Applying for Apartments in Chicago and Cook County in 2020

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If you're a renter applying for an apartment anywhere within Cook County in 2020 the process is going to be a little different than it has been in previous years. It will probably take longer than it has before, it will be in two steps, and for the first few months of the year it's going to be absolute mayhem. This is not only going to be the case for Chicago but for all of Cook County, including suburbs like Evanston, Cicero, Elmwood Park, Berwyn and Oak Park. And for once, it isn't just going to be the big landlords who have to change how they operate, but every single landlord in the county.

I talked a little about the Just Housing Amendment back in September but there have been some changes following disputes over how it is to be implemented from the landlord lobby.

What's The Big Deal?

Cook County has enacted the Just Housing Amendment to their Human Rights Ordinance.

  • It prohibits landlords from asking about criminal history on applications.
  • It forces landlords, agents and home sellers to pre-qualify applicants for housing before looking at their criminal history.
  • It requires landlords to investigate every applicant with a criminal history on the basis of their individual record, and only deny them housing based on that record if the crimes occurred within the past 3 years and the offenses show a "demonstrable risk" to the property or other residents.
  • It protects those with expunged records, charges, citations and arrests without convictions from being treated as convicted criminals within the housing application process.
  • Landlords must also take into consideration if disabilities such as mental illness, addiction or physical impairments were contributing factors in the commission of the crime in question, as denying someone on these grounds is discrimination against the disabled.

It takes effect on December 31, 2019 and the County will be able to start issuing penalties for violations as of January 31, 2020. The Commission for Human Rights will observe how the county reacts to the new law over the course of 2020 and will issue recommendations for tweaks and fixes to the County Board at the end of March, 2021.

You can read the [text of the Cook County Just Housing amendment here] You can read the rules of how the county will interpret the Just Housing amendment here.

Why Are They Doing This?

This change to the laws seeks to eliminate discrimination against the nearly 30% of the population that has a criminal record, a percentage which disproportionately affects persons of color. Landlords have been denying renters with any sort of criminal record for ages, regardless of how long it's been since the crime occurred and the nature of the crime. In some cases they use it to keep out renters of color. Since the announcement from HUD a few years back that these blanket refusals are de facto violations of fair housing laws protecting against racial discrimination, landlords have still been denying renters and buyers based on their criminal history but claiming that the denials are based on other reasons such as credit reports.

By requiring the landlords to look at a renter's payment and rental history and issue a pre-approval to rent prior to them running a criminal history check, the Just Housing Amendment seeks to prevent all of these sketchy practices.

Does This Mean More Criminals Will Be Renting In My Building?

Probably not. If nearly a third of the population has a record, chances are you're already surrounded by people with criminal histories. They may not be on a lease but they could be crashing with friends. They might not be murderers or drug dealers but they may have been convicted for possession of illegal substances, drunk driving, failing to pay child support, failing to pay their income taxes, shoplifting or running a red light. All of these things can cause someone to have a criminal record. Most of them have no impact on your life as a neighbor. All of them have been used by landlords as reasons to deny housing to people.

What it means is that people who have already done their time in the justice system will no longer have to keep being punished by landlords once they're released. It means they won't have such a hard time finding housing. It means they can get leases of their own, mailing addresses to use on job applications, it's generally a good thing.

If you're worried about the building filling up with sex offenders, don't be. Sex offenders are not protected by this amendment. If you have been convicted of a sex offense that requires you to register your address or restricts the areas where you can live, landlords are still completely allowed to deny housing to you.

How Does This Affect the Application Process?

There's a couple of ways that landlords might implement this. There's many ways that agents could implement it.

If you're renting direct, make sure that you leave extra time for your application to be processed, as the landlord now has to do it in two parts. They have to pull your credit, rental history and income data, issue the pre-approval to you, and then go back and run your criminal history. Expect this to add anywhere from an extra day to an extra week to the wait time between when you apply and when you can sign a lease.

If you're working with an agent, expect the vetting process to begin much earlier than it has in the past. It's very likely that we'll see a shift to something similar to the home-buying process, where it's much easier to get an agent to work with you if you've already been pre-qualified for a loan. Expect agents to ask for paystubs, rental history and even permission to pull a credit report before you ever go out to look at apartments.

Renter's resumes may become more important in this new environment. Renters with criminal histories will need to add documentation they can use to prove a disability or rehabilitation efforts since the conviction to the standard arsenal of documents they bring along on their apartment searches such as paystubs and state ID cards.

You can expect that rental application processing is going to be utter chaos over the next few months. Landlords who use cheaper screening services will have to switch to services that can split up the criminal and credit reports. They may start charging more for application fees accordingly. Landlords who have never screened for criminal history before may now start doing so. As someone who processed a lot of rental applications in my time, I can tell you right now that it's going to be a disaster until well into summertime. Smaller landlords who have never used any screening service before might be forced to start using one.

What Do I Do If I'm Denied Housing Based on My Criminal Record?

There's three big ways a landlord can run afoul of the new amendment. They can continue running combined credit/criminal checks. They can use inconsistent screening criteria for their applicant pool. They can deny you housing based on a conviction that either a) doesn't show demonstrable risk, b) was the result of a disability, c) occurred more than three years ago, or d) has been expunged or otherwise removed from your record.

If they're still running combined background checks, asking about criminal history on their application or using inconsistent screening criteria you can file a complaint with the Cook County Commission on Human Rights.

If they follow all the new rules but issue you a written denial based on your criminal history, you will have 5 business days to challenge their decision by providing proof such as recommendations from your employer or respected community members such as teachers or counselors, letters from your physician, proof of expungement, proof that you were arrested but not convicted, degrees or certifications you've obtained since the time of your conviction, certificates of good conduct from the court, or a letter from your parole officer. Make sure you are prompt in submitting these documents and make sure you keep a copy for yourself.

A New Red Flag For Renters

Renters with and without criminal histories can use this new law as a kind of benchmark to assess the awareness and responsibility of any new potential landlord throughout 2020. Landlords don't usually expect new laws to come out of Cook County. The city government? Sure. The state? Yeah, ok. But Cook County? Anyone who isn't paying close attention to every new law will probably be blindsided. You want a landlord who's paying attention to industry best practices. Normally it takes a lot of feeling around and gut instinct to know if a landlord has a clue. But this year? It's so easy. All it takes is a quick glance at the application and a couple of quick questions.

  • If their application asks about criminal history or felony convictions, walk away. They're clueless.
  • Ask them if they have a written policy about their tenant screening criteria. In the 2020 market any landlord who doesn't want to get sued should be able to produce something like this immediately.
  • Ask them how long it takes them to process the application. If they don't mention something about the "new two-step approval process", prod them a bit to see if they cough up some acknowledgement of the new amendment. If they still give you nothing, chances are they don't know.

What do you think of the new amendment? Are you happy that it exists? Annoyed? Are you worried that you'll wind up living next to an axe murderer? Are you concerned that your housing search will take twice as long this year? Let us know in the comments, or at Rentconfident on Facebook or Twitter.

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Published by

Kay Cleaves

2 thoughts on “Applying for Apartments in Chicago and Cook County in 2020”

  1. This will be mayhem Kay. The Comission has not done a good job of explaining the rules. How detailed must the tenant selection criteria be? What if a landlord is not conducting a criminal background check at all – do they still have to go through this process? What about Chicago which is a home-rule municipality that has its own fair housing law – is the Cook County law preempted by the Chicago law? This is going to be a mess and Cook County needs to get some materials out to landlords to help them make sense of it because a Human Rights Ordinance violation is no joke!

    1. I agree fully that communication will be key in the success or failure of this initiative. County can't even ferret out illegal apartments and that's an income issue. Can we expect them to mount a communication campaign to county landlords with any reasonable impact? Doubt it. It will fall to agents, attorneys, NGOs and wronged tenants to get the word out.

      A lot will depend on how the real estate community reacts, particularly the apartment locators with large processing departments. I think the large scale C and D class investors who still use those services may take their cues from there. Once you get into the A and B class investors it becomes less of an issue purely from an affordability standpoint, although there are certainly criminals at all income levels and I'm sure the ABOMA crew all screen thoroughly. ABOMA crew can afford to split their background checks.

      As for home rule, we can make some inferences based on how the industry has handled protections of Section 8 renters, who are explicitly protected under County ordinance but not under Chicago city ordinance. You're the attorney and I'm not so correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm guessing that unless Chicago overrules Cook with a conflicting law, the buck passes from city to county. I know when I was working brokerage the few city Realtors who did rentals treated the County Section 8 protections as valid within the city as well. However, I also know that this is still not a universal practice 5 years later.

      Have to consider how far up the food chain a case might go. Any case would start litigation at county level, not city, but if it goes up to state as the similar Seattle law has done? ILGA passed a law making people with arrest records into a protected class. They're headed in the same direction but ILGA is not the IL Supreme Court.

      Meanwhile, HUD's made it clear that they're pulling back on disparate impact cases. The whole issue of criminal screening is a disparate impact issue. Their announcements make it all the more crucial for landlords to use third party screening services. Far too few of these services offer split credit and crim checks. Far too many landlords claim to be screening crim but really only screen credit. Remember that a proper full IL crim check by a consumer takes 2 weeks, and most rental apps are processed in 24 hours. But who knows what Fed policy will be a year from now? And who knows how the screening market will respond to these new laws? Are ex-con friendly laws in Seattle and Cook enough to merit new product lines?

      Also interested to see how it plays out in suburban Cook communities that already have landlord licensing in place and "crime free" lease addendums. There's a big difference between housing policies in, i.e, Skokie vs Oak Park. County will have to deal with all of those varied approaches in addition to the mess that is Chicago.

      We saw this before with the County overextending its reach and then backpedaling in the case of the whole sweetened beverage tax fiasco. However, that was a luxury commodity that could be communicated via a known set of licensed businesses, not something as life-essential as housing with such a varied population of vendors as the local landlord community is.

      This article will close for comments in a few hours so I doubt you'll be able to reply here. I sent you my new email address in May of 2018, so hit me up there if you have any further input.

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