Cook County must protect renters. Now more than ever.
In suburban Cook County, 245,000 renter households lack landlord tenant laws. Too many renters are not protected from landlord retaliation, and landlords can lock out tenants without being granted legal authority — even in the middle of a global pandemic, which has stripped away thousands of jobs across the county.
For decades, the City of Chicago has ensured fundamental renter protections. Lockouts are illegal, and landlords cannot retaliate against tenants for filing a complaint. But swaths of communities in suburban Cook County do not protect renters’ basic rights. These residents have no legal recourse when landlords charge unreasonable and undisclosed fees, fail to provide commonsense termination notices, or enter their homes without permission.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated this omission in our county ordinances. Thousands of residents are unemployed, and many face housing insecurities as excessive late rent fees compound.
The burden on renters is heavy. Between March and August this year, 3,339 eviction cases were filed in Cook County. That number surely has grown since, as the county’s rate of unemployment remains high. For many tenants, the weight is too much to carry. Even employed renters are scrambling to find housing and struggling to make ends meet.
According to public interest attorneys, the most common complaint from suburban renters with more severe housing challenges is retaliation from landlords when tenants ask for basic repairs. In some cases, landlords strike back with threats of rent increases or eviction.
In one instance, in Melrose Park, a landlord was not responsive when a tenant asked for a heater to be fixed. The tenant was left to heat their apartment on their own, and their electric bill increased — but the village had no tenant protections under the law when the renter attempted to deduct the expenses from their monthly rent.
In another case, near Glenview, an elderly individual with chronic respiratory issues who was connected to a ventilator fought their landlord against longstanding mold issues, a leaky roof and a dangerous pool. The landlord threatened them with an armed, off-duty police officer for simply joining together with neighbors, talking to their county commissioner, and asking for basic habitability in their home — and the tenant had no legal protections.
Enough is enough.
No renter in Cook County should face housing insecurity, arbitrary costs or undue fear because they lack fair protections.
Let us be clear: Most landlords already follow these best practices. Most tenants luckily don’t need these protections. But for those who do — because of those chronically bad landlords — Cook County must ensure uniform rights and responsibilities for suburban landlords and tenants. Otherwise, we’ve opened the door to discrimination and injustice.
This isn’t just about protecting renters. As eviction moratoriums sunset, landlords will need protections against property destruction and abandonment and to ensure they can safely collect rent. They also need consistent countywide rules to know how and when they can evict renters in humane ways and what their obligations are in extreme cases such as foreclosure — all with the mutual goal of getting rent current and resolving cases.
As Cook County commissioners, we believe renters should be able to avoid eviction if they pay off any balance due up until eviction proceedings. Security deposits should not be exorbitant and should returned to or deducted from renters based on a uniform set of rules. Fee and utility bills should be tied to actual expenses.
We can do all of this without putting small owner-occupied investors out of business by creating a carve out for these mom-and-pop shops. To us, this is common sense.
These ordinances were needed long before the pandemic, especially for residents of color, who have faced greater housing insecurity for years. According to the Center for American Progress, renters of color are more cost-burdened, and neighborhoods with more renters of color have higher rates of eviction. Legacies of housing discrimination make it more difficult for people of color to find alternate housing — even if they have the means — and can have longstanding impacts on a family’s financial security.
That must change.
Forty-three percent of suburban Cook County residents are renters. Chicago, Evanston and Mount Prospect tenants are protected, but too many other county residents are not given the same rights. We believe every renter in Cook County should be on the same playing field — no matter if they live in Chicago or a suburban community.
A new ordinance is a long-time coming. And the time to act is now.
Commissioner Scott Britton represents Cook County’s 14th District. Commissioner Kevin B. Morrison represents Cook County’s 15th District.
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