Chicago Tribune: New app aims to improve landlord-tenant relationship

Mary Ellen Podmolik

The Homefront

October 18, 2013

Renters most often seek help from the Metropolitan Tenants Organization when they have problems with a landlord. Now, the longtime Chicago nonprofit is taking to technology in an effort to improve the communication between landlords and tenants while also providing a little protection to both parties.

Squared Away Chicago, a Web-based mobile phone app that the organization is preparing to launch, is designed to help renters and landlords stay in touch, document problems within apartments and create a virtual paper trail if a complaint goes unresolved and an outside party needs to step in to resolve the dispute.

The idea for the app followed a discussion that John Bartlett, the organization’s executive director, had with a friend in social media 1½ years ago. While there’s a wealth of information on the group’s website — it gets more than 10,000 unique visitors a month — Bartlett wondered if there was an easier way to help renters and landlords with the basic issues they face.

Creating such a tool would help not only consumers and landlords, but also the organization. Annually, the group’s two dozen employees and its volunteers help 15,000 renters, and the call center handles more than 10,000 phone calls.

The Web app’s development, funded with a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, allows a tenant with a smartphone to take a time-stamped photo of a problem inside an apartment and send it, along with a form letter explaining the problem, to a landlord. It could be anything from mold growing along a baseboard to a leaking ceiling or even the serial number of a broken appliance. Tenants can rate how severe the problem is and can spell out on the form when the landlord can enter the unit to correct the issue.

For their part, landlords could use the system to track complaints and document what steps they’ve taken to correct them. They also could enter all their tenants into the system so they could notify tenants simultaneously of coming building inspections.

“One of the goals with the app is to create a better relationship between landlords and tenants, or at least make that a possibility,” Bartlett said. “This makes communication easy and easily documented. When you’re on the phone, it’s so easy to forget. There are a lot of ‘he said, she said.’ (This) is a little more formal.”

The app was designed because of the prevalence of smartphones. If low-income renters have access to the Web, it’s most often through their phones, Bartlett said. Among households with income of less than $30,000 annually, 43 percent own a smartphone, according to a study this year on smartphone ownership by The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.

“Smartphones are now becoming the norm,” said Mark Swartz, legal director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, who called the app’s development “incredibly clever.” It could lead to more issues being resolved outside the courtroom, he added.

“The problem we usually see is that tenants only document problems when things get really awful,” Swartz said. “To be able to document complaints early will protect tenants if there’s an attempt to terminate their lease or otherwise retaliate against them.”

Still affordable. Home prices have been rising as consumer demand outstrips the supply of available homes, but the Chicago area remains one of the more affordable housing markets for the middle class, according to real estate Web company Trulia. In the Chicago area, where the median household income is $58,911, a middle-class family could afford homes under $254,000, assuming that no more than 31 percent of income went to home expenses. Almost 75 percent of homes recently listed locally were priced below that level, it said.

However, that same family in Chicago would have a tougher time buying a house elsewhere because the definition of middle-class can vary when it comes to home affordability. For instance, the median household income in the Los Angeles area is about $53,000, not too far off from Chicago’s, but only 24 percent of its “middle-class” families can afford a home with a median price of $271,000.

Click HERE to read the article at

Twitter @mepodmolik

Copyright © 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC

PRESS RELEASE: Launch of new Web App – “Squared Away Chicago”


MTO Releases Bridge Building App — First Of Its Kind In The Nation 

CHICAGO — When the Metropolitan Tenants Organization (MTO) launches its new web app,“Squared Away Chicago”, in mid November 2013, renters in Chicago will have access to a new tool for facilitating communications and bringing together landlords and tenants.Squared Away Chicago app will provide access to resources and knowledge about rights and best practices. It will offer the ability to document and share issues between tenants and landlords in real-time, leading to faster issue resolution, increased accountability and fewer misunderstandings.

“The Squared Away Chicago app provides resources to both tenants and landlords to improve communication and access to information, setting the stage for better rental practices and elevating the dialogue between tenants and landlords to build relationships that can ultimately lead to longevity for the rental life cycle and improve the quality and livability of housing stock,” said John Bartlett, executive director, Metropolitan Tenants Organization.

Unresolved housing-related issues are often the result of a lack of awareness of rights and poor communication practices. The result negatively impacts tenants through unsafe housing conditions or unnecessary evictions and also has a detrimental effect on landlords through lost rental income, costs associated with turnover and a devaluing of property. The Squared Away Chicago app is designed to support both tenants and landlords by enabling them to:
  • Document and communicate repair issues or problems in the quickest, most effective way possible.
  • Track and manage landlord’s building tenants and respond quickly to tenant inquiries or issues.
  • Prevent and remedy common housing problems before they become larger and more insurmountable.
  • Collects data to inform policy makers of trends in the rental housing market.
  • Improve the landlord-tenant relationship through increased communication and accountability.

Squared Away Chicago is a web-based app that users will access through a URL link,, on their mobile phone browser or by tapping a link they receive through an email. The app automatically detects and adjusts the display enabling all users to have access no matter what type of smartphone they use. The design and development team for the app included Chicago firms: Greater Good Studios, Philamonjaro Studios and DevMynd.


The app development was funded through a grant from the MacArthur Foundation and support provided by the Marguerite Casey Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust.

“Squared Away has the potential for nationwide adoption and can serve as a resource for members of the Marguerite Casey Foundation‘s family-led Equal Voice Campaign.Squared Away Chicago will support informed and engaged tenants and landlords and will ultimately serve to build awareness of renters’ housing rights and options,” said Edgar Villanueva, program officer at Marguerite Casey Foundation.



Through our 28 years of experience serving renters in Chicago, MTO has found that almost all renter households at one time or another face a housing problem that threatens their tenancy. Many tenants come to MTO for assistance to navigate what is often an emotional process of communicating and negotiating with their landlord. Likewise, landlords have their own set of challenges in providing information and updates to tenants and maintaining constructive communications.


With the Squared Away Chicago mobile app, tenants and landlords will have these four features at their fingertips:

  • Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance (RLTO): Accessing the law provides users with knowledge about the rights of tenants and landlords.
  • Photo Sharing: Tenants can take/upload photos of issues, creating a visual record that is instantly accessible to the landlord.
  • Letter Templates: Specific details of housing-related issues can be inserted in template documents and then accurately and quickly shared with landlords.
  • Open A Ticket: Provides the ability to track communications about issues and organize and save the string of communications for reference and documentation.

“Effectively resolving housing crises is important to the tenant’s long-term future and theSquared Away Chicago app will be an important tool for creating rental housing stability by helping tenants speak with greater credibility through initiating and documenting communications and building productive relationships with landlords,” said Bartlett.



The digital divide between those who have ready access to computers and the Internet, and those who do not, is slowly closing as a result of mobile devices.

In 2010, the Pew Research Center conducted a study of wireless users and found that 46% of households earning less than $30,000 per year are wireless Internet users. An estimated 54% of African-Americans and 53% of English-speaking Hispanics access the Internet on a handheld device.

While thousands of renters currently use MTO’s website, proving the need for web-based rental housing information, the Pew study demonstrates the need for an app or internet access compatible with mobile devices since low-income renters may not have access to a computer, but many have access to a phone.

“MTO believes that the Squared Away Chicago mobile phone app will offer the broadest access for today’s renters and a means for landlords to be in touch with their tenants, further bridging the digital divide to level the playing field for low-income renters,” saidBartlett.


Laurie R. Glenn

Phone: 773.704.7246




The next Tenants Congress is September 18th!

The Tenants Congress is a citywide coalition of tenants who meet every other month to strategize on effective campaigns to address the various issues that affect housing in Chicago. We’re hopeful that more renters will join our fight to strengthen our communities through better housing!

Topics at the upcoming congress include:

-How new Foreclosure and Bed Bug laws can work for you

-Recent organizing successes for HUD tenants

-Introduction to organizing

-Understanding your building’s finances

We look forward to seeing you there. Spread the word and let your neighbors know, it’s time to exercise your renters rights!

Facebook Event:

Nonprofit Challenges New Ordinance Excluding Voucher Holders From Protection Against Discrimination

The following open letter to Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle was submitted by Open Communities, regarding Glenview’s recent landlord ordinance allowing landlords to deny rent to Section 8 applicants.

Dear President Preckwinkle,

On behalf of Open Communities and eleven other fair housing advocacy agencies throughout Cook County, I attach a formal letter to the County alerting you to a recent action taken by the Village of Glenview that directly contradicts the County’s strong commitment to affirmatively furthering fair housing.  We are requesting prompt and firm reaction from the County.

Glenview amended its Municipal Code to exclude Housing Choice Voucher holders from protection against discrimination based on their source of income to pay their rent.  Glenview took this action to prevent the implementation of the County’s new and praiseworthy addition of voucher status as a protected class under the County’s human rights ordinance.  Given that voucher holder discrimination is often used as a cover for discrimination against race (primarily Black), disability, and familial status, and Glenview is only one percent Black, Glenview’s new ordinance is a barrier to open, integrated housing in the Village.  The details of Glenview’s actions are attached in our letter as well as their own ordinance and accompanying statements to the press.

We are asking the County, as a recipient of HUD funding that must hold its jurisdictions accountable for affirmatively furthering fair housing, to inform the Village of Glenview and the Northwest Housing Partnership of its intention to withhold federal housing and community development funds unless Glenview amends its ordinance to end discrimination against persons utilizing Housing Choice Vouchers or rescinds it altogether.  The County’s actions will send a strong message to other local Home Rule subrecipient governments within Cook County intent on following Glenview’s actions.

Please feel free to contact us, the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, or the Sargent Shriver Center on Poverty Law for more information.  We look forward to hearing from you.  Thank you in advance for your serious attention.

Gail Schechter

Executive Director
Open Communities


Illinois’s 33%: The Illinois Poverty Report

Over 48.5 million people in the United States are living in poverty, 1.9 million of them in Illinois. The scale and conditions of poverty make it one of the most pressing social issues facing our state and nation.  Poverty will touch the majority of Americans at some point during adulthood. On average, 60% of 20 year olds in America will experience poverty at some point during their adult years, and about half of adults will experience poverty by the time they are age 65.

We know that we can’t end poverty without fully understanding the nature, scale, and scope of the issue. This year’s Report on Illinois Poverty brings us back to these basics. It explores who is poor in Illinois, why poverty exists in the first place, what hardships being poor induces, and how we can end poverty. It also gives voice to our neighbors experiencing poverty as they talk about their challenges living in, getting out, and staying out of poverty.

At its core, poverty exists because of employment-related reasons. But characterizing it in this way is an oversimplification that fails to account for the why: why people aren’t working, why they aren’t working enough, and why they aren’t making enough money. There are large economic forces at play, like high unemployment, declining wage levels, and growing inequality, that help explain these employment-related causes of poverty and point to how structural inequities translate to racial and gender disparities in economic well-being. But even this expanded view of the economic forces behind employment realities is too limiting for understanding the complex nature of poverty. Factors related to education, housing, health, and assets also contribute to a person’s chances of being able to succeed through work—and not experience poverty. Furthermore, as much as these factors contribute to poverty’s existence, they are also symptoms of poverty, existing in a symbiotic relationship whereby hardship can induce poverty and poverty can reinforce hardship.

For some groups, such as minorities and women, their overrepresentation in poverty represents a legacy of unequal opportunities that have hindered economic advancement. For others, like children and youth, their poverty story is intertwined with their families’ and with a broken safety net that lets children remain impoverished. Yet others, like workers, come face-to-face with the shortcomings of our market economy or have unique, sometimes challenging disadvantages to deal with.

Just as there is no single pathway into poverty, there is no single pathway out—no magic bullet policy or program that will single-handedly eradicate poverty. There are, however, myriad solutions that target each issue area related to poverty—employment, education, housing, health and nutrition, and assets. The Illinois Poverty Report has identified the following policy changes to address these issues:

EMPLOYMENT – Increase Illinois’s minimum wage and index it to inflation to maintain a baseline investment in Illinois workers. Expand the categories of workers covered by the minimum wage to include workers receiving tips, domestic workers, and workers under the age of 18.

EDUCATION – Increase access to Illinois’s 529 college savings program, making it easier for more families to take advantage of this important college savings tool. Exempt 529 accounts from the asset limit test on TANF, create a safe default investment option, and implement a matched savings program.

HOUSING – Return homeless prevention and homeless service program funding to their historic levels as an effective way to help families maintain housing stability in the face of temporary hardship and prevent the personal and financial costs associated with homelessness.

HEALTH – Expand access to health care by fully implementing the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion and state-based health insurance exchange and supporting Illinois’s transition to care coordination programs in order to improve health outcomes and maximize cost-effective strategies.

ASSETS – Expand retirement savings opportunities by creating an automatic retirement account program for Illinois workers that utilizes employer payroll systems and gives workers the option of depositing a portion of earned wages into approved retirement accounts.

Illinois’s 33% aren’t just a statistic. They are our neighbors, our friends, and our family members. It’s clear that we have our work cut out for us, but together, we can end poverty in Illinois.

To download the full PDF version of the Illinois Poverty Report Click Here

To view the Illinois Poverty Map Click Here

Source: The Social Impact Research Center, a Heartland Alliance Program:



Study Finds No Relationship Between Housing Choice Vouchers and Increased Crime Rates

A recent study, conducted by Professor Michael C. Lens at UCLA’s Department of Urban Planning and published in Urban Studies, finds that there is no correlation between the number of voucher holders residing in an area and the crime rate in that area.

To test the frequently used argument against voucher holders that their influx into a community is sure to increase levels of criminal activity, Lens analyzed HUD public housing data, U.S. Census socioeconomic data, and FBI crime data from 215 U.S. cities between the years of 1997 and 2008 to determine whether vouchers and crime are indeed linked. He controlled for a wide array of variables, from national and local trends in criminal activity to demographic differences to variances in employment rates. Because about half of voucher holders currently reside in the suburbs and the strongest opposition to vouchers has been concentrated in these communities, Lens specifically focuses on suburban areas.

Lens found “virtually no relationship” between the pervasiveness of voucher-holders and crime rates in his analysis of both cities and suburban areas when controls are added. His statistical analysis seeks not only to determine relationships between his variables but also to determine cause and effect. For example, though a higher prevalence of vouchers may appear to correlate with more incidences of criminal activity in an area, vouchers do not necessarily cause crime but rather are more common in areas where crime rates are rising because rents in those areas are more likely to be low.

Though it is unlikely to put an end to the divisive debate surrounding subsidized housing, Lens’ research provides promising statistical evidence for advocates supporting more vouchers and additional low income housing in general.

Access “The Impact of Housing Vouchers on Crime in US Cities and Suburbs” study at:

Access an article from The Atlantic, titled “Moving Poor People into a Neighborhood Doesn’t Cause Crime,” which discusses the study’s results at:

Source: The National Low Income Housing Coalition | | 727 15th Street NW, 6th Floor Washington, DC 20005

UPDATE: Keep Chicago Renting Ordinance Passed By City Council

In the wake of the foreclosure crisis, community groups from the Keep Chicago Renting coalition, comprised of 13 labor, community and policy groups successfully worked for passage of the Keep Chicago Renting Ordinance (KCRO).  At the City Council meeting on June 5th the city council overwhelmingly supported the ordinance with a vote of 45-4.

The KCRO is designed to increase protection for renters in Chicago.  It requires banks to either allow renters in good standing and who pay their rent to stay in their homes; or requires that they pay tenants a relocation fee of $10,600 to leave the building.

The KCRO is designed to meet several goals facing renters and the communities where foreclosures take place.  The first goal is to stabilize rental housing by keeping foreclosed renters in their homes.  It is hoped that the fees will encourage banks and other entities taking over buildings in foreclosures to keep buildings open and available as rental housing.  In the event that a bank chooses to empty a building, the new ordinance will allow eligible renters to receive funds that will enable an easier transition from their housing. The fee also standardizes the “cash for keys” process.

Another important goal was to decrease vacant properties which contribute to blight and crimes in communities.  A report by the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing, showed a correlation between vacant buildings and increase in crime in communities.

The ordinance was published in July 2013 and will go into effect sometime in September 2013. If you are a renter affected by foreclosure, it is important to contact MTO’s Tenants Rights Hotline to be counseled on how the changes in foreclosure laws will impact your housing rights.

The MTO Hotline is open Monday through Friday from 1-5pm.  The number to call is 773-292-4988.

Want to read the full text of the new ordinance? You can find it here: KCR Ordinance


Chicago Council passes Bed Bug Ordinance

The City of Chicago has recently been named the nation’s #1 city infested with bed bugs.  Everyday MTO’s tenants’ rights hotline receives calls from renters throughout the City and suburbs dealing with the pesky pests.  Bed bugs are not unique to Chicago.  They are undoubtedly a nuisance and hard to control.  Controlling bed bugs requires tenants and landlords working together.

On June 5, 2013, the City Council passed an ordinance aimed at putting an end to the spread of bed bugs.  This ordinance will go into effect December 23, 2013.  There are key components of the ordinance that all renters should know.  Let’s start with landlord responsibilities:

  • To supply a tenant starting or renewing a lease with an informational brochure
  • To maintain a written record of bed bug control efforts
  • To send a written notice to the tenant explaining their responsibilities before the inspection
  • To provide pest control services when bed bugs are found by a pest management professional as many times as necessary to eliminate the problem
  • To inspect within 10 days and treat if necessary the two units on either side as well as the two units above and below of the infested unit

The ordinance also outlines what tenants’ responsibilities are to help eliminate bed bugs.  Please note that this section of the ordinance does not apply to tenants living in assisted living or a shared housing establishment, when the establishment provides assistance with daily living activities.  According to the ordinance, tenant responsibilities include:

  • To notify the landlord in writing of any suspected or known infestation in the tenants’ unit, clothing, furniture or personal property within 5 days
  • To notify the landlord in writing of any recurring or unexplained bites, stings or sores suspected to be caused by bed bugs
  • To cooperate with the landlord in the control, treatment, and eradication of bed bugs including
  • To grant access at reasonable times upon reasonable notice for inspections and treatments/to not interfere
  • To prepare unit prior to treatment including:  cleaning, dusting, vacuuming
  • To properly dispose of personal property that cannot be treated or cleaned before the pest control services

The Chicago Bed Bug Ordinance also mandates the disposal of bedding, clothing, furnishings or other infested materials.  For example, you may not place, discard or dispose of any bedding, clothing or furnishings infested on the public way (i.e. dumpsters, sidewalks, hallways).  To get rid of infested items, you must enclose the item in a plastic bag and label it as infested.  Doing so should prevent neighbors from bringing to their home infested items, therefore stalling the spread of bed bugs.

The ordinance will be enforced by the Department of Buildings and the Department of Public Health.  If any person is found violating the ordinance, that person may be fined $300.00 to $1,000 per day for each offense.  By complying with the ordinance, these fees can be avoided.   The full ordinance can be found at  You can make a request for a City inspector here.

For more information on tenants’ rights, please call MTO’s hotline at 773-292-4988/Monday-Friday 1-5 pm or visit You can read the full ordinance here.