The City of Chicago has many laws that landlords (and any owner of residential property) must follow when it comes to maintaining their buildings. Most tenants know that they need to report problems with their building to their landlord in writing. But many do not know what to do if the landlord doesn't respond. If the problem isn't fixed, tenants can report the problem to the city.
What happens when you report a problem?
The city will dispatch a building inspector to come take a look. Depending on the nature of the problem you may have to wait a few days or weeks for your appointment.
If the inspector finds a problem that breaks the city's laws, they will not send out the police to arrest your landlord. The landlord will be fined – like a parking ticket – and may have to attend a court hearing to prove that the problem has been fixed.
Your landlord does not have to know that you reported the problem, although if you're reporting a problem in your own apartment it's pretty easy for them to figure it out. However, they cannot retaliate against you for reporting the problem to the city.
Why should you report a problem to the city?
The city has about 22,000 buildings on their list for regular annual inspections. Included in that building are apartment buildings with 20 or more units. Annual inspections look at areas that the inspector can reach – this means that problems inside your apartment will not be seen unless you happen to be home on the day that the inspector shows up. According to the data from Cook County Open Data Portal, there are over 500,000 buildings in Chicago. If you want to make sure the city knows about a problem in your apartment, you need to ask for an inspection rather than waiting and hoping that they notice on their own.
The city makes the results of inspections available for public review. RentConfident uses this information as part of the process of creating our apartment risk reports. However, if there's nothing on record, there's no way for future renters to know about the problems you've dealt with first-hand.
When and how should you report a problem?
Reporting a problem to the city should be an act of last resort. Here are some steps to take before you call the city:
1. Figure out if the problem is actually criminal in nature.
If someone is committing a crime in your building it isn't actually a building code problem. If the problem involves a person behaving in a criminal way then you should call the police. For criminal activity that is currently happening and is an immediate threat to life, injury or major damage, call 911. For other criminal activity call 311.
If the problem stems from something that is broken in the building then continue to step 2.
2. Ask your landlord.
Contact your landlord or property manager in writing to let them know about the problem. If it's a life essential service, they have 3 days to fix it. If it's any other problem, they have 2 weeks. Life essential services include:
- Running Water
- Hot Water
- Immediate Danger
Note that if the loss of power, gas or water is due to you not paying a utility bill that's in your name then the landlord is not at fault.
3. Verify the law. (optional)
The City of Chicago Building code is long and complex. There's a lot of laws that your landlord must follow, and they vary depending on the type of building and its age. Not every inconvenience is actually illegal. However, many things that tenants don't even think about are on the books. The city's laws can be found and searched online at the American Legal Publishing Corporation's online database.
Do your best to find the law that pertains to your situation. Sections of the law that are most likely to apply are Titles 5 and 13. If you can figure it out, that's great, but if not, don't worry about it. The language is pretty complicated!
4. Report your problem to the city.
Now it's time to report your problem to the city. The City department of Buildings requires all building code violation reports to be submitted online.
(Links updated Apr. 18 2019)
If you have no heat and it's between September 1 and June 1, you can report here.
If your complaint relates to unshoveled sidewalks, report here.
If your landlord is doing major construction work and has not posted a building permit, report it here.
For all other building violation complaints, report them here.
5. Be ready for your inspection.
If the inspector will need to enter your apartment to view the problem, make sure that you, a roommate or a friend that you trust can be at home to let them in. If there is furniture blocking the problem area, clear a path so that the inspector can get through. If you have pets, make sure to crate them on the day that the inspector arrives.
6. Know who to contact in case your landlord retaliates.
You are entirely within your rights to complain to the city about building code violations in your apartment, but reporting a problem to the city should be a step of last resort. Your landlord will probably be fined and they may have to go to court.
If you're in a situation that has pushed you to file a report then you probably think they deserve this sort of punishment. However, many landlords try to silence tenants that complain to the city. They may raise the rent by a huge amount to try and force you to move out. They may attempt to evict you or choose to not renew your lease. In Chicago, tenants who report building code violations to the city or to the media are protected from this kind of retaliation.
If your landlord takes this kind of action and you do not want to move out, you can defend yourself in court. You will want the help of an attorney, but fortunately there are many out there who help tenants even if they have little to no income. Here's a list of sources you can contact to get help.
Note: Inclusion in the list below is not an endorsement.
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