Progress by Degrees: A History of the Chicago Heat Ordinance

Share Button

Recently one of the people I follow on Twitter asked why the minimum temperatures in Chicago apartments are so high. She stated that she keeps her home in the 50-60 degree range all winter long, and was concerned that apartment buildings are wasting energy by keeping temperatures so much higher than she does in this era of growing climate and energy usage concerns. This question of course sent me off down a rabbit hole through archival versions of the historic Chicago Municipal Code and the library’s archives of the Chicago Tribune. Again.

Today we’ll be looking at how the Chicago Heat Ordinance (or the “minimum residential temperatures ordinance”) evolved from its first drafts in 1922 through the present day.

The Chicago Code and the Rest of the World

Chicago has always marched to its own drum when it comes to building codes. For decades Chicago resisted adoption of the International Building Code (IBC) because our buildings are very old and unable to keep pace with emerging technology. It’s only in very recent years that the City Council has attempted to bring the code in line with the IBC. The current minimum temperatures in landlord-heated Chicago apartments are 66 degrees overnight and 68 degrees during the day. The heating season starts on September 15 each year and runs through June 1 of the following spring. This is very close to the 68 degree winter-long temperatures recommended by the IBC. The ordinance covering all of this is considered to be part of the Building Code, and is therefore treated as an engineering concern more than a health concern.

So I have in essence answered my Twitter friend’s question within three paragraphs. (A new record!) However, the history of the ordinance is pretty interesting, and the size of the scrollbar on this page should tell you that I’m far from finished. So come with me if you would be so kind all the way back to the 1870s.

1870s: Before the Laws

The Chicago Building Code is part of the larger Chicago Municipal Code. It was created in 1875 following the fire, largely focusing on fire safety standards for obvious reasons. By 1893 it had grown to the point where it required reorganization and the creation of a Department of Buildings to enforce it. This Department was plagued by corruption (as is the Chicago way) throughout much of the early 20th century. The Building code was haphazardly revamped many times until 1949, when it basically locked into place. It would remain largely unchanged with minor patch jobs from 1949 until 2019, when the City Council took steps to bring it in line with the IBC.

Before I went all the way back into proto-Chicago laws I wanted to make sure that central heating was even a norm in 1870s housing. I found a Tribune article from Moving Day in 1879, where they mention that landlord-heated apartments were indeed available. “Handsome flats of seven and eight rooms, without heat, may be had as low as $20 and $22.50 a month, while $25 or $30 will secure equally large and comfortable apartments with heat.” Fun.

At the time most apartments were heated by coal. They were referred to as “tenements” or “flats”. No minimum temperatures were enforced by law, although leases did stipulate minimum temperatures so it was a point of negotiation between landlords and tenants bound by contract law rather than by codified regulations.

1920-22: The First Minimum Temperature Law

In 1920 we first see coverage of a proposed heating law winding its way through the City Council. Dubbed the “Flat Heat Law” by the newspapers, in its earliest form it proposed a flat minimum year round temperature of 70 degrees if landlords were providing heat to their tenants. Landlords, led by their eternal ally the Chicago Board of Realtors, cited concerns that such high temperatures would increase the chance of tenants contracting tuberculosis.

The CBR vigorously opposed the proposed ordinance while the Chicago Tenants’ League fought just as strongly to push it through, calling landlords “heat thieves” in their press campaign. By the time it was in the hands of the 9 man Health Committee the recommended year round temperature had been lowered from 70 to 68 degrees. The CBR lobbied to shorten the heating season from 12 months to 8 months, spanning October 1 to April 30.

In March of 1922 the now extremely controversial bill made it out of committee, passing with 8 for and 1 against. However, it failed to pass the council, falling 5 votes short of the 36 required due to aldermen deliberately skipping the session to avoid this particular issue. It finally passed in June of 1922, taking effect the following autumn as Article 31, section 2119. Note that Article 31 was the Health Code. The ordinance wouldn’t make the jump to the Building Code for another few decades.

Unfortunately a cold snap in the 2nd week of September 1922 caused rampant illness among tenement residents who no longer had any legal recourse, as the new law was already in effect and would not protect them for another 2 weeks.

Most large apartment buildings in Chicago were still heated by a combination of coal and incinerated resident garbage. Most buildings had janitors on staff who would start up the coal furnaces daily and keep them stoked. The morning startup process would take a couple of hours. These janitors would also go door to door collecting residents’ garbage for burning, a practice that continued in some buildings well into the 1980s. The Chicago Flat Janitors’ union lobbied against a minimum overnight temperature, stating that a law requiring their members to wake up in the middle of the night to stoke coal furnaces would create inhumane working conditions.

The ordinance as first enacted:

  • 6am: 60 degrees
  • 7:30am: 65 degrees
  • 8:30am 68 degrees
  • 10:30pm No minimum specified.
  • Heating season: October 1 to April 30.

Interestingly, the 1922 ordinance also set a minimum temperature of 68 degrees all day long for factories and workshops. This part of the law still exists but has been divorced from the residential heat ordinance for quite some time.

1923-1939: Testing the Waters

After one winter with the new law in place it was clear that the CBR had been overzealous in their lobby to limit the heating season. Chicago is a cold, cold town. In December of 1923 the end of the heating season was pushed back by a month to June 1.

By April of 1924 the ordinance was being tested in the court system. A jury awarded $10,000 in damages to the widow of a man who died of pneumonia due to insufficient heat in their landlord-heated apartment at 4012 Sheridan Road. (That’s $150,860 in modern money.) Physicians called to the witness stand testified that “if tenants wore sufficient clothes they could not catch pneumonia even if the temperature in the flat was as low as 28 to 40 degrees. They stated that pneumonia is much more readily contracted in an overheated apartment.”

So now we’ve moved on from tuberculosis to pneumonia. Interesting.

A letter to the Tribune’s “Friend of the People” legal advice column in 1927 showed that leases had not been altered to reflect the Flat Heat Law, and that tenants were generally uninformed of its existence. A renter inquiring about heat mentioned only that her lease specified heat should be furnished during reasonable hours from October 1 to April 30, seemingly unaware that the law provided her with far broader protections.

People were always trying to tinker with the law during this era in the name of social justice for tenement dwellers. None succeeded. For example, in 1938 Alderman Thomas Daley introduced a measure that would require landlords to supply heat whenever needed throughout the year based on prevailing outside temperatures. From the looks of things the effort never made it out of committee.

The ordinance during this era:

  • 6:30am 60 degrees
  • 7:30am 65 degrees
  • 8:30am 68 degrees
  • 10:30pm: No minimum specified.
  • Heating season: Oct 1 to June 1.

August 1939: A New Municipal Code

During 1939 the entire Chicago code was overhauled from top to bottom. Well, it wasn’t just 1939. It was a 12 year long process ending in 1939. Everything was moved around and renumbered. But the heating code remained largely unaltered. It got a new number, Section 96-4. The start of the heating season was moved back by two weeks, where it has remained until today.

The ordinance during this era:

  • 6:30am 60 degrees
  • 7:30am 65 degrees
  • 8:30am 68 degrees
  • 10:30pm: No minimum specified.
  • Heating season: September 15 to June 1.

1942-1963: Rationing, Minimums and Maximums

Come 1942 Chicago landlords would face their biggest challenge yet when it came to heating their buildings in the form of World War II fuel rationing. Most of the larger buildings were still heated by coal, but the smaller buildings had switched to oil heat and oil was heavily rationed. Minimum temperature laws remained in effect through the war, but the city made it known that tenants had the right to petition for lower rents if heat was reduced materially below what they had been paying for due to the rationing. So it’s clear that everyone understood that the minimums might simply be impossible to attain with the resources available.

The Chicago Board of Realtors had apparently come to accept the minimum temperature laws by this point. They actually lobbied to expand the hours when heat would be required to allow for more gradual startup and cooldown times of oil furnaces. While their requested extra hour of warmth at both the start and end of the day never came to pass, it was an interesting attitude shift for these once vehement opponents to the law.

Three years later with the war still raging, the US Office of War Mobilization issued a request to keep heating temperatures at no more than 68 degrees nationwide. Chicago attempted to comply, although given that this was also the legally mandated minimum temperature for Chicago there was now absolutely no margin of error for the Chicago landlord. A medical expert consulted by the Tribune stated “Sixty-eight is all right for people in good health, but it is not warm enough for older people with poor circulation.” A far cry from the 1924 assertion that 28 degrees would be fine for seniors if they just threw on a couple of sweaters.

1949 would see the last major revision to the Chicago Building Code until 2019. At this point the minimum heat ordinance was shifted from the Health Code to the Buildings Code, receiving the new index number of 78-39, but otherwise remaining unchanged.

The following year a major coal miners’ strike put landlords in a bind once again. This time it was the larger apartment buildings that had to walk the fine line between obeying the minimum temperature laws and obeying rationing orders. News coverage at the time mentions that landlords of the larger buildings were planning on reducing their actual daytime temps from 70 to 68, and cutting off heat in their buildings altogether from 11pm to 6am. Coal use in large apartment buildings started to decrease as natural gas use was phased in.

1964-1980: Hot Nights and Thermostats

Between thermostats and natural gas heat, the days of the coal stoking, trash collecting apartment janitors were coming to an end. With the influence of the Flat Janitors’ Union on the wane, the city council was considering the addition of a minimum temperature of 55 degrees during the unregulated overnight hours. I couldn’t find when this took effect but can confirm that it was first considered in 1964, and on the law books 1970.

While apartment minimum temperatures were still maxing out at 68 degrees during the day, home thermostats in this era came with handy “comfort zone” markings in the 72-76 degree range. In order to ensure compliance with the laws and to avoid lawsuits from the very vocal tenants’ unions, many landlords overheated their buildings to somewhere around 70 degrees.

But in 1973 the OPEC energy crisis hit the US, bringing heating fuel shortages citywide. The city had by now largely shifted its heating fuel source from coal to natural gas. Energy conservation experts recommended maximum temperatures of 68 degrees during the day in government buildings. The practice would eventually spread to private residences in the late 1970s when President Carter encouraged homeowners to keep the thermostats no higher than 68 degrees, leading by example by lowering the thermostats at the White House.

The ordinance during this era:

  • 6:30am 60 degrees
  • 7:30am 65 degrees
  • 8:30am 68 degrees
  • 10:30pm: 55 degrees
  • Heating season: September 15 to June 1.

1980-2004: Third Party Standards

In 1980, radio talk show host Ed Schwartz of WIND AM 560 used his show to petition the City Council to raise the minimum overnight temperature from the very chilly 55 degrees. He stated that people had been using their gas stoves to keep their apartments at an acceptable overnight temperature, resulting in increased fire hazards from wooden cabinets above these stoves. Medical experts advised Schwartz that a 55 degree overnight minimum increased chances of hypothermia among elderly renters. (Medical condition #3!) Alderman Bernie Stone took up Schwartz’s challenge. Stone’s proposed amendment to the ordinance passed the city council unanimously.

Meanwhile, model building codes such as the National Building Code issued by BOCA (Building Officials Code Administrators International) had gained popularity in the surrounding suburbs. BOCA included recommended minimum temperatures in their code, and these temps were reflected in this sample of 1980s building codes from our neighbors:

  • Evanston: 60 overnight, 70 daytime.
  • Skokie: 65 overnight, 70 daytime.
  • Mt. Prospect: 68 overnight, 70 daytime.
  • Arlington Heights: 65 overnight, 72 daytime.
  • Hoffman Estates: 65 all day
  • Des Plaines: 60 overnight, 70 warmup, 72 daytime.
  • Oak Park: 65 overnight, 70 daytime.

Chicago opted to bump the minimum overnight temperature from 55 degrees to 63 degrees, deciding that the buildings were still too old and drafty to handle 65 degrees all winter long.

In a more humorous outtake from the ordinance’s blooper reel, the City Council repaired a rather massive clerical blunder in the Stone amendment in 1988. The small change replaced the accidental “maximum” with the intended “minimum” when referring to the temperatures. 48 aldermen voted in favor of the correction, none opposed. Further clerical adjustments followed in 1990, when the entire Chicago municipal code was once again reorganized and renumbered. The index number of the heat ordinance would move to 13-196-140 but otherwise remain unchanged for another 14 years.

The ordinance during this era:

  • 6:30am 60 degrees
  • 7:30am 65 degrees
  • 8:30am 68 degrees
  • 10:30pm: 63 degrees
  • Heating season: September 15 to June 1.

2004-2019: Falling into Step

On January 14, 2004, Aldermen Billy Ocasio, Rey Colon, Emma Mitts and Walter Burnett, Jr. proposed an increase in the overnight temperatures from 63 to 66 degrees along with an elimination of the now obsolete coal furnace warmup period in the mornings. The proposed change was sent to the Buildings Committee, and accepted into law the following spring on March 9, 2005. 49 aldermen voted in favor, none opposed. This would be the final substantial change to the ordinance to date.

All documentation of 2004 and 2005 City Council and Committee meetings has now aged past the point where it is preserved online by the Chicago City Clerk so I was unable to obtain a clear explanation of why the increase occurred. No major news coverage remains of this change and I can remember from my first years in the rental industry that it wasn’t widely publicized. However, I can make some educated guesses as to why it occurred.

Looking back across all of these changes, most were tied into prevailing knowledge within the medical community. By 2004 we had learned that infants and seniors require higher sleeping temperatures. We had learned that the 65 degree overnight temperature recommended by BOCA way back in the 80s was not just an engineering thing, but a healthy option as well for people of all ages.

The technology we use to heat and insulate our buildings had also advanced rapidly. It was no longer a huge burden on even the old steam boilers to keep temperatures at 66 degrees or higher throughout the day and night. By 2004 we didn’t need to worry so much about antique heating systems but we did have to worry about aging plumbing systems. Low temperatures are the enemy of old pipes.

Finally we have to look at the wards represented by the four sponsoring aldermen. Austin, Humboldt Park, Logan Square, and the Near West Side. At the time, all four areas were dominated by large, renting, Black and Hispanic families. All four faced heavy gentrification issues, going hand in hand with historical building preservation concerns. So while I cannot confirm if the overnight temperature increase was spurred by engineering developments, an interest in complying with the model building code, or emerging health studies, I can surmise that it was a combination of all three.

The final change to the heat ordinance is quite recent, occurring in December of 2019. The ongoing revamp of Chicago’s Buildings Code to bring it in line with the IBC has found the ordinance renumbered yet again. It can now be found at its new address of 14X-8-802.2.2.

The ordinance during this era:

  • 8:30am 68 degrees
  • 10:30pm: 66 degrees
  • Heating season: September 15 to June 1.

Butterfly Effects

A couple of degrees here or there may seem like such a tiny thing in the grand scheme of things. All of this legislative wrangling over a few numbers’ difference in a law no more than a paragraph long seems almost silly. But when you’re working on the scale of every single landlord-heated apartment in Chicago, all the energy usage, the people involved, and how fragile our health really can be, the fuss and furor over a couple of degrees or a couple of weeks starts to seem more reasonable.

Government, social advocacy, medical innovation, engineering advances, military encounters, international embargoes, broadcast media and economics all played a part in the story of how our current heat ordinance came to be. There is no doubt that ecological concerns will be the next influence joining the party for whatever changes are ahead.

These days it’s rent control that’s getting all the focus in the Chicago apartment industry. The battle is raging furiously on all sides, with tenants and landlords hurling insults at lawmakers and each other not only in Illinois but nationwide. Concern over the temperature of our apartments has pretty much vanished even though we are in the middle of winter.

To those on both sides, I would urge you to look at all of this history and remember that legislative change does not always happen quickly, nor does it happen in a vacuum. Sometimes even a one degree change can take the combined efforts of an entire generation. Nudges from other influences can change the entire trajectory of a political movement. Be flexible and keep shifting your perspective so that you do not lose sight of outside voices that could help your cause in the long run.

RentConfident is a Chicago startup that provides renters with the in-depth information they need to choose safe apartments. Help us reach more renters! Like, Share and Retweet us!

Share Button

Published by

Kay Cleaves

Founder and owner of RentConfident. She's the primary developer of the website and research engine code. She's spent over 10 years working in the Chicago rental industry and has assisted with over 1200 leases.