A revamped Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance could enhance renters’ rights in Evanston – not only catching the city up to protections offered in Chicago and Cook County, but making Evanston the new front-runner. And a local nonprofit organization is making sure that tenants get a voice in the process.

In April 2021, the now-defunct Housing and Homelessness Commission – which has had its responsibilities divided between the Housing & Community Development Committee and the Social Services Committee – requested staff compare Evanston’s landlord tenant ordinance to Chicago and Cook County ordinances.

On Feb. 21 of this year, city staff added to its 2021 list of recommendations to catch Evanston up to Chicago and Cook County. In a memo, 10 “easily implementable solutions that could benefit tenants as well as housing providers” were listed:

  • Set a cap on late fees based on rent amount.
  • Establish reasonable, defined move-in and application fees.
  • Prohibit tenants paying landlords’ attorney fees in eviction proceedings.
  • Implement a notice of lease nonrenewal based on tenancy.
  • Provide tenants in all unit types a 10-day period to cure noncompliance.
  • Add a one-time right to pay all of rent owed to stay in the unit.
  • Ban the renaming of security deposits by landlords attempting to avoid legal provisions and remove interest requirement on security deposits.
  • Set disclosure requirements for utility costs and foreclosure.
  • Require a plain-language summary of the city’s landlord-tenant ordinance in lease agreements.
  • Supply new tenants information on bedbug detection, reporting and removal.

In the memo, staff also listed four more suggestions, collected from council member referrals, committees and local organizations, that Chicago and Cook County have yet to accomplish:

  • Require a just cause for eviction. This change would put an end to no-fault eviction and limit the reasons a landlord could evict a tenant even if the landlord gave the tenant the city’s required 30-day notice.
  • Give tenants the right to make an offer to purchase the building before a landlord puts it on the market.
  • Give tenants the right to organize and share collective concerns with building management.
  • Establish a Landlord Mitigation Fund/Landlord Engagement Program to assist property owners with fixing damages caused by tenants. Only landlords who provide affordable housing would have access to the fund.

Though the staff memo says the proposed amendments “could benefit tenants as well as housing providers,” the city is reaching out to Evanston landlords first.

It kicked off its landlord feedback forum March 15 and collected 32 responses, said Sarah Flax, the city’s community development director. The landlord survey will continue until the end of April. City staff also met with 25 landlords on April 12.

“The feedback session provided us with critical perspective on how the RLTO [Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance] considerations may affect landlords in their day-to-day operations, the housing market, and future relationships between landlords and tenants,” Flax said in an email.

City staff will present landlords’ responses to the Housing & Community Development Committee at its in-person meeting at 7 p.m. May 16.

The city doesn’t have a survey for tenants or any dates scheduled to meet with tenants, said Council Member Eleanor Revelle (7th Ward), the committee chair.

Giving tenants input

Open Communities, a nonprofit advocating for fair and inclusive housing in the north suburbs of Chicago, wanted to offer a platform for tenants to share concerns. The group published an online survey for tenants on March 27. Respondents have an opportunity to win a $50 gift card. The survey has collected 367 responses as of April 10. Open Communities hopes to share survey results with the city. 

Dominic Voz, assistant director of fair housing at Open Communities. Credit: Open Communities

Dominic Voz, assistant director of fair housing at Open Communities, said he anticipates the city will make more of an effort to engage tenants as the process moves along.

“I think that the city staff, council and different committees just get pressured to make sure they’re consulting with landlords, which out of faith we support,” Voz said. “We work with landlords all the time. But there’s just not an equal force pressure from tenants, especially marginalized tenants, to do the same.”

The tenant survey will be open for as long as the city reviews the ordinance, Voz said. Open Communities has worked with Council Members Bobby Burns (5th Ward) and Devon Reid (8th Ward) and partnered with Northwestern University, Connections for the Homeless, the Moran Center and other organizations to disseminate the survey. Voz said the city told him it will circulate the survey in some newsletters.

The Housing & Community Development Committee is far from making any decisions yet, Revelle said. She told the RoundTable that she’d welcome having Open Communities present its survey findings.

Some of the amendments to the Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance could create issues for landlords, Revelle said.

“Our landlords are an important part of our community, and we need to make sure we’re not unduly regulating and and harming their business,” she said.

One amendment Revelle mentioned that could harm landlords is the just cause for eviction requirement proposed by Reid.

Some reasons could be nonpayment of rent, lease violations, damages and criminal activity. New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis and Portland have passed similar legislation, according to the city’s memo.

Chicago activists are working to pass just cause for eviction. Chicago has an average of 24,000 eviction filings each year, and about 25% are no-fault evictions, Injustice Watch reported.

Issues facing Evanston renters

The City of Evanston has a contract with the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, a tenants rights advocate group that documents complaints tenants make to its office. Revelle said the city can use those records to see what issues tenants are dealing with in Evanston.

“I think they probably have a list of the tenants who contacted them, so we’ll probably be reaching out to those tenants,” Revelle said.

Open Communities’ Voz said that in the short time its tenant survey has been collecting responses, there are already three clear front-running issues: expensive move-in fees, high rent-to-income ratios and poor management response to repair requests.

“I think Evanston can do really well by catching up with some of its neighbors,” Voz said, referring to legal protections other communities offer renters.

“But I also think there’s this chance to, like we’ve done with reparations, be a forward-thinking, world-class city in terms of the civil rights.”

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative reporting....

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