It is impossible to tell the story of tenants in Chicago without telling the story of the Chicago Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance (RLTO).
The RLTO is now 30 years old and counting: it was enacted by the Chicago City Council on September 8, 1986. The story of the Ordinance reveals the power of community organizing and a moment in the city’s political life when the rights of tenants were championed by Mayor Harold Washington. The Ordinance became law in a city often regarded as a haven for the real estate industry.
One key element of the history behind the Ordinance is the impact of organizing in the Rogers Park community on Chicago’s north side. In that community, with its heavy concentration of rental properties, tenant issues were prominent in the 1970s. In 1979, they elected David Orr as Alderman of the 49th Ward. In the ensuing years, the Rogers Park Tenants Committee (and other smaller groups in Rogers Park) grew and organized on key tenant issues, including escalating rents, repairs and lead abatement. During this period, groups in many communities around the city – some funded by local foundations – also worked on tenant issues, including Austin, Englewood, Logan Square, South Shore and Uptown.
Orr, now Cook County Clerk, recalls those days. “The only way to defeat the clout of the Machine was building community clout,” he said. “Community organizing was crucial in the movement to pass the Ordinance.”
While community groups targeted aldermen to support the Ordinance, they also put considerable pressure on the city’s Housing Court, an institution that was characterized by years of mismanagement. A new organization, the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, emerged to help fight the battle in Housing Court. Meanwhile, in 1981, an activist group called the Housing Agenda addressed tenant issues through a committee. That committee spun off and became the Metropolitan Tenants Organization (MTO) in 1985.
Early on, supporters of tenant rights also proposed a Fair Rent Commission, which would create a place to appeal unfair rent increases. While important, this issue did not gain sufficient support at the time, though it remains a concern among many activists and tenants today.
In the early 1980s – the time of “Council Wars” in Chicago’s City Hall – efforts to address tenant rights in the City Council languished. Work continued however, an ordinance was drafted using one that had passed in Evanston as a model, activists targeted aldermen whose support could make a difference, and nonprofit developers were also using various tools, including the city’s Tax Reactivation Program, to further the cause of affordable housing. And significantly, Harold Washington, an ally and advocate, was elected Mayor – he did not though have control of the city council.
That changed in early in 1986 when special aldermanic elections were held in accordance with a new ward map. In those elections, Luis Gutierrez (now a U.S. Representative) was elected as an alderman, giving the mayor’s allies a council majority. By May, Washington and his allies had control of the Council. He identified the tenant bill of rights – which became the Ordinance – as a priority.
By September of 1986, it became apparent that the Ordinance was about to pass – in a big way. It wasn’t comprehensive (the Ordinance exempted owners in owner-occupied buildings, for example) but it went much further than any measure had before. As it become clear that there were enough votes for the Ordinance, numerous aldermen who had originally opposed the measure decided to support it. The Ordinance passed 43 to 7. With the Ordinance, tenants finally had legal backing to support their issues.
In the months that followed, there were a couple of challenges to the Ordinance. First, real estate interests tried to challenge its lawfulness in federal district court – but lost. Later, there was another effort to turn things around in Springfield. That failed as well.
Over the years, sustained opposition to the Ordinance has never materialized – nor has it completely gone away. In the current council, efforts are being made in the Housing Committee to weaken the measure’s enforcement mechanism. That Housing Committee is now headed by Alderman Joe Moore, Orr’s successor in the 49th Ward.
Currently, the only way to effectively enforce the RLTO is to take the landlord to court. This requires an attorney. If landlords violate the law and lose in court, the landlord must pay for the renter’s attorney fees. Attorneys are willing to represent renters because they know if they win, the landlord has to pay.
The Realtors are proposing a change to the law so that even if they lose they may not have to pay attorney fees. This will make it impossible for low and moderate income tenants to afford attorneys and will only lead to more evictions and displacement. This is just one of the many reasons tenants will take to the streets and flex their renter power on September 22nd. Monied interests should not control who has the ability to live in a safe, healthy home. Every Chicagoan deserves a roof over their head.