The 5 stages of “grief” for Landlords with CRLTO problems

The Kübler-Ross Model of the stages of grief deals with the feelings people experience in response to death or terminal illness. There are five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. There is no real “order” to the stages and many people move from one stage to the other and back again. Eventually, people move on to a peaceful acceptance of death.

Interestingly, in my landlord-tenant practice, I have found that Chicago landlords who have violated the Chicago Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance go through these same stages after being served with a complaint or a nasty attorney letter threatening legal action based upon violations of the Chicago Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance.

I think it is an interesting exercise to run through the five stages and how landlords react. In doing so, my words may seem harsh. This is not because I am anti-landlord. Face it, landlords are my life-blood.  It is because it makes sense to point out the truth of the situation and by honestly exploring these reactions, landlords who are not yet “in the soup” might be able to find the end-game of “acceptance” without having to go through the other stages. Let’s examine the 5 stages of grief and how Chicago landlords respond during those stages.

Denial.  As one can understand, Landlords employ a self-defense mechanism by denying the reality of the situation. This is the stage that usually lasts the longest. As the law is quick to point out, landlords are used to being the party holding the power in the landlord-tenant relationship and landlords are not used to those tables being turned on them. After being served with “papers”, they fall prey to their own propaganda. They don’t acknowledge all of the facts.  They block out certain claims. Denial manifests itself in Chicago landlords in a number of ways.  They deny the “validity of the law”.  They decide that even if the law is valid, because the penalties are so harsh, no judge would ever actually enforce it.  Well, the law has been around a long time (since 1986) and it is enforced all the time.  The landlord claims that “I have been a landlord for X number of years and this has never happened before”.  That doesn’t mean it can’t happen. It just means the landlord has been lucky! They even ignore their own violations of law and point out all the ways the tenant has been a bad tenant. Unfortunately, the tenant’s past bad behavior or even their underlying motivation for bringing the action against the landlord does not in any way, shape or form have any impact on the landlord’s violation of the law, responsibility to comply, or liability for non-compliance. The landlord just has trouble understanding that they made a mistake and the law has a severe and strict penalty for enforcement.

Anger.  After the initial shock and denial wear off, the non-compliant landlord begins to face the pain of the situation and begins to lash out. The landlord deflects his own failure to comply with the law and begins to assess blame to others. Sometimes they blame the lawmakers, sometimes, the legal system, and sometimes, the lawyers. They even blame the “failure of the American system”. I probably hear a landlord once a month say something along the lines of “I can’t believe that in America today a tenant has all of these rights and I have no rights.” Many landlords ask in frustration “who passed this stupid law?” and “how can any landlord ever comply with the CRLTO?”. They blame their real estate agent for not giving them a good lease form. They blame “greedy lawyers” for taking CRLTO cases. The tenant, of course, becomes the main target of the landlord’s ire. The tenant is transformed into a dishonorable “scumbag”. Every bad act the tenant ever did gets brought up! “The tenant paid rent late three times and I never said anything” or “I let the tenant have a dog even though my lease prohibited pets.”  Those thoughts, although interesting, are completely irrelevant. The landlord almost never blames himself except in a back-handed, woe-is-me kind of way.  The landlord blames himself for “being a good guy” and renting to the tenant because he was down on his luck or because he felt bad for the tenant. Unfortunately, landlords have no one to blame but themselves. Landlording is a business and every businessperson needs to know the lay of the land. A substantial part of landlording in Chicago is complying with the CRLTO and CRLTO compliance is a cost of doing business.

Bargaining. Once a landlord has been served, the landlord feels helpless. The landlord, who is not used to being backed into a corner, needs find a way to regain control of the situation. The landlord begins to bargain with the tenant in the landlord’s head. This is not actual bargaining with the tenant or the tenant’s attorney. Instead, the landlord “resets” reality. The landlord arbitrarily selects some amount of money (usually well below what a tenant would be entitled to) that he would be “willing to pay” if the tenant would accept it. The landlord opines that he is “being reasonable” (when, in fact, he is probably being totally unreasonable). Unfortunately, many of the bargains struck with the tenant are laughable. In response to a $3000 security deposit violation where the penalty is $9,000, the landlord decides $3150 is a “fair” result for the tenant and if the tenant does not accept that, the tenant is not being reasonable. Sometimes, the landlord goes the other way and digs in his heels. He bolsters his case in his head by pointing out how difficult it will be for the tenant to collect from him or how long the court case will take. The landlord declares “I’ll tie this up in court for five years” or “I’ll declare bankruptcy and then what will the tenant have?”. Well, the tenant’s attorney would be happy to battle on for five years. After all, the landlord is paying the tenant’s attorney’s bill. And as for bankruptcy, at least when it comes to security deposits, a judgment related to a violation of 5-12-080 is not dischargeable in bankruptcy, so all the landlord would be doing would be emerging from bankruptcy with a big judgment and the tenant standing alone as the only creditor. Landlords are in a tough spot. They have an asset and the tenant knows where it is! The landlord is blinded by the pain and grief of the loss that he can’t yet accept.

Depression. After the landlord has digested the situation and after having a discussion with the landlord’s attorney about the reality of the situation, the landlord starts to give up and gets depressed. They make grand declarations that they are going to “sell all of their buildings in the City”. While I would be happy to assist them with their real estate closings, I know that this is really just an expression of the landlord’s disappointment. The landlord is starting to “get it”. The situation is not good. The landlord is going into a shell. The landlord wants help in finding out how to fix the problem with the current unit and all other units. It helps if someone can point out to the landlord that they are not the first landlord to face this problem. The law is, in many ways, flawed and unfair. The law needs to be reformed. That doesn’t change the fact that the landlord needs to find a way to comply in the future.

Acceptance. Acceptance comes when the landlord finds the mental strength to move on. Acceptance is when the landlord makes peace with the CRLTO. Resisting only prolongs the pain. Acceptance is not about happiness and there can even be begrudging acceptance. Acceptance is about going forward. Rather than fighting, the landlord can accept and get prepared to do things right in the future. I know a landlord has reached this stage when he confesses that his case or the money that it costs him will be a “lesson learned”. Upon acceptance, the landlord can learn to cope with the ordinance. A good landlord-tenant attorney can help during acceptance. Helping the landlord to find an appropriate settlement to the case can be one way. Getting leases that are CRLTO compliant are another. In our office, we counsel landlords all the time on how to comply with the law and “best practices” for landlords in Chicago.

It would be great if landlords could avoid the first four stages of grief and could skip straight to acceptance! I won’t sugar coat it. Compliance with the CRLTO can be tricky business. The law is poorly written, the courts are favorable to tenants, and there are lots of gray areas. However, a landlord who is engaged in the process of complying with the law will do a far better job than a landlord who is blissfully ignorant of it and can cut down on the risk and exposure associated with non-compliance. Chicago landlords covered by the ordinance should get in touch with their team (real estate agent and attorney) and work out a plan for how to comply so that they can avoid a loss of time and money related to CRLTO non-compliance.

About Richard Magnone

Co-founding member of Reda | Ciprian | Magnone, LLC, attorney at law and Illinois licensed lawyer since 1996.
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