PHOTOS: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Chicago Rental Housing

Chicago’s current 311-reporting process does not work to protect renters against their slumlords. A mandatory rental housing inspection program with strong enforcement power is imperative for Chicago and the health of its communities. Below is a brief photographic summary of the conditions MTO witnesses on a regular basis.

Low-income renters experience higher rates of disease than their higher income counterparts. In my work as a healthy homes organizer, it has become strikingly clear why.

We have entered hundreds of apartments over the past few years and in them,  seen deplorable housing conditions that were the direct cause of a child’s disease which brought us to that apartment in the first place. For some unconscionable reason, the landlord chose not to invest the money needed to maintain the apartments in a livable condition and the city was often unresponsive to calls for help from the parents of these sick children.

Because of decades of activism, the City of Chicago has set up a system that is helpful to parents whose children have been lead poisoned. But – children are still the proverbial ‘canary in the coal mine’ in the vast majority of cases. There is no program in place to prevent kids from lead poisoning and in particular, the most vulnerable children suffer.

There are even fewer controls in place for other healthy homes issues such as cockroach and rodent infestations, and mold problems. As of right now, there is little help in place for renters enduring unhealthy housing and absentee landlords. These conditions can be particularly harmful to children with asthma and other respiratory ailments. In most cases, especially in today’s economy, parents do not have the option to pick up and move. Instead, they make the difficult choice of having a roof over their family’s head or watching their kids suffer from their illnesses that are exacerbated right in their own home.

There needs to be programs with strong enforcement mechanisms for these families to turn to in order to correct these grossly negligent – and sometimes criminal – building code violations. Children living in unhealthy housing will suffer the effects of environmental injustice for the rest of their lives. This fact has been repeatedly proven and documented in numerous medical and public health academic journals. A recent Shriver Center report demonstrates how socioeconomically-integrated, safe, affordable housing offers children access to good schools, stability, and the health necessary to achieve their potential.

MTO is calling on Chicagoans to support a mandatory inspection program that would identify healthy homes issues and force landlords to maintain their buildings according to the Chicago building code requirements.

Sign the CHHIP Petition


If you are having Healthy Homes issues in your apartment, contact MTO’s Hotline for assistance at 773-292-4988, or notify your landlord directly online at Squared Away Chicago.  

If you would like to join the CHHIP campaign, contact Sheila at 773-292-4980 ext 231, or via email at

Warning: Some of the following photos are graphic and may be disturbing for sensitive viewers.



Apartment Conditions and Repairs – FAQ

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

What is my landlord responsible for?
Your landlord has a duty to keep your apartment in good shape and make all necessary repairs. If she fails to do this, you may be able to:

  • Make the repairs yourself and deduct their cost from your rent;
  • Withhold a portion of your rent;
  • Sue your landlord; or
  • Terminate your lease agreement. This pamphlet explains when and how you can do these things.

What must my landlord do to maintain the condition of my apartment?
Keep your toilet, bathtub, shower, and bathroom sink in good working order;

  • Keep your furnace and boiler in good working order;
  • Keep your windows weatherproof;
  • Keep your floors, walls and ceilings in good repair;
  • Keep your plumbing fixtures in good repair;
  • Keep your electrical outlets safe and operable;
  • Prevent the accumulation of stagnant water;
  • Keep all of the appliances he supplies in good working order;
  • Maintain the building is foundation, exterior walls, and roof in good and watertight condition;
  • Provide adequate hall and stairway lighting; Keep all stairways and porches in a safe and sound condition;
  • Provide trash containers;
  • Protect you against rodents and insects by exterminating; and
  • Comply with all other requirements of Chicago’s Municipal Code.

If my landlord doesn’t make necessary repairs, can I use my rent to pay for these repairs?

Yes, but only if the repair will not cost more than $500 or one-half of your rent (which ever is greater). Using your rent money to make necessary repairs is called “repairing and deducting.”

How do I “repair and deduct?”
First you must give your landlord a written notice stating that, unless she makes the necessary repairs within 14 days, you will make them yourself and deduct their cost from your rent. Keep a copy of the notice. If your landlord doesn’t make the necessary repairs within 14 days of receiving the notice, you can make the repairs or pay someone else to do it. After giving your landlord paid receipts to confirm the cost of repair, you can deduct this cost from your rent. See sample letter here.

What if I want to repair a problem in a common area, such as a stairway or hallway?
You must first give all of the other tenants written notice of your plan to make the repair.

If my landlord doesn’t make necessary repairs, can I withhold a portion of my rent?
Yes, but first give your landlord a written notice stating that, unless she makes the necessary repairs within 14 days, you will withhold a certain portion of your monthly rent payments. NOTE: You cannot withhold a portion of your rent and “repair and deduct” in the same month.

If I decide to withhold a portion of my rent, exactly how much should I withhold?
The amount you withhold must reasonably reflect the reduced value of your apartment. Be conservative. You cannot withhold all your rent unless your apartment is in such bad shape that you must move, and you can rarely withhold as much as 50%. If you withhold too much, your landlord may be able to evict you for nonpayment of rent. To be safe, consult with an attorney. See “rent reduction” sample letter here.

Can I terminate my lease because my landlord has failed to make necessary repairs?
Yes, but only in very serious cases. Consult with an attorney first.

How can I terminate my lease?
First, you must provide your landlord with written notice that you will terminate your lease in no less than 14 days unless he makes whatever repairs are necessary. If she does not correct the problem within 14 days of receiving this notice, you may terminate your lease agreement. If you terminate the lease, you must move within the next 30 days otherwise your lease will remain in effect. See sample letter here.

If my landlord doesn’t make necessary repairs, can I sue him/her?
Yes, but consult with an attorney first.

Can I make my landlord pay for the cost of repairing a problem I caused?

What if my landlord fails to provide me with an essential service (such as heat, electricity, or running water)?
See the page entitled Heat & Other Essential Services.

Does my landlord have to repaint my apartment?
Not unless the paint is cracking or peeling.

Can I sue my landlord if my property is damaged in her apartment?
Only if the property was damaged as a result of your landlord’s negligence.

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.

Plan Would Deny Slumlords City Loans Or Contracts

Hyde Park tenant Melissa Michaels hopes a proposed ordinance will induce property owners to be better landlords.

The city of Chicago has a message for slumlords: You will not be rewarded with city loans or contracts.

CBS 2’s Jim Williams reports the city council is close to passing a law that would put pressure on bad landlords to fix their property.

Read the full story here:

Watch the video here: