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As I See It: Landlord Tenant 101 and Contract Law



My friend, former Chicago Alderman Bob Fioretti, recently asked me to speak via Zoom to his class of law students from Northern Illinois University College of Law. My talk focused on real estate law and the implications of laws enacted by various bodies of government.

As Bob was taking roll, I reflected on my own years in law school, and how intimidated I felt when my law school professors took roll.

When Bob afforded me the opportunity to speak, I tried out some humor. “Years ago, I too was a law student. I attended John Marshall Law School. We called it ‘the Harvard of the Loop’.”

No laughter, which I soon realized is a problem with doing Zoom lectures.

Yet, speaking with these law students afforded me a chance to reflect on fundamentals.

“Most landlord-tenant law is based on contract law,” I said. “Each year, we, the housing providers, enter into contracts with tenants for the use and occupancy of an apartment, which we provide in exchange for payment of an agreed amount of rent. The lease has a beginning and an end date. Towards the end of the lease term, the housing provider and tenant decide whether or not they want to renew it.”

I continued: “Housing providers usually have great incentive to renew a lease. It’s much better to offer a reasonable rent increase to cover increased operating expenses and encourage a tenant to stay, than go through the expense of preparing the unit for a new tenant, including painting, marketing and lost rent while the unit sits vacant. Far better to offer a good tenant a renewal, especially if the tenant follows the reasonable rules we set up and, of course, pays their rent on time.”

“If a tenant violates the lease – whether by nonpayment of rent or by materially breaching other lease requirements – we have a legal right to resort to the eviction process (or, at least we did prior to the eviction moratorium). But housing providers detest evictions. In Cook County, before the moratorium took effect, it took many months for an eviction case to work its way to an order of possession and the sheriff’s enforcement of that order.”

“And what if a tenant violates rules set forth in the lease? Suppose they throw numerous parties, or continually fight, or bring pets in violation of the lease? What if they are disrespectful to their neighbors, or for any or all of these reasons are not a good fit for the building?”

“Evicting tenants through the legal process on material breaches of a lease is extraordinarily difficult with the outcome of the case far from certain. Remember, as plaintiffs, we carry the burden of proof. How do we prove that a tenant blasts Metallica albums way into the night, disturbing their neighbors?”

(Again, Zoom prevented me from hearing laughter. Are they too young to even know who Metallica is?)

“Meeting our burden of proof often requires us to have witnesses – usually, this means neighboring tenants who would be required to testify in court. Of course, we are loathe to subject our other tenants to that burden.”

I told the students: “This is why the lease renewal process is so important. From time to time, we simply have to ‘wait out’ a bad tenant until his or her lease ends and then simply elect not to renew. It’s not unusual for a tenant to ‘clean up their act’ if they know their lease is coming up for renewal and they want to stay for another year.”

I then broke the news: “In Chicago, these basic tenets of landlord-tenant law are potentially in peril.”

I explained how socialist aldermen in Chicago’s City Council have introduced a proposed ordinance they call the “Just Cause Eviction Ordinance.”

“This ordinance completely ignores the basic tenet of landlord-tenant law – that a lease is a contract with an ‘end date.’ The ordinance provides the tenant with an inherent right to have their lease renewed unless they are in violation of its terms. In the limited instances where the ordinance allows housing providers to regain their apartment (such as moving a family member into the unit), the ordinance requires housing providers to pay thousands of dollars in ‘relocation assistance’ to get the tenant out.”

I have no idea what Bob’s law school students thought about my comments. As graduate students, many could be renters themselves and might be more sympathetic to some of the ‘progressive’ legislation that elected officials have introduced in recent years, including the Just Cause Eviction Ordinance.

Yet, these students are also the next generation of leaders. A good legal education should be grounded in the basic tenets of contract law – upon which the landlord-tenant relationship is based. I can only hope these students understand and appreciate the predictability and stability these laws provide.

Hopefully, they will also understand the implications and unintended consequences of a Just Cause Eviction law. At a time when elected officials and others in government implore landlords to take chances on people with imperfect credit or criminal backgrounds, why make it so incredibly difficult – or even unlawful – to end a lease?

This is something our elected leaders also need to understand.




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