The proposed Residential Tenant Landlord Ordinance (RTLO), which will go to a vote by the Cook County Board of Commissioners this week, is far from revolutionary. It creates basic floors for landlord conduct that have existed for more than 30 years in Chicago, Evanston, and Mount Prospect.
Landlords who foster good working relationships with their tenants are already doing what the ordinance requires: offering fair lease terms, making repairs, respecting tenants’ dignity and privacy, and ensuring safe, healthy living conditions in their units and buildings. For these landlords, the RTLO won’t make a big difference. By clarifying roles and responsibilities and establishing more uniform standards throughout Chicagoland, it will in fact make life simpler.
But it will make a big difference for landlords who enter homes without permission, charge absurdly high late fees, refuse to return security deposits without reason, and rent units that endanger the health and safety of families and individuals. And it will make a big difference for more than 245,000 suburban renters who are currently unprotected by a comprehensive tenant landlord ordinance. These include far too many households living on the brink. The Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University’s 2019 State of Rental Housing in Cook County finds that the majority of renter households in Cook County—64 percent—are low-income. They face impossible decisions between paying for essentials such as food and medicine or rent, and the economic distress of the pandemic has only made their situations more precarious.
A lack of affordable housing options, rights, and protections makes very low-income and extremely low-income renters prey to landlords who do not address mold or infestations, offer unfair leases, and do not return security deposits even when a unit is in good condition. In court, these renters encounter an incredibly uneven playing field: the Lawyers’ Community for Better Housing finds that only 11 percent of tenants going to eviction court in Chicago have legal representation, compared to 79 percent of landlords. By creating protections from retaliation and providing safe pathways for tenants to address grievances, the RTLO will help mitigate situations that lead to eviction.
The RTLO will also make a difference for communities of color. In their 2020 report The Gap, the National Low Income Housing Coalition finds that 20 percent of Black households, 18 percent of Indigenous households, and 16 percent of Latinx households are extremely low-income renters—compared to only 6 percent of White households. In order to build more equitable communities, we need to reshape the rental landscape to encourage safe, healthy living conditions, pathways to financial stability, and protections from bad actors.
Given this context, it makes sense that there is robust support for the RTLO: more than 60 community organizations have endorsed the proposal, including housing advocates, social service providers, legal aid organizations, tenant rights groups, and disability rights activists. In light of concerns shared by landlord groups, our coalition has engaged in ongoing dialogue with opponents. There is no evidence that the decades-old tenant landlord ordinances in Chicago, Evanston, and Mount Prospect have kept owners and investors out of those rental markets, despite some of the hyperbolic rhetoric we have heard from opponents. But we have discussed their other concerns and reworked the bill to include a series of compromises, including a delayed start date for the ordinance and several changes to protect landlords against penalties and litigation based on clerical mistakes and administrative oversights.
The legislation that goes to the commissioners this week represents compromise while still establishing strong tenant protections that will create a fairer rental landscape for all Cook County renters.
Gianna Baker of the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance, Michelle Gilbert of Lawyers Committee for Better Housing, Michael Rabbitt of Neighbors for Affordable Housing, and Sheila Sutton of Housing Action Illinois are part of a coalition of more than 60 community-based organizations advocating for the passage of the Cook County RTLO.