six years after it was first proposed by then-Ald. David Orr.  “Chicago was a real estate town, Jane Byrne was a real estate mayor and the real estate lobby had enormous influence in the City Council,” recalls Orr, who’s been Cook County Clerk since 1991. He says passage was won after Harold Washington supporters took control of the council in a 1986 special election — and following years of grassroots organizing.

After Washington died, efforts to roll back the ordinance were blocked, Orr said. “[Mayor Richard] Daley was afraid because this was a victory that a lot of people credited Harold Washington with,” he said.

Before the tenants ordinance, “landlords had all the power” and “unscrupulous landlords took terrible advantage of this imbalance,” particularly with low-income tenants, said Lawrence Wood, director of the Legal Assistance Foundation’s housing program.  “There were laws to protect tenants but they were really hard to enforce.”

“If your refrigerator broke down or your window broke during winter, you had no recourse,” said Orr.  “Your only recourse was to file a complaint with the city, which might end up in housing court months later. There was no satisfactory solution.”

When landlords refuse to make repairs, the RLTO allows tenants to withhold rent “in an amount which reasonably reflects the reduced value of the premises” — or, for minor defects, to pay for repairs themselves and deduct the cost from their rent. It also prohibits excessive late fees, retaliatory evictions and lockouts.

The ordinance also imposes financial penalties for violations of its provisions. And it requires attorney’s fees be paid for successful court actions in order to give lawyers an incentive to represent low-income tenants.

That’s what the realtors are challenging: attorney’s fees and automatic financial penalties for failing to return security deposits.

According to the Chicago Tribune, an ordinance proposed by Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) would change the word “shall” to “may” in provisions that now require judges to award legal fees and to fine landlords who fail to return security deposits plus interest.  The ordinance now requires a fine of double the deposit amount.

“You start giving judges discretion and it will go back to the way it was in 1980 in housing court,” said Orr. “The tenants didn’t have a prayer.”

Before the RLTO, “security deposits were a huge problem,” said John Bartlett, executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization.  “A lot of landlords just assumed the money was theirs.”

If landlords kept the deposits, most tenants just walked away.  And if they took the landlord to small claims court and won, the landlord only had to pay the deposit, Wood said. “They had no incentive to do the right thing, and every reason to take a chance and see if they could get away with it,” he said. The mandatory penalty changed their calculation.

“The penalties have to be mandatory, otherwise the ordinance is just not going to be effective,” said Bartlett. “A lot of judges are biased toward landlords. A lot of judges are landlords themselves.”

He added that the argument of the realtors’ lobbyist – that mistakes of a few pennies in calculating amounts owed tenants can result in draconian fines – was addressed by a 2010 amendment that limited fines to $50 when interest was miscalculated.

“It’s not very hard to keep track of security deposits,” said Orr.  “And it’s a real problem for low-income tenants; when they’re moving, they don’t have the luxury of waiting for their money.”

As for attorney’s fees, Bartlett argues they’re necessary because the city doesn’t enforce the ordinance, instead leaving it to individuals. And without access to lawyers, low-income tenants will again have no recourse.

Judges already have complete discretion to set the amount of fees, Bartlett adds, and the largest awards have come in cases where landlords lost at every step and kept appealing.

Leave attorney’s fees to the discretion of judges? “No, no, no, no,” said Orr.  “The whole purpose of the RLTO was to get accountability.  You don’t want to do anything to take away that accountability.”

Said Bartlett: “To me what it is is that landlords don’t want anybody to help tenants defend themselves in court.”

Or as the realtors’ association lobbyist, Brian Bernardoni, told the Tribune: “We’re going after the tenants’ lawyers.”

The City Council’s housing committee will hold hearings on the realtors’ proposal later this year.

MTO and tenant and community groups from across the city will celebrate the RLTO’s anniversary and press for more progress – including city inspections of apartments and a just-cause eviction law – at a rally and march that’s part of the national Renters’ Day of Action, Thursday, Sept. 22.

Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.

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