By Christopher Placek
A renters' rights ordinance proposed by a pair of North and Northwest suburban Cook County commissioners won unanimous approval from the full county board Thursday, after a series of negotiations with, and concessions from, groups representing both landlords and tenants.
Chief co-sponsor Commissioner Scott Britton of Glenview said the final 29-page piece of legislation -- dubbed the Residential Tenant and Landlord Ordinance -- is the result of 20 hours of meetings with advocacy groups, more than 40 line-item concessions and six comprehensive edits since last July.
Modeled after a 1986 Chicago ordinance, the new county rules limit late rent fees and security deposits, allow renters to withhold rent payments when repairs aren't made or working utilities aren't supplied, and stiffen penalties for lockouts, among other provisions.
"The residents of suburban Cook have been waiting 35 years for the same rights," Britton said just before the board's 16-0 vote Thursday morning. "I believe this ordinance is appropriate, it is balanced, it is fair and it is time."
While groups representing landlords said they appreciated a seat at the table and that revisions were made, they still believe the new rules will be a burden on owners and could lead to higher rents.
"Despite the changes, the ordinance still imposes 30 pages of new, complex regulations governing the landlord-tenant relationship at a time when many housing providers are struggling for their survival due to lost rental income resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic," according to a statement from the Neighborhood Building Owners Alliance, which represents some 600 owners of smaller and mid-sized apartment buildings.
Added Tom Benedetto, government affairs director for the Chicagoland Apartment Association, which represents larger property managers: "This is pouring salt in the wound of housing providers."
Co-sponsor Commissioner Kevin Morrison of Mount Prospect said the new rules would extend rights to some 245,000 apartment dwellers in Cook County who aren't already covered by tenant ordinances in Chicago, Mount Prospect and Evanston.
"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. "We didn't just put forward an ordinance, garner the votes and pass it on the spot. We took months of discussion with landlord and renter groups, as well as advocates, and we all sat at the table to try to make a better policy."
Among the concessions, the ordinance exempts owner-occupied buildings of six or fewer units, single-family dwellings where the owner or a family member has lived in the past year, and single-room apartments where a tenant has lived for less than a month.
Though landlords had pushed for giving judges discretion when determining penalties and fines, the approved ordinance contains a right for landlords to cure administrative errors, giving them a chance to fix a problem within two business days and not be sued. Such errors could include failure to disclose the address of a bank where a security deposit is held or transferred, or not providing the names of people authorized to enter an apartment.
"It was not our intention to create a new cottage industry of lawyers suing people in suburban Cook County for minor infractions," Britton said.
The ordinance takes effect in June, though an anti-lockout provision applies immediately.