Common Utility Problems

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.

Landlord’s Responsibility
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.

Still can’t find the answer? Send us your questions. Please allow several days for a response.

Heat & Other Essential Services – FAQ


NOTE: If your landlord lives in your building, see the “Exceptions” note on the right side of this page.

What are essential services?
Heat, running water, hot water, electricity, gas,and plumbing.

Who is responsible for paying for these services?
That depends upon the terms of your lease agreement.

What if I’m responsible for the cost of heating my apartment?
Your landlord must give you a written statement setting forth the projected average monthly cost of heating your unit. (Your landlord must do this even if your tenancy is not governed by Chicago’s Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance).

What if I get a shut-off notice because my landlord didn’t pay a utility bill?
After giving your landlord written notice of this problem, you can

  • pay the utility company to keep the service on, and
  • deduct from your rent the amount you pay the utility company.

What is the first thing I should do if an essential service that my landlord is supposed to supply is shut off?
You must first give your landlord written notice of this problem. THIS IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT. After providing such notice, you have several options. These options are set forth in the answers to the next five written questions.

Can I pay the utility company to restore the service?
Yes, and you can deduct this payment from your rent. Make sure you get a receipt from the utility company so you can prove how much you paid.

Can I buy something (such as a space heater) that can supply the essential service?
Yes, and you can deduct from your rent the cost of what you’ve bought. Make sure you get a receipt for your purchase so you can prove how much you paid for it. Do not use a gas stove to heat the apartment!

Can I sue my landlord?
Yes, but contact an attorney first. He/she can help you sue your landlord for an amount that reflects the reduced value of your apartment plus attorney’s fees.

Can I move out of my apartment and stay in a motel until the essential service is restored?
Yes, and you do not have to pay rent for the period you’re in the motel or other temporary housing. Furthermore, you may deduct from your future rent payments the cost of this temporary housing (as long as it does not exceed your monthly rent).

If my landlord doesn’t restore the essential service, can I terminate my lease?
Yes, but only if your landlord doesn’t restore the service within 72 hours of receiving your written notice. If that happens, you can send your landlord another written notice stating that you are terminating the lease agreement.
NOTE: You may not terminate your lease agreement for lack of an essential service if the utility company is unable to provide the service). If you terminate the lease, you must move within the next 30 days. Otherwise, your lease will remain in effect.

What if a member of my family, a guest, or myself are responsible for the lack of service?
In that case, you may not use any of the remedies set forth above.

Am I entitled to notice if the building’s utilities are going to be disconnected?
Yes. Your landlord must provide you with written notice of any proposed shut-off. This notice must:

  • Identify the service that will be terminated;
  • State the intended date of termination; and
  • State whether the proposed termination will affect your apartment.

What if my landlord fails to provide me with this notice?
You can notify him/her, in writing, that you will terminate the lease agreement in no less than 14 days if he/she does not provide you with the required information. If you terminate the lease, you must move within the next 30 days. Otherwise, your lease will remain in effect.

How warm should my apartment be?
The Chicago Municipal Code states that, from September 15 of each year to June 1 of the following year, the temperature in your apartment must be at least:

  • 68 degrees from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
  • 66 degrees for all other times.

*This is true even if your tenancy is not governed by Chicago’s Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance.*

What if my apartment is too cold?
Record the temperature in your apartment three times a day for a week. If these recordings show that your apartment is too cold, send your landlord a letter stating that he/she is violating the Chicago Municipal Code and must increase the temperature in your apartment. If he/she doesn’t comply with this demand, call the City’s Heat Hotline at 312/744-5000.

What if my landlord shuts off my utility service in an attempt to force me out of the apartment?
Call the police and an attorney. (For more information, see “Lock-outs and Retaliation“).

Please Note: This information, published by the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago and the Metropolitan Tenants Organization as a public service, gives you only a general idea of your rights and responsibilities under the Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance and other relevant chapters of Chicago’s Municipal Code. It is meant to inform, but not to advise. Before enforcing your rights, you may want to seek the advice of an attorney who can analyze the facts of your case and apply the law to these facts.

Still can’t find the answer? Send us your questions. Please allow several days for a response.