How to make sure home, sweet home stays that way

Speaking From the Bar

When you and your roommates sit down for breakfast, is it so cold in your apartment you can see each other’s breath when you speak? When you go into the kitchen for an early a.m. snack, do you catch hordes of roaches picnicking on your countertops? Is your apartment door-lock system so insubstantial you can cause the front door to open by saying “open sesame”? If so, you are living with conditions which constitute violations of the City of DeKalb Property Maintenance Code. What follows is a brief discussion of how you can take action to induce your landlord to remedy substandard conditions in your premises, with recourse, if necessary, to the enforcement mechanisms of the DeKalb Housing Code.

I. Preliminary Steps. Under law, and as a matter of common sense, landlords are not presumed to be aware of all the things that might or have gone wrong with your apartment, and are entitled to a reasonable opportunity to fix the problem once notified. What is reasonable depends on the circumstances. A week or 10 days might be a reasonable time to fix a cracked window, but is an unconscionably long time to repair a nonfunctioning furnace in the depths of winter. If oral communication of your difficulty has proven ineffective, try a letter. The letter should explain in some detail the nature of the problem and should include a deadline on or before which you expect the conditions to be repaired. Again, be reasonable but firm. Keep a record of all your attempts to notify the landlord of your complaints and the nature of his response or non-response.

II. Making a Housing Code Complaint. The City of DeKalb Housing Code establishes minimum conditions of health and safety for all occupants of residential dwellings within the city limits of DeKalb. Specific areas covered include minimum space requirements, ventilations, exterior and interior structures such as windows, stairs, porches and railings, plumbing, electrical and heating facilities, fire protection systems, garbage disposal and pest extermination.

To make a complaint, call the City of DeKalb at 756_4881 and arrange for a code enforcement officer to inspect your premises. (You can also call the enforcement office simply to determine whether a given condition in your premises is covered by the code.) The city cannot inspect individual rooms or apartments where they have not been invited. If you fear retaliation by the landlord, consider joining in with other residents of the building in making your complaint. Realize, also, that Illinois law prohibits a landlord from terminating or refusing to renew a lease in retaliation for the tenant’s referring a housing complaint against him.

Obviously, you and/or one of your roommates need to be present when the code enforcement officer makes his inspection. Be prepared to show the inspector all the conditions you are complaining of as well as providing the relevant background of how long the condition has been present, your efforts to inform the landlord, etc. Physical evidence, such as a representative sample of the roaches you’ve killed, should also be preserved and shown to the inspector. Request that you receive a copy of any correspondence the inspector sends to the landlord.

III. Enforcement Procedures. Typically, where housing code violations have been discovered, the city will notify the landlord in writing and establish a deadline for the landlord to come into compliance with the code. The housing code gives the city several enforcement mechanisms to deal with recalcitrant landlords, including a citation system which can lead to daily fines for non-compliance and even imprisonment. The city also has an authority to arrange for private contractors to make the necessary repairs and bill the landlord. In extreme situations, the city can also declare the premises uninhabitable, which would result in the onerous, but necessary, consequence that you would have to find other housing.

IV. Lease Remedies. The existence of substandard conditions in your apartment may also violate specific provisions in your lease contract. Moreover, Illinois law also inputes a “warranty of habitability” in all residential lease agreements. What options and remedies are available to you under your lease are matters that you should seek legal counsel about. The Students’ Legal Assistance Office is available for all fee-paying students for this purpose.

Students’ Legal Assistance

Don Henderson

Lynn Richards