I think we can all agree that January was a terrible month for a lot of Chicago residents. We had 25 days of government shutdown which left about 8000 Illinois residents without pay for most of the month. While SNAP Benefits (“food stamps”) were still distributed in Illinois, many of those workers still wound up visiting food pantries in order to get by.
As soon as the shutdown ended, the snow followed, and then the polar vortex. The post office was not delivering mail for the last two days of the month, when many renters drop their rent checks in the mail. About 4000 flights were canceled. Paratransit was canceled. School was canceled. Workers were forced to use vacation time or simply go without pay in order to watch their kids or stay safe. Some of those who called off work this week may find their shifts reduced or their jobs terminated as a result.
The extreme cold also put strain on the furnaces and boilers heating Chicago apartments, many of which are sized to work properly while the outside temperature is above 0°F but no lower. Apartment doors froze shut. Pipes froze solid. Windows and walls iced over.
A lot of news outlets ran articles on how to prepare for polar vortex Jayron. However, the aftermath of January 2019 is a separate matter that could also benefit from some attention, and I have a feeling that the media will not really address it now that the worst has passed.
Circumstances like those we faced over the past month have given rise to a lot of worst-case scenario “what if” questions popping up from renters and landlords on discussion boards across the web. I wanted address some of the major questions and rumors that have arisen from these discussions to make sure our renting readers are operating on the correct information.
1. I’m a federal employee who spent January without pay. What should I do if I can’t afford my February rent?
You need to be in immediate contact with your landlord. You need to be creating a paper trail now. While some landlords may be forgiving this month, others will have no sympathy at all and you have to operate on the assumption that February will be business as usual at your landlord’s office until you receive written confirmation to the contrary. You may be able to work out a payment plan where you add a certain amount to your monthly payments over the next few months to pay off February’s rent, and this should definitely be the first thing you offer to do.
But if your landlord refuses to budge on the matter you may want to look into obtaining a personal loan from a bank or credit union to cover your rent for the month. However, try to avoid payday loans and car title loans, which tend to have harmfully high interest rates.
2. I took the last two days off because of the cold and fear I might lose my job for it. What should I do?
If you feel your job may be at risk for any reason you should be in immediate written contact with your landlord. You may wind up having to break the lease, and it’s best to know what their lease break requirements are now. You should also find out how many people can live in your apartment before you hit their maximum. Adding a roommate may be unpleasant but it could be enough to carry you through until you find a new job. You may be able to negotiate a slightly lower rent rate for the short term. Remind them that an occupied apartment even at a slightly lower rent is probably better for them in winter than a vacant apartment plus turnover costs.
3. My heat, water or electricity stopped working over the past few days. What should I do?
The following instructions are for Chicago renters only. If you live elsewhere please check your state and local laws.
Heat, water, hot water and electricity are all considered to be essential services. Landlords are required to provide working systems to supply these services to all renters. Even if you are responsible for the utility bill, they still have to provide you with a functional furnace or steam boiler, plumbing, a water heater and wiring. Should any of these services stop working in your apartment while you are current with the utility bill, here are the steps you should take to resolve the matter.
First you should make sure that you and anyone who lives with you has safe shelter. This may mean crashing with a friend, renting a hotel room or decamping to one of the city’s warming shelters. Next you must provide written notice to your landlord about the problem and demanding (politely) that they fix the problem. If you do not do so, none of the following instructions apply. Once you have delivered the notice, the following timeline takes effect:
Day 0: You can buy space heaters, bottled water or other stopgap replacements to cover you. The cost of these items can be deducted from your rent. You may also obtain substitute housing and deduct that cost from your rent, provided it doesn’t exceed the cost of your monthly rent. (You should definitely talk with a lawyer before doing so, though.)
Day 2: If it stil isn’t fixed after 24 hours you can take a deduction from your rent so that you’re only paying for what the apartment is currently worth without essential services. At this point you should also get the city involved through its 311 service, either by phone or online. Every landlord is required to follow the Chicago Heat Ordinance even if they live in the building and are exempted from the CRLTO.
Day 4: If 72 hours have passed and it still isn’t fixed, your options vary. If you’re living in a CRLTO-exempt apartment (mostly those in small, owner-occupied buildings) you may hire a contractor directly to fix the problem and deduct the cost of the repairs from your rent. If you’re in an apartment that’s covered the the CRLTO you can provide 30 day notice that you will be terminating your lease.
4. I’m worried that the mail shutdown will make my rent payment to arrive late. What should I do?
Notify your landlord immediately. This is one situation where it’s probably OK to let them know by text message or email, provided you receive confirmation back that your message was received. Remember that grace periods are not mandated by law in Chicago. If your lease says your rent is due on the first, it must be in your landlord’s hands on the first. Remember that post office sorting facilities remained open, only deliveries were suspended. Follow up with your landlord on Monday to ensure that the payment was received over the weekend, and be ready to put a stop on the check and provide a replacement in person if it still hasn’t arrived.
5. Do emails or text messages count as “written notice” to a landlord in Chicago?
No. Any time I say “written notice” in this article I mean written on paper, signed with your legal signature and delivered ideally in person or at least by registered or delivery confirmed snail mail. The only exception to this is if your lease specifically states that electronic or digital communications are acceptable substitutes for written notice.
6. My landlord hasn’t shoveled the front walk. What can I do?
Unfortunately not much from a legal standpoint. Landlords are required to shovel all sidewalks in the public way so you can and should notify 311 about it if they don’t. However, the law is not reliably enforced so there’s no guarantee that anything will come of your report. If you are physically capable and want to be a fine upstanding member of your community, grab a shovel and some salt and handle the issue yourself. Just don’t expect to be paid or thanked for it.
7. My landlord hasn’t plowed the back sidewalks or parking lot. What can I do?
Do it yourself if you’re physically capable. While landlords have to keep the public sidewalks clear of snow, they don’t have to do anything about snow on porches, fire escapes and portions of sidewalk on private property. Technically they’re supposed to keep fire escapes clear of debris but the city is probably not going to enforce snow removal back there. If your lease specifically states that they will provide snow removal services in these areas then you might be able to get into it with them over the matter, but most leases include no such provisions. You’re pretty much on your own for this one.
8. I think or know that my water pipes have frozen. What should I do?
Frozen water takes up more space than liquid water. If left frozen for too long, water pipes can burst causing leaks and eventually mold. If you try to turn on the water and nothing or very little comes out, the supply pipe to that tap is probably frozen. (Note that natural gas pipes do not freeze.) If you suspect that your pipes have frozen you should immediately notify your landlord, but also take steps to start thawing it out as soon as possible.
Keep the faucet open so that the thawing water has somewhere to go. If you think the frozen section is inside your apartment you can try to thaw it out yourself. Remove anything flammable from the area. Warm the air around it using a hair dryer, heating pad or space heater. Do not apply any open flame, hot glue or heat guns directly to the pipe as these can melt or ignite the metal or PVC casing. Check every faucet in the apartment (bathroom sinks, tubs, showers, kitchen sinks and refrigerator icemaker lines) to see if they have frozen as well. The lines most likely to freeze are ones along the outside walls of the building.
9. The inside of my walls are iced over or wet. What should I do?
In extremely cold weather, inside humidity can combine with faulty insulation to create ice buildup on walls, ceilings or windows. As this ice melts it can cause water damage to your living areas.
If the outside temperature is still below 0°F, the first thing you should do is turn off any humidifiers, or reduce their output so the air in your living space is under 20% humidity. This should help to prevent the situation from getting any worse. If you take hot showers or cook any steamy dishes make sure to ventilate the area fully. Take pictures of the area that’s wet or iced over so you have proof of the problem for your landlord and then notify them immediately in writing. Frosty walls usually indicate problems with the insulation inside. They can also grow mold if still wet as the air warms up.
Unplug any electrical appliances and lamps that are near the affected area. If you have access to your fuse box or circuit breaker box, turn off the power to all outlets in the area. Note that this may cut power to other outlets in the same room or multiple rooms. Better safe than electrocuted. Use towels to remove as much water as you can from the walls and place additional towels on the floor to catch any drips. If you have access to rock salt you can put some in a pasta strainer, then put the pasta strainer into a bucket. Set the whole thing in the area near the accumulated frost. It will absorb some of the humidity in the air and dissolve into the bucket. (Note that table salt will not work for this method.)
10. I was supposed to move out today/in tomorrow but cannot due to the weather. What are my options?
If you cannot move out on time get into immediate contact with your landlord. Make sure they can notify any new tenants who were planning to move in tomorrow. Let them know how long you plan to stay past the final hours of your lease and find out what the charges will be for the overstay. If you cannot move out because your path is iced over, make sure you let the landlord know about this as you may be able to get permission to move out through another route or get overstay charges waived.
If you cannot move in to your new apartment because of the weather there’s not much you can do except wait and find a safe place to crash for the night. If you cannot move in because the previous tenants haven’t moved out yet you may be able to get a prorated deduction off of your next month’s rent.
Above all, remember that it’s much easier to deal with a an extra moving day or two than it is to deal with the medical bills and recovery time for frostbite or hypothermia. If you have to wait until the weather is a bit warmer to move safely, then please wait.
If we missed anything in this list please let us know in the comments. If you know of a Chicago renter who’s dealing with the fallout of the past month, please share this article with them. Hang in there, Chicago! The worst of it will be over soon.