Gayina Washington, a frustrated tenant who lives at Austin Station apartments, pointing toward a place at the second floor of her building after a fire last month. Washington and dozens of other tenants have complained about the building's upkeep. Lawyers with the Cook County Bar Association Foundation were in Austin last month to educate tenants, who may land in situations similar to Washington's, about their rights. | File

Attorneys from the Cook County Bar Association Foundation were at Austin’s Friendship Baptist Church, 5200 W. Jackson, earlier this month to advise residents on their rights as tenants.

During the April 9 event, attorneys Jerrod Williams and Laura Hoover focused on what tenants can do if their landlords don’t make the repairs they are legally required to make and what rights tenants have in case landlords retaliate.

Williams said too often, tenants in those situations don’t know what to do or the myriad ways they’re protected by law.

“I’ve found that [landlord problems are] something that a lot of people have to deal with and they don’t know what those rights are,” he said.

Williams and Hoover began their presentation by distinguishing Chicago’s local ordinances from laws in other municipalities in the state. In Chicago, for instance, tenants are protected by the Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance. Although there are state laws relating to tenants’ rights that apply across Illinois, most of them don’t afford tenants as much protection as the RLTO.

But the attorneys also pointed out that RLTO doesn’t apply to rental buildings that have six units or less, unless only the owner lives in the buildings. Hoover added that, if a landlord rents out a coach house while living in the main building, it counts as two units in the same building.

Williams explained that, under the RLTO, landlords are required to maintain the building’s structural integrity, provide working smoke detectors, maintain toilets (and other plumbing fixtures), exterminate pests and maintain any appliances that came with the unit.

Hoover emphasized that, while the landlords aren’t obligated to provide electricity, heat or cooking gas if they aren’t included in the lease; landlords are required to maintain wiring, pipes and other equipment that gets electricity and gas into the apartment.

The attorneys said that landlords could bill tenants for repairs if they caused damage, but that there has to be evidence that a tenant caused the damage. If, for example, a sink stopped working due to some internal breakdown, landlords can’t claim that this is the tenant’s responsibility.

“It’s on them,” Hoover said, referencing landlords. “If things go wrong, they have to maintain [the problem].”

Williams then outlined the steps tenants should take when there is a maintenance issue. They have to notify their landlords, which the attorney recommended doing in writing so there’s a clear record. Unless the situation is urgent, the landlord has 14 days to fix it. If the landlord doesn’t fix it, tenants have a right to fix it themselves or hire someone else to do it.

Tenants must notify the landlord and fellow tenants ahead of time. The tenants can bill their landlords for the expense, but only for half of their rent or $500 — whichever is greater. But Williams emphasized that the charges have to be reasonable. For instance, a tenant can’t submit a $500 bill for a repair that would normally cost $80.

“If you’ve done all that, you can deduct the amount [from] the bill from the next month’s rent,” Williams said.

When asked what would happen if a tenant is on a month-to-month lease, Hoover said that the same rules should apply, but cautioned that tenants in this situation would be much more vulnerable to retaliation.

“Just be careful and keep everything in writing,” she said.