Dear editor, 

As a renter in Hyde Park, my neighbors and I have been able to access critical protections and regulations in the rental market for decades via the Chicago Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance. However, all you have to do is step across the city bounds to find yourself on much more unsteady legal ground. The proposed Cook County Residential Tenant Landlord Ordinance (RTLO) provides a chance to finally bridge the gap.

The law will extend minimum standards of safety, equity, and dignity to the 245,000 renters in suburban Cook County. It will prevent unreasonable late fees, illegal lockouts, and retaliation against tenants. Far from revolutionary, the provisions will provide basic floors for actors in the rental market.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made it clearer than ever before that a stable, healthy home is essential for both individual and collective well-being. We have only begun to see the fallout from this public health crisis with renters facing unprecedented insecurity.

As we work to recover and rebuild in the new year, we must ensure that renters’ economic hardships are not made worse by exorbitant move-in charges, sky-high security deposits, or punitive late fees.

The RTLO will address these issues and will additionally promote racial equity. Renters are disproportionately Black, Indigenous, or other people of color, and are vastly overrepresented in local evictions. The pandemic has further wreaked havoc on these communities both in terms of health and employment.

While the majority of landlords already approach their tenants with fairness, the law will prevent bad actors from crafting exploitative leases, neglecting repairs, and illegally locking out tenants (a practice that is all-too common). Just as communities of color are most negatively impacted by these actions, so will they disproportionately benefit from their reform.

The ordinance will also increase health and safety for renters by defining material standards for units and allowing renters to deduct eligible out-of-pocket fixes from their rent in cases of landlord neglect. With Black families 1.7 times more likely than whites to live in homes with severe physical problems, implications for racial equity are clear in this regard.

In a national market which is already out-of-reach for many renters, a lack of ceilings and floors only creates more instability for renters. And when renters blow the whistle on malfeasance, some landlords will retaliate with increased costs or even eviction notices. The Cook County ordinance will curb these practices and provide a safe pathway for tenants to adjudicate their grievances.

The RTLO will not remake the road when it comes to the many challenges facing renters and landlords, but it will build strong guardrails to keep them on track. For decades, the citizens of Chicago have relied on these laws to navigate a more just rental ecosystem. The time has come to extend these rights to everyone in Cook County.

Dominic Voz

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