Tenants Without Access to Fuse Box
In buildings over four units, the Chicago Electrical code requires that a tenant have access to their fuse box. If the tenant cannot get to their fuse box, the tenant has the right to call a locksmith and have the door opened and a key made. Before calling the locksmith, the tenants must give the landlord written notice as required in the repair remedies section of the Chicago Ordinance (14 days notice for non emergencies and less for an emergency).
Unfortunately, most locksmiths will not make a key without the owner’s permission. A second possible solution is to request an electrical inspection by calling 311, requesting an electrical inspector come out, and get a reference number for your call. The city inspector will cite the landlord for the violation. Going through the building department takes a while (21 days just for the inspection). An inspection does not guarantee access to the fuse box.
Lastly tenants can use the rent withholding provisions in the Chicago Ordinance reduce the rent. Before withholding any rent, please call the Metropolitan Tenants Organization’s Hotline at 773-292-4988.
Diversion of Tenants Utilities
Diversion of a tenant’s utilities is a common problem and most tenants do not even realize that it is happening. Some examples of a utility diversion are when a neighbor’s apartment is hooked into the tenant’s meter, or the tenant is paying for common area lighting or the hot water for the entire building is being heated on the tenant’s gas bill. According to Illinois state law 765 ILCS 735/1.1, the landlord must inform the tenant of all loads on the system. In the real world landlords never inform their tenants. Many tenants have said they thought their bill was high but did not know why. They discovered the situation by chance. The fuse blew and the neighbor’s fan also went out. This diversion of power is called theft. It is a criminal offense. The landlord is responsible for correcting the wiring and compensating the tenant.
Utility Companies are Liable
Getting compensation and correcting the mis-metering is easier said than done. The tenant will run into many roadblocks along the way. The first roadblock will be the utility company. Once the tenant finds out that his/her power is being diverted, s/he should call the utility company and demand an inspection. The Public Utility Act requires the utility to inspect and if possible determine who is tapping into the tenant’s power. The utility companies try hard to avoid their responsibility. The Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) enforces the act. If the utility refuses to inspect, the tenant should call the ICC at 1.800.524.0795.
When a tenant first calls, the utility representative may inform the tenant that they have nothing to do with the problem – “it is a landlord-tenant problem.” The tenant needs to insist that the utility company come out and inspect. If necessary, the tenant should ask to talk to a supervisor. It is important for the tenant to request that they be present at the time of the inspection. Otherwise the inspector may just come out and check the meter to see if it is working and never check to see if there is and additional load on the line. The utility company should issue a report confirming the theft and give it to the tenant. Should the utility refuse to inspect, a complaint should be filed with the ICC.
In theory the utility companies are required to adjust the tenant bill for the past two years to reflect the overpayment due to a tap on the power line. In practice it will be hard to get any refund. It will be easier to get a refund from the landlord.
Tenants should then inform the landlord in writing that the utility has determined they are paying for additional loads and that when they agreed to pay utility costs they only agreed to pay for service they use. They should state that they want the defective wiring corrected and compensation for their over payment. If the landlord is willing to work something out, the tenant can proceed ahead with negotiations. The Resources for Apartment Dispute Resolution (RADR) may be able to help mediate this process along. If the landlord does want to rewire the house the tenant could suggest that all utilities be included in the rent. If the landlord refuses to negotiate, under the Rental Property Utility Service Act, the courts can hold the landlord liable for triple the damages. Hopefully, the landlord and tenant can work something out.
It is our experience that most landlords will refuse to remedy the situation. So then what?
Some possible suggestions are:
1. Give the landlord a 14-day notice to correct the faulty metering. If the landlord fails to correct the situation the tenant can take the cost of the over billing off their rent. How much money should the tenant reduce their rent? Call the MTO hotline if you choose this option.
2. Under state law the tenant can take the landlord to court to recover the overpayment. The tenant can sue the landlord asking for triple damages. The tenant can sue for the total cost of the electricity or gas. The tenant is still responsible for the utility they used, but it is the landlord’s burden to prove the tenant’s usage. If the total amount of the lawsuit is over $3000, the landlord can be held liable for attorney fees.
3. The tenant should send a letter to the utility company stating that they will not be liable for service used by others without permission. Register a complaint with the Illinois Commerce Commission regarding the over billing. The ICC can be reached at 1.800.524.0795.
4. Lastly, for low-income residents, Legal Assistance Foundation (LAF) has had some success filing complaints with the ICC and forcing the electric company to reimburse the tenant for the overpayment. Low-income tenants can contact LAF at 312.341.1070.
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