Anniversary of Chicago’s Landlords and Tenants Ordinance

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the passage of Chicago’s Landlords and Tenants Ordinance, a landmark piece of legislation that governs most residential dwelling units in Chicago.  “Prior to the RLTO’s passage,” says Larry Wood, Director of LAF’s Housing Practice Group, “there was a significant imbalance of power between residential property owners and their tenants, and unscrupulous landlords took terrible advantage of this imbalance.”  Thousands of low-income tenants suffered the worst abuses, including deplorable living conditions, retaliation for complaining about such conditions, excessive late fees, unreturned security deposits, and lock-outs (i.e., evictions without authority of law).

Recognizing the need for legislation that would help them address these problems, LAF attorney Bill Wilen and Henry Rose, now a law professor at Loyola University, drafted the RLTO, and Chicago Alderman David Orr tried to get some version of this legislation passed every year after Harold Washington was elected Mayor.  Finally, on September 8, 1986, the Chicago City Council passed the RLTO.

“It withstood an immediate constitutional challenge from the Chicago Board of Realtors,” said Mr. Wilen, “and it leveled the playing field by giving all residential tenants, including those with extremely limited resources, fundamentally important rights and protections, as well as the means to enforce them.”  For example, the RLTO set forth rules governing the treatment of security deposits, authorized a tenant to withhold rent to address a landlord’s failure to properly maintain the premises, and prohibited excessive late fees, retaliatory evictions, and lock-outs.  It also imposed automatic financial penalties for violating RLTO provisions, and contained an attorneys’ fee provision to motivate lawyers to represent low-income tenants who have meritorious claims under the RLTO.

LAF is proud of its instrumental role in the RLTO’s passage, and of the way LAF and other tenants’ rights groups have used the RLTO to help thousands of Chicago tenants improve their living conditions and defend themselves against unprincipled and overreaching landlords.

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