Renting in Cool Blue Illinois: Protections, Freedoms, and Support

by | Feb 1, 2024 | Affordable Housing, Community Engagement, Fort Wayne Media Collaborative, Renters, Uncategorized | 0 comments

What a difference a border makes! Illinois, known for its Democratic leanings in the heart of the more Republican Midwest, has set up some of its laws to protect both renters and landlords. However, with an increasing demand for affordable housing, Illinois’ housing market continues to be competitive and expensive.

Illinois Rules and Laws

Protections for landlords and tenants start with the laws that govern them. Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office publishes the “Landlord and Tenant Rights and Laws” to help navigate these roles. According to the AG, some protections that Illinois renters have are:

  1. They can ask that necessary repairs be made, and use this as a viable defense against eviction if they withhold a portion of their rent when the landlord has not paid for the utilities (in cases in which the landlord is responsible) or has failed to make repairs after being given notice that they were needed. 
  2. They’re free from retaliation and protected by the law from retaliation if they make a complaint, request a repair, join a tenants’ organization, or report a health code violation.

Most renter responsibilities are typical in the US. For example, renters in Illinois are required to pay rent according to the schedule specified on the lease and keep the rental unit in good condition. Making changes to the rental unit must be approved by the landlord, and when it’s time to move out, renters must give a 30-day notice unless the lease specifies a longer period of time.

Ryan Felgenhauer rents a two-bedroom apartment in Avondale, a neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago. His renting experience has been positive overall. He said, “I do feel like I’m protected by the law. Thankfully I haven’t had to exercise it, but Illinois and Chicago in particular has fairly strong renter protections. I’m confident that, were I put into a bad situation, I would be protected by these laws while I find a new situation.”

Some of his luck with renting corresponds to having a good landlord and a stabilized monthly rent cost. “Rents in my area have been going up quickly over the last few years, as gentrification of the ‘cool’ neighborhoods next to mine have made rent prices too high for newcomers. As a result, a lot of folks are renting up here where things are cheaper, but that’s been trending upwards since I moved in a few years ago. I myself have pretty reasonable rent, since I lucked into a private landlord who doesn’t hike the rent up every single year.” 

Standards and Requirements for Landlords

Landlord responsibilities include that they must ensure that the rental unit is in proper condition and that it meets or exceeds state and local health and housing codes. They must also make all necessary repairs and can make rules and regulations about living in their properties. Landlords set costs; they establish the amount for rent and the security deposit, and are allowed to charge fees for late rent payments. 

Arleen Tino Martinez, who lives and works north of Chicago, offered her experience as an Illinois landlord, starting with the basics of what rent has to cover. “Most landlords have properties with mortgages. When deciding on the rate for rental property, the market rate must at least cover various expenses such as the mortgage, insurance costs, maintenance expenses, property tax increases, and a bit towards savings for a rainy day, to be considered self-sufficient.”

Like renter Ryan Felgenhauer, she said she had not experienced unfair rules or restraints in her role as a landlord. “Even for the eviction process, I did not find it unfair. The court attempted to mediate the back pay owed.” Unfortunately, her former tenants did not qualify for the Illinois Court-Based Rental Assistance Program, which they needed to receive assistance, and this caused additional delays to the eviction process. 

“I think it would have been helpful for the program to give the qualifications up front to avoid getting any hopes up on either the tenant or the landlord side. The mediation process significantly extended the overall eviction timeline, tacking on an extra 12 weeks.” Three court dates—to mandate mediation, establish mediation terms, and find that previously agreed-upon terms had not been met—prolonged the process.  “Each of these steps consumed more than six weeks, not to mention the additional eight weeks’ wait for the sheriff to enforce the eviction.”

Martinez noted that there is room to improve landlord protections for the property. “I just wish there was a better way to enforce lease terms in place to protect the home from damage. As of right now, my concern is retaliation against the home since the tenant has been evicted and (is now) waiting for the sheriff to force them out of the property. Landlord insurance policies do not cover damage resulting from a violation of the lease and the renter’s insurance policy does not cover the negligence or intentional actions against the property.”

Challenges with Housing Supply and Affordability

About one-third of housing units in Illinois are apartments, and they’re in higher demand compared to 2017 because since then, the rental vacancy rate has shrunk from 10.3% to 7.3%. However, finding an affordable rental can be a big challenge. That’s where organizations like the Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA) fill in gaps to help both renters and homeowners. It’s a self-supporting agency that administers publicly funded programs, and its mission is to finance the creation and preservation of affordable housing in Illinois.

One of every 18 rental units was built or rehabilitated with IHDA funds; they have financed over 150,000 affordable rental homes. They help people find affordable apartments through their free bilingual website, ILHousingsearch.org

In 2022, the median gross rent in Illinois ($1,170) included monthly contract rent plus monthly payments for electricity, gas, water and sewer, and any fuels used to heat the home. Rent in Chicago skewed higher; according to the ABC7 Data Team, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment there cost $1,385 in September 2023, an increase of almost 24% from one year before. 

In a recent interview, the Executive Director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, John Bartlett, said that rent hikes were a main cause of conflict between renters and landlords. “It’s a phenomenon going on everywhere, and certainly in Chicago, that rents are going up everywhere, whether the landlords fix things or not… It’s really putting stress on particulary middle- and low-income earners, because surely their wages are not increasing at the same rate.”

Rent hikes can go as far as doubling the rent. Bartlett said, “Unfortunately, the state of Illinois has decided there can’t be any rent control.”

When faced with climbing rent costs, tenants can choose to stay in an unaffordable home or assume the costs of moving. While some can negotiate with a landlord who’s invested in the community, many find that they cannot negotiate with a corporate landlord. 

Bartlett said, “It’s these large corporate owners that own hundreds and hundreds of units. They’re the ones that are driving the market at this point, and they’re the ones looking at every little possible way they are able to squeeze more money out of renters.”

As a result, renters may be forced to search for new housing, a time-consuming and expensive endeavor. Fortunately, some organizations can help those who find themselves in that situation.

Assistance for Renters and Landlords

Illinois Legal Aid’s website explores topics such as how to evict a renter, defend yourself from eviction or stop eviction proceedings, and request emergency rent assistance. It also provides financial information about bankruptcy and other issues potentially related to housing. 

In some of these cases, mediation may be the best approach. Center for Conflict Resolution’s Executive Director Cassie Lively described the support her organization provides to renters mainly in the Chicago area. They serve about 10,000 people per year and host Zoom calls with many breakout rooms designed to connect people to resources like rental assistance, legal aid, and mediation.

“As a community mediation center, we provide free mediation services and other conflict resolutions services to anyone who’s interested in accessing them. A big part of what we what we do is landlord-tenant and eviction services.” The Center is open to both tenants and landlords. “It’s meant to benefit everyone who might be going through the eviction process. We make it faster and easier for them to connect with all the resources they might need.” 

Lively said, “We use the facilitative model of mediation, so our mediators don’t provide advice, they don’t suggest solutions, they don’t try to push people into an agreement, but instead work them through a process of interest-based negotiation.”

Center for Conflict Resolution is part of the Cook County Legal Aid for Housing and Debt, a collaboration of eight organizations that provide free legal help for residents of Cook County. 

Renters, landlords, homeowners, lawyers, and lawmakers all play a role in the Illinois housing market. External factors like Covid-19, which expanded rental assistance starting in 2020, continue to influence the rental market as funds that were earmarked for rental assistance run out. Illinois renters don’t have rent control, but they do have rights that renters in neighboring states may not have. Working together, the government, legal professionals, and nonprofits aim to keep Illinois renters and landlords safe, solvent, and sheltered. 

Author

  • Gabi Lorino

    Gabi Lorino is a writer, editor, and organizer of people and words. Her feature articles and short stories have been published in newspapers, newsletters, magazines, websites, and books. She has self-published one book, A Magical Time Called Later, in addition to a journal series, and has edited short story anthologies.