Smile Politely

The Reality of Retaliatory Eviction, Part 2

(This is the second in a two-part series regarding retaliatory eviction issues relating to tenants and landlords in the greater Champaign-Urbana area. The previous part is featured here on Smile Politely.)

Lindsay Bever spent last winter trying to heat her apartment in Champaign with her oven. Her heat stopped working. She had complained to her landlord, who Bever said, did nothing about it.

Four years prior to Bever’s experience with her landlord, the Illinois General Assembly had passed the Residential Tenants’ Right to Repair Act, which was meant to give tenants a way to sidestep inept landlords.

However, tenants like Bever still have little recourse.

Across Illinois, and the nation, tenants grapple with recalcitrant landlords who drag their feet in making repairs while pocketing checks from tenants. In Champaign-Urbana, where the number of renters is above the national and state average, things aren’t much different.

Tenants have few remedies against negligent landlords. State laws, like the Right to Repair Act, are weak due to Illinois’ powerful real estate lobby, and local building inspectors give plenty of leeway to landlords.

The Right to Repair Act allows tenants faced with negligent landlords to deduct half their rent or $500 (whichever is the lesser amount) to pay for a repair to their rental.

With a serious problem, like a broken heating system, the law probably would have done little for someone in Bever’s situation.

In a university town like Champaign-Urbana, tenant issues are particularly salient due to the large number of renters. The 2006 U.S. Census estimates that about half of Champaign’s 31,050 housing units are renter occupied. In Urbana, 63 percent of the city’s 15,300 units are renter occupied, according to the same data.

About 33 percent of housing in the U.S. is renter occupied according to 2006 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. Illinois has about the same percentage statewide.

The cities also have large swaths of aging property, which are prone to breaking down and becoming dangerous. In Champaign, almost 22,000 housing units were built before 1989, according to 2000 census data. In Urbana, that number is nearly 13,000.

“The number one problem tenants face all over the country would be repair problems,” says Esther Patt, the coordinator of the Tenant Union at the University of Illinois. “I often find myself saying to a client ‘there is no swift effective remedy under the law for repairs.’”

Patt explains that the act isn’t very helpful when a tenant is confronted with a potentially serious maintenance issue and a landlord who drags their feet about repairing it. Because the law caps the amount a tenant can deduct for a repair, they may be able to fix something like a leaky toilet, but would have no real way to address a problem like a collapsed roof or a severely clogged chimney, says Patt.

“The repairs that people get the most upset about are ones that a tenant couldn’t hire anyone to do,” notes Patt.

She also adds that building maintenance workers are unlikely to make any invasive repairs solely at the behest of a tenant, and she suspects that landlords are often aware of the weakness of this law.

“I don’t know anyone yet who has tested it,” says Mick Woolf, a counselor with the Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union, of the law in an interview.

Woolf says that sometimes he mentions the law to clients, but he always points out to them that using it is “a narrow road.” Woolf explains that the law is accompanied by a litany of very specific conditions under which it can be applied. He also says that he makes a point of explaining to clients that using the law could stir up more trouble with a landlord who doesn’t see eye-to-eye on the repair.

Julie Eckard, executive director of the Illinois Rental Property Owners Association, told me in a telephone interview that her organization opposes the law.

She said that she is uneasy with the idea of a tenant bringing in someone she didn’t know to work on a problem she was unsure was serious enough.

“I would rather have my own people work on it,” says Eckard, of making a repair on one of her rentals.

She also added that members of her association are good about expediting repairs.

Dan Hamelberg, of the University Group apartment rental company and member of the Central Illinois Apartment Association, stated in an e-mail that the association doesn’t have a stance on the law.

Several other landlords were interviewed for this article. They all said that they had never had a tenant attempt to use the act, nor had they heard of anyone attempting to use it. None of them even knew the law existed.

“I have yet to hear of someone actually using it,” says Kate Walz a senior staff attorney at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, in a telephone interview.

Walz explains that it is extremely difficult to pass any comprehensive legislation aimed at strengthening the remedies of tenants in Illinois due the strength of the Illinois Association of Realtors.

Walz says that the bill’s primary sponsor, state Senator Jacqueline Collins (D-Chicago), negotiated heavily with the association to prevent them from attempting to block it.

On the floor of the Illinois State Senate, Collins mentioned that the IAR had approached “some issues” concerning the legislation. However, Collins continued proclaiming that steps were taken to “…appease the concerns levied by the concerns levied by the realtors…”

“It’s a tenant’s right,” said Rep. Naomi Jakobsson (D-Urbana) of the law she helped wrangle through the legislature in a telephone interview. “Sometimes tenants report things and they wait and they wait.”

Jakobsson didn’t recall the influence of the association when the bill was passed, nor did she recall anyone claiming the act was weak in protecting tenants.

Looking at transcripts of the Illinois House of Representatives debate on the bill the question of how effective it would be protecting tenants never did not come up, nor were any concerns raised in the senate. Instead, a chorus of concerns over the technicalities of the bill rose from legislators who owned rental property.

The Residential Tenants’ Right to Repair Act is not the only avenue tenants have to remedy problems in their rental. Often times the building inspector is the first resort to getting something repaired in their rental, but getting action can be a drawn-out process.

“We try to keep confrontation to a minimum,” says Susan Salzman, Champaign’s property maintenance supervisor, of the conciliatory approach the city takes toward landlords in a telephone interview.

Salzman serves as city liaison to the Central Illinois Apartment Association, an organization that seeks to advance landlord interests. She said in an interview that she helps advise the organization on landlord responsibilities and the work of inspectors.

Urbana has a liaison as well.

Salzman says that when a tenant complains to building inspectors an inspection is scheduled. Following the inspection a notice of any violations is sent to a landlord who is given 30 days to fix any problems, says Salzman.

If no action is taken, a landlord gets an additional 14 days to remedy the situation. After that, a landlord can be granted further extensions before it is passed over to the city’s legal department, says Salzman. However, if a maintenance issue jeopardizes the physical safety of a tenant, the city takes much more pressing action.

According to Stephen Chrisman, a building inspector with the City of Urbana, the process is nearly identical in Urbana.

“It is quite a process,” says Woolf, of getting a building inspector to apply leverage to landlord.

“They want to make kissy face with people who violate the law,” sneers Patt, who finds the conciliatory attitude of Champaign and Urbana building inspectors “vulgar and disgusting.”

Patt points out that if a tenant gets behind in their rent payments they are often slapped with late fees or outright eviction and finds it “very inequitable” that landlords are afforded so much leeway.

Despite what Patt characterized as weaknesses in both the Residential Tenants’ Right to Repair Act and the inspections process, she still says that it’s still good that tenants have them.

“Anytime something is codified in law, this is a good thing for tenants. They have a piece of paper they can wave around,” said Patt, who says that the threat of invoking the law can be enough to spur a landlord to fixing a repair.

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