Wednesday, May 21, 2008

RLTO Amendment

On April 9, four aldermen proposed changes to Chicago's Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance to further exempt student housing and dormitories.

But I just helped a resident of University of Chicago's famous International House who for months was being harassed with lockouts and finally threatened with overnight removal by university police. A Greek national, she was quiet and paid her monthly rent reliably, but she disputed certain fees she says were not in her housing agreement.

I need your help to stop the amendments and to bring colleges, universities, and other nonprofit institutions that are currently exempt, under control of the RLTO. Please read on and e-mail me today with your comments so that I may compile them and forward them to the aldermen. I especially need comment and support from students and other residents of this kind of institutional housing who have experienced difficulties.

E-mail me your experiences and other comments
Read the proposed amendment to the RLTO at 5-12-020(c)
Read my counterproposal

Last week, with the help of Christine Kellogg of the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing, we filed an injunction to put a stop to the university's punitive actions against the I-House resident. But the resident told me that other students have been targeted in the past, most notably Amadou Cisse, the Ph.D. student who was shot to death last November while walking home off campus. After a six-year residency at I-House, Cisse unaccountably left the safe confines of International House two months before he was to finish school.

The RLTO, hard-won by housing rights activists in the 1980s, adds to existing state protections for both tenants and landlords, helping to govern their behavior. U. of C. incorrectly assumed that because they are exempt from the RLTO, they are also exempt from all laws regarding eviction, including 735 ILCS 5. I want to go back to the question of why they are exempt from the RLTO.

The proposed amendment would further exempt the very categories of resident that we should be protecting:

"5-12-020 Exclusions: Rental of the following dwelling units shall not be governed by this chapter, unless the rental agreement thereof is created to avoid the application of this chapter:

"(c) Housing accommodations in any hospital, convent, monastery, extended care facility, asylum or not-for-profit home for the aged, temporary overnight shelter, transitional shelter, or in a dormitory owned and operated by an elementary school, high school or institution of higher learning; student housing accommodations wherein a housing agreement or housing contract is entered into between the student and an institution of higher learningor student housing wherein the institution exercises control or supervision of the students; or student housing owned and operated by a tax exempt organization affiliated with an institution of higher learning."

My proposed amendment would reverse this by merging 5-12-020(b) and (c). 5-12-020(b) excludes various institutions when residents are there on a very temporary basis. It includes them when the resident resides there for more than a month and pays a monthly rent (i.e., when it's obvious that the resident is a tenant):

"(b) Dwelling units or housing accommodations in any hotels, motels, inns, tourist houses, rooming houses, and boardinghouses, hospital, convent, monastery, extended care facility, asylum or not-for-profit home for the aged, temporary overnight shelter, transitional shelter, or in a dormitory owned and operated by an elementary school, high school or institution of higher learning, but only until such time as the dwelling unit or housing accommodation has been occupied by a tenant for 32 or more continuous days and tenant pays a monthly rent, exclusive of any period of wrongful occupancy contrary to agreement with an owner. Notwithstanding the above, the prohibition against interruption of tenant occupancy set forth in Section 5-12-160 shall apply to every rented dwelling unit in such buildings within the City of Chicago. No landlord shall bring an action to recover possession of such unit, or avoid renting monthly in order to avoid the application of this chapter. Any willful attempt to avoid application of this chapter by an owner may be punishable by criminal or civil action."

It is clear that 5-12-020(c) is designed to circumvent the RLTO because the category of resident can be considered under a certain guardianship by the institution which owns and operates the housing. The need for certain special controls in these cases may be appropriate, but in my view -- as I explained today to Ald. Fioretti -- landlord-tenant law is the wrong place to be giving them this kind of power. Not only does it assume, often incorrectly, that these residents need quasi-parental control, it removes built-in protections under the RLTO and raises certain equal-protection questions. Among the problems with legislating this here:
  • It allows these institutions to punish residents and threaten to put them out in the street based on any minor dispute that the institution may dream up. In the case of the I-House resident, a fee dispute gave them the power to punish her by changing the lock on her room and bringing local police in to threaten to remove her belongings at their discretion. This is normally under the jurisdiction of the state and is illegal in any event.
  • It does not adequately answer the question of why these protections need to be raised in this part of the law; it gives these institutions inappropriate power over usually perfectly competent adult individuals who do not require an institution's quasi-parental supervision. This goes for the hospitals, CHA senior buildings, homeless shelters, and grad student housing facilities that are exempted under these paragraphs today.
  • It fails to directly address various legitimate concerns of these institutions, such as how to deal with illegal drug use and underage drinking. That is both (a) a criminal matter, addressed under criminal law, and (b) a matter that can be dealt with within the housing agreement (that is, in the lease). For all other matters, institutions such as hospitals and schools already have legal guardianship to a greater or lesser degree over their charges, and their power to control their housing would be superfluous, unnecessary, and often even perilous to the rights of the resident.