Cook County Board enacts suburban residential tenant, landlord ordinance strengthening renters’ rights: ‘It’s time’
By Alice Yin
Cook County Board commissioners unanimously approved Thursday a suburban residential tenant and landlord ordinance that was hailed by proponents as a victory for hundreds of thousands of renters without such protections but condemned by real estate groups.
The legislation cements regulations for landlords throughout the county with the exceptions of Chicago, Evanston and Mount Prospect, which already have such codes. Once it goes into effect in June, the entire county will have some form of an ordinance governing its leases.
“This resolution was approved in the midst of an affordable housing crisis that has been brewing for decades — issues that have only been highlighted as we continue to fight against COVID-19,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle told reporters afterward. “While these conversations are long overdue, they could not happen during a more pressing moment for our county.”
The bill’s sponsors, Commissioners Scott Britton and Kevin Morrison, estimate about 245,000 suburban households will be affected by the change. Their proposal was based on Chicago’s ordinance, which has existed since 1986, but months of revisions that include recent concessions to landlords soften some of the blow to the real estate industry.
“The residents of suburban Cook had been waiting 35 years for the same rights,” Britton said before the Thursday vote. “This ordinance is appropriate, it is balanced, it is fair, and it’s time.”
His enthusiasm for the legislation was contrasted by gloom from Tom Benedetto, government affairs director at the Chicagoland Apartment Association, who spoke at a Tuesday committee meeting. He said the ordinance, if passed, would cause landlords to be buried by excessive lawsuits and fines.
“Almost one year in (the pandemic), housing providers are at a financial breaking point,” Benedetto said. “This is pouring salt in the wound of housing providers. Make no mistake, the (ordinance) will come at a steep price for both tenants and landlords.”
But commissioners cheered on the ordinance’s approval as a relief for the renters they said have turned out in droves during the pandemic to seek help in fraught housing situations.
“For low-income renters, it is often difficult to have their rights protected — rights that the average landlord would never think of harming, but those few bad actors that really take advantage of those in real need,” Morrison said Thursday.
The proposal duplicates existing parts of Illinois law, such as prohibiting landlords from retaliating against complaints to government authorities or from locking out tenants without the proper eviction process. Unlike the rest of the ordinance, that provision goes into effect immediately.
The legislation also prohibits landlords from charging late fees greater than $10 a month for the first $1,000 in rent plus 5% per month for amounts more than $1,000. It outlines the procedure for landlords to evict renters and how renters can terminate leases. Security deposits will be limited to no more than 1½ month’s rent and must be returned within 30 days, and such payments cannot be disguised as “move-in” fees.
Landlords will be given timelines to address upkeep of their properties and will be subject to lease terminations or losing rent should they miss the deadlines. For example, minor problems, defined as repairs that don’t cost more than $500 or half a month’s rent, whichever is greater, must be fixed in 14 days upon written notification, or the renter can fix it themselves and deduct the cost from their rent.
Landlords who operate and live in residential buildings with six or fewer units are not subject to the legislation. Neither are certain homeowners renting out a unit in a single-family home.
Regardless of the cavernous gap between tenants’ rights advocates and the real estate industry, both sides have agreed the pandemic has created a devastating housing crisis. But Adriann Murawski of the Chicago Association of Realtors said landlords are suffering too and the consequences of the ordinance could be dire for them.
“Bottom line, communities will struggle for years to recover from the economic damages we have experienced over the past 10 months,” Murawski said during Tuesday’s meeting. “The impact of such sweeping legislation you are considering today will be felt much harsher on small landlords.”
Brittany Markley, 34, said she believes she could have used such an ordinance back when she was renting in southwest suburban Crestwood and found herself in a dispute with her landlord over her security deposit. She was one of dozens of supporters who testified in favor of the ordinance Tuesday.
“I’m really happy that it’s passing and it’s going through. The suburbs can be equal to the city of Chicago, especially now,” Markley said in a phone interview. “I just think it’s going to give hope to renters.”