January 2018 Update: This news is as relevant today as it was in 2012.
Today’s news demonstrates yet another high profile example of a landlord ignoring the law. According to the Chicago Tribune, one Chicago landlord has notified its tenants that building repairs are expected to leave tenants without heat or hot water for about three weeks. Instead of leaving tenants without a warm shower, the landlord found itself in hot water with the City of Chicago.
Just asking to make matters worse, the building’s management company delivered a letter (the Chicago Tribune has posted a copy of the letter here) to tenants suggesting that building occupants use a space heater for heat and that the tenants “can also turn your oven on to supplement heat as needed”.
Did the landlord’s insurance company just hear that right? Ovens are not an appropriate source of room heat!
The building code in Chicago is clear. Landlords need to supply heat and hot water to their tenants.
13-196-410 Residential buildings – Heat to be furnished. Every family unit or rooming unit to which heat is furnished from a heating plant used in common for the purpose of heating the various rooms of the dwelling shall be supplied with heat from September 15th of each year to June 1st of the succeeding year so that the occupants of a family unit or rooming unit may secure, without such undue restriction of ventilation as to interfere with proper sanitary conditions, a minimum temperature of 68 degrees at 8:30 a.m. and thereafter until 10:30 p.m. and 66 degrees at 10:30 p.m. and thereafter until 8:30 a.m. averaged throughout the family unit or rooming unit.
13-196-420 Residential buildings – Cold and hot water lines. Every kitchen sink, lavatory and bathtub or shower required shall be connected with hot and cold water lines. The hot water lines shall be connected with water heating facilities which are capable of heating water to such a temperature as to permit water to be drawn at every required outlet at a temperature of not less than 120 degrees Fahrenheit even when the heating facilities required by this Code are not in operation.
The Chicago Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance then chimes in as well making crystal clear the landlord’s obligation to maintain compliance with the building code:
5-12-070 Landlord’s Responsibility to Maintain. The landlord shall maintain the premises in compliance with all applicable provisions of the municipal code and shall promptly make any and all repairs necessary to fulfill this obligation.
What happens when a landlord violates the Building Code or, as follows from such a violation, Section 5-12-070 of the CRLTO? Check out 5-12-110 of the CRLTO which provides tenants a number of powerful rights against the landlord:
5-12-110 Tenants Remedies. In addition to any remedies provided under federal law, a tenant shall have the remedies specified in is section under the circumstances herein set forth. For purposes of this section, material noncompliance with Section 5-12-070 shall include, but is not limited to, any of the following circumstances:
…Failure to maintain heating facilities or gas-fired appliances in compliance with the requirements of the municipal code;
Failure to provide heat or hot water in such amounts and at such levels and times as required by the municipal code;
Failure to provide hot and cold running water as required by the municipal code;…
(f)Failure to Provide Essential Services. …if, contrary to the rental agreement or Section 5-12-070, the landlord fails to supply heat, running water, hot water, electricity, gas or plumbing, the tenant may give written notice to the landlord specifying the material noncompliance or failure…. After such notice, the tenant may during the period of the landlord’s noncompliance or failure:
(1)Procure reasonable amounts of heat, running water, hot water, electricity, gas or plumbing service, as the case may be and upon presentation to the landlord of paid receipts deduct their cost from the rent; or
(2)Recover damages based on the reduction in the fair rental value of the dwelling unit; or
(3)Procure substitute housing, in which case the tenant is excused from paying rent for the period of the landlord’s noncompliance. The tenant may recover the cost of the reasonable value of the substitute housing up to an amount equal to the monthly rent for each month or portion thereof of noncompliance as prorated.
In addition to the remedies set forth in Section 5-12-110 (f)(1)-(3), the tenant may:
(4)Withhold from the monthly rent an amount that reasonably reflects the reduced value of the premises due to the material noncompliance or failure if the landlord fails to correct the condition within 24 hours after being notified by the tenant; provided, however, that no rent shall be withheld if the failure is due to the inability of the utility provider to provide service; or
(5)Terminate the rental agreement by written notice to the landlord if the material noncompliance or failure persists for more than 72 hours after the tenant has notified the landlord of the material noncompliance or failure; provided, however, that no termination shall be allowed if the failure is due to the inability of the utility provider to provide service. If the rental agreement is terminated, the landlord shall return all prepaid rent, security deposits and interest thereon in accordance with Section 5-12-080 and tenant shall deliver possession of the dwelling unit to the landlord within 30 days after the expiration of the 72 hour time period specified in the notice. If possession shall not be so delivered, then the tenant’s notice shall be deemed withdrawn and the lease shall remain in full force and effect.
If the tenant proceeds under this subsection (f), he may not proceed under subsection (c) or (d). The tenant may not exercise his rights under this subsection if the condition was caused by the deliberate or negligent act or omission of the tenant, a member of his family, or other person on the premises with his consent. Before correcting a condition, the repair of which will affect more than his own dwelling unit, the tenant shall notify all other tenants affected and shall cause the work to be done so as to result in the least practical inconvenience to other tenants.
So, it is more than clear that a landlord’s failure to supply heat and hot water is a major problem and gives a tenant a number of options.
In those situations where a landlord cuts off heat or hot water, a tenant can obtain heat and water on their own (probably not a realistic possibility in a large rental building) and deduct the cost from the rent. The tenant can recover damages based on the reduction in the fair rental value of the property. The tenant can obtain substitute housing and deduct that cost (provided the cost does not exceed the cost of the rental unit) from the rent. The tenant can, upon proper notice, withhold a portion of the rent. The tenant can terminate the lease upon written notice if the noncompliance occurs for more than 72 hours. Those are powerful remedies. Keep in mind that tenants are also entitled to attorney’s fees and court costs if they have to enforce their CRLTO rights in court. (Readers should remember that tenant’s seeking to enforce these rights should consult an attorney before taking any action).
Obviously, every situation is different, but landlords need to exercise great care when dealing with major repairs that will deprive tenants of essential services. Strong handed tactics can result in legal liability, newspaper and television reports, and general embarrassment. Landlords would do well to develop a transition plan to minimize or eliminate the loss of essential services during times when repairs are necessary and certainly should handle any tenant contact in a professional and respectful manner. Working with their legal counsel, landlords can implement a plan that can reduce cost, prevent tenant backlash, and allow the landlord to get the repairs done.