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The law of the landlords: Who let it out of the house?

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It took at least a half dozen years of wrangling, arm twisting, and haggling, but last September the Chicago City Council adopted a tenants' bill of rights.

And then in a spasm of legislative fury, the state's house of representatives tried to repeal it, with a bill designed to circumvent home rule (Chicago's and other municipalities') and create a statewide code for rental housing. That bill slipped through the house (thanks to speaker Michael Madigan and after two tries) and over to the senate, where president Philip Rock killed it, at least for the moment.

It all happened so quickly and unexpectedly that even now--almost four weeks after the original house vote--no one is exactly sure what happened, let alone why or what it all means.

"I have to admit, the house bill caught us by surprise," says Brad Karkkainen, an aide to David Orr, the north-side alderman who sponsored the City Council tenants' rights legislation. "We are still asking ourselves how could this happen?"

Indeed, on the surface, that the state bill actually passed the house makes little sense. First there is the question of home rule. Sixteen municipalities in Illinois have rental codes, but it is obvious the proposed law is aimed at Chicago's, which governs over 500,000 units. And, not surprisingly, only 1 of Chicago's 34 legislators voted for the bill. So the first question is: what business do downstate and suburban legislators (most of them Republicans) have poking into the affairs of Chicago renters and landlords?

Home rule is supposed to be sacrosanct to Republicans and other conservative creatures. Shouldn't the locals know what's best for their communities?

"How could any good Reagan Republican support this thing?" asks Tim Carpenter, director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, a Chicago-based group. "It comes down to hypocrisy. The realtors wanted this bill, so the Republicans abandoned their principles. I think the realtors got scared when the tenants here passed a substantial bill in the council. They [the realtors] want to nip this thing in the bud. They figure, 'What's next, rent control?' No one's proposing any such thing, and it would never pass the council anyway. But they're paranoid."

Not so, counters Larry Hicks, the downstate Democrat who introduced the bill. "Home rule should not take precedence on issues of such magnitude, such as housing," says Hicks. "It's important that tenants and landlords know the law. But how can you know the law, if it changes from community to community? This spells out a uniform law, so everyone is protected."

"This bill was nothing more than an attempt to establish some consistency in landlord-tenant relations," agrees James Watts, director for governmental affairs for the Interboard Real Estate Affairs Council, a state-wide association of realtors. "Why, the bill passed in Chicago does not apply to buildings with less than six flats. Shouldn't the tenants in a 2-flat on Milwaukee Avenue have the same rights as a tenant in a 30-flat building in Lincoln Park? This bill would smooth these things out. That's all."

Well, that's the charitable point of view. A close examination shows that, in contrast to the city's, Hicks's bill heavily favors landlords. For instance, Hicks would abolish the stipulation that enables Chicago tenants to withhold rent until landlords make repairs. His proposal also would enable a landlord to amend a lease--adding restrictions and regulations, if he chooses--after the agreement has been signed.

"Let's say the landlord allows pets in the apartment," says Henry Rose, an assistant law professor at Loyola University and an advocate of tenants' rights. "Under the state law, he could change his mind after the lease is signed. He could say, 'Now, I've decided you can't have pets. So get rid of your cat or dog.' But that violates basic contract law. You shouldn't be allowed to go back on a deal once it is made."

In addition, the Hicks bill limits the amount of repair expenses tenants can deduct from their rent. "My law holds repair deductions to one month's rent per year," says Hicks. "That's fair. You can't give someone carte blanche on these things."

And, perhaps most significantly, the state proposal would abolish the city's code of minimal standards for rental units. "The City Council bill goes on for three pages about minimal standards," says Rose. "It has incredible details regarding inadequate heating, airtight windows, no cracked plaster, fire escapes, etc. But the landlords don't want to be pinned down. They don't want any obligations."

Watts and Hicks argue that that is not the case. The city's aldermen, they maintain, went too far. Their law deprives landlords of rights they should enjoy in their relationship with tenants. "Under the tenant bill of rights," Hicks says, "the landlord has no rights."

"The fact that tenants can withhold rent or deduct repairs can easily be abused," Watts says, quickly adding that, as yet, he has no proof of any such abuse. What's worse, realtors insist, is that the city's bill assumes that tenants are victims and landlords villains in every dispute--a faulty assumption at best, they say.

Examine, for instance, the other side of Rose's example involving pets. Sure, a landlord may agree to allow pets in his building. But what if the tenant is irresponsible? What if the tenant refuses to clean up after his cat or dog? Must the landlord then waive his right to say "enough"? Should the landlord be forced to live in filth? Indeed, during council debate, several aldermen declared that what the city really needs is a bill of rights that protects landlords from unruly, abusive, and destructive tenants.

"Obviously, some tenants are not good;' says Carpenter. "But the record has shown that tenants have not abused the bill of rights. In fact, the biggest problem so far, I think, is that most people don't know about it." (To mend that problem, Carpenter's group has held a series of workshops.) Watts, on the other hand, has specific complaints about the bill. He believes, for instance, that the maximum penalty ($10) for late rents is too negligible to act as a deterrent. But such disagreements over the law should, and probably could, be worked out in the City Council, both Carpenter and Watts agree.

"What we have here is an age-old dispute between landlords and tenants," says Rose. "And what I don't completely understand is why Springfield would want to get involved." Part of the answer may have to do with the clout of the real estate lobby. Hicks is himself a realtor, though, ironically, he rents the Mount Vernon house he lives in.

"This is what we call a perennial bill," says Kappy Laing, legislative liaison for Mayor Washington. "That means it comes up every year. The real estate lobby is always pushing for it. This year the real estate lobby may have pushed for it harder because they feared the Chicago ordinance set precedents, but the concept, in one form or another, is not new.

"In the past, we killed it in committee. I'm not sure how it got out of the house this time." Michael Madigan had something to do with it, although exactly what is hard to tell. The southwest-side representative is the taciturn type, not much for rhetoric. It's tough enough to pin down his point of view (let alone his motives) on even the most innocuous, mundane matters.

On Hick's bill, he voted present, according to Steve Brown, Madigan's chief spokesman. "That means he has no position on the bill," Brown explains.

"I'm not sure that Madigan was a big proponent of the bill," adds state representative Woods Bowman, whose north-side district straddles Evanston and Rogers Park. "I discussed it with him and I got no sense that he had strong feelings about it one way or another."

Madigan did call the bill for a vote, but that's not surprising. As the presiding officer in the house, he calls almost all bills to the floor. And he's known to be pretty fair in doing so. "As speaker, he asks all Democrats, 'What's your favorite legislation?'" says Bowman. "It's our big chance to get the one piece of legislation we feel is most important out for a vote. And Madigan is good about this--if you ask him, he'll call it for a vote."

What's amazing--at least to most observers--is that Madigan called the tenant-landlord bill for a vote not once but twice. The first time, it lost. On the second roll call, it passed the house by a margin of five votes.

"Madigan did nothing against the rules," says Bowman, Orr's ally and an opponent of Hicks's bill. "But to appreciate the significance of recalling the bill, you have to understand that we have hundreds of bills to deal with. There are lots and lots of bills that never get one shot. And this one got two. I was surprised. It broke Madigan's pattern."

Brown, a man at least as terse and noncommittal as his boss, demurs. "He recalled the bill at the request of its sponsor [Hicks]," says Brown. "I wouldn't call that rare. I don't think that anybody who knows the legislature would call it rare."

And Hicks agrees. "An issue is never dead in Springfield until we legislators are out of session," he says. "I've seen some bills get called three or four times."

Nevertheless, Madigan's role and motives in the affair remain a favorite topic of Springfield conversation. "Madigan told me that he didn't mean to call the bill again," says one legislative insider, who asked for anonymity when speaking about the speaker. "He said it was a mistake. All bills are numbered. Well, Madigan said he meant to call out the number of one bill, but he accidentally recited the tenant bill's number.

"At first, I didn't believe that explanation. I mean, Madigan make such a mistake? Come on. He's too organized for that. But then I started thinking about it, and I realized, we've got 4,000 bills down here. It takes me months to learn them all. It's not that difficult to get confused, even for Michael Madigan."

Whatever the case, Madigan's maneuvering on the bill was something of a success. It probably won him some friends, yet made him no real enemies. The bill didn't become law, but Madigan was not the man who had to kill it. Rock was. He killed it in a senate committee. He had to. Oak Park, Rock's hometown, has its own tenants' bill of rights.

"Madigan is no dummy," says the legislative insider. "He comes off like a good guy to the realtors because he got their bill a second chance. And he makes no permanent enemies with the tenants because, well, the bill didn't pass, did it?

"I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of Madigan's downstate Democratic allies get contributions from the real estate lobby as a result of the speaker's actions. Oh yes, from one point of view, mistake or not, Madigan played the whole thing just right."

Few observers expect the bill to be revived in this session, scheduled to end at the end of June. As for next year, however, that's a much different story. "No question about it, getting the bill out of the house was a substantial victory for the realtors," says Laing. "Once a legislator votes yes, it's easier for him to vote yes again. Part of the stigma is gone.

"In addition, they have a full year to work on the bill's deficiencies. It was exposed to open debate. They now know its weak parts. So maybe they'll iron a few of the kinks out. It will be back.

"Of course, you could say the whole process was good for the tenants as well. It made them lobby. It made them organize. They had to work. They got all the troops out. Maybe two years from now, we'll look back and say: 'This whole process did the tenants some good.' It's hard to say. After all, this is Springfield."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mike Tappin.

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