Cook County commissioners propose rules to protect suburban renters

A pair of North and Northwest suburban Cook County commissioners have proposed an ordinance aimed at safeguarding an estimated 245,000 apartment dwellers in the suburbs - new rules they say are a long time coming.

But they face pushback from groups representing landlords who fear the regulations would stifle the housing market and cause rents to rise.

The proposed legislation - called the Residential Tenant and Landlord Ordinance - would 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 measure is up for a vote Tuesday by the county board's zoning and building committee, before the full board considers it Thursday. It wouldn't apply to owner-occupied buildings of six or fewer units.

Many of the rules mirror a Chicago ordinance that went into effect in 1986.

"The point of this ordinance is to address what is to me a glaring need for help for Cook County renters," said Commissioner Scott Britton of Glenview, who is a chief sponsor with Commissioner Kevin Morrison of Mount Prospect. "Ninety-nine percent of landlords are great. I have friends who own residential buildings. They do a good job. But there are some bad apples, like in every business."

The freshmen Cook County commissioners have been working on the ordinance since being elected to the board in 2018, but they say they've accelerated their efforts in recent months to deal with a situation heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Critics in the real estate industry argue the proponents are capitalizing on the pandemic to pass their legislative wish list, at a time landlords' revenues have plummeted and their costs have increased.

Jeff Weinberg, a landlord and board member of the Neighborhood Building Owners Alliance, argues the ordinance would punish landlords for small, unintentional technical mistakes, with the potential of racking up thousands of dollars in fines and attorneys fees. He says those costs eventually would be passed along to renters in the form of higher rents.

"I'm not saying there shouldn't be an ordinance. There's bad actors out there. Tenants need to have some protections," Weinberg said. "Where I'm coming from is that all landlords are not bad, evil people. Those days are long gone."

Under the county proposal, late fees would be limited to $10 a month for the first $1,500 in rent, plus 5% per month for anything above that level. Security deposits could not be more than 1.5 times a month's rent, or be disguised as "move-in" fees. Landlords who lock out their tenants - an action already illegal under state law - can be fined up to $500 a day.

Weinberg's group, which includes some 600 landlords of smaller apartment buildings, has joined with the Chicagoland Apartment Association, which represents larger property managers, and Illinois Realtors in opposing the ordinance.

Britton said ongoing negotiations with those groups have led to 20 revisions of the proposal since July. But their key request - to give judges discretion when determining penalties and fines - appears to have been shot down.

"If you don't have an enforcement mechanism with some teeth to it, lawyers who are going to be enforcing this for the tenants are not going to take these cases," Britton said. "We have to have some kind of mechanism by which these people can be represented in court."

Besides Chicago, similar ordinances are on the books in Mount Prospect and Evanston. The proposed county regulations wouldn't apply to towns with their own versions.

If approved, the ordinance would take effect in June, though an anti-lockout provision would apply immediately.

Kevin Morrison
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