Experts: Renters have options in disputes with landlords

Denise Halverson would want it in writing.

If she could do it over, Halverson would make sure that those promises of maintenance – now part of a court case Halverson and her husband, Bill Zieske, have filed against their Woodstock landlord – were more than just verbal.

"I think we would have done a lot different," said Halverson, reflecting on the experience. "You think you're dealing with a person who seems honest and trustworthy. We didn't really do a lot of research."

Zieske and Halverson's battle has tilted toward the extreme end of tenant-landlord disputes, but such disagreements are hardly rare. In the fall, when the couple gathered an informal group of renters to speak for greater tenant rights at Woodstock City Council, they heard from families that accounted for some 40 leases.

Longtime renters tend to develop their own stories of landlords who've abused their power: the dishwasher that never worked, or that time the deposit was withheld without explanation. Often left up in the air, though, is whether that power is real or a guise formed by someone more informed of the law.

The answer – depending on who gives it – is a little of both.

"There's not very much law and it's not very good and it's not very pro-tenant," said Shannon Weiss, who owns the state advocacy group Renter's Rights with her husband. "Out there it's still God's country, and the landlord still rules the roost."

But Weiss and others say that renters who are knowledgeable of their rights and options, and who are willing to exercise them, can decrease their chances of a nightmare scenario or of getting pushed around.

It starts from the very beginning. During the run-through, tenants should make sure they note any and all pre-existing damage, and have the landlord sign off on it. Such damage often becomes a key point for landlords to withhold a deposit later on, said Dominic Buttitta, a Barrington-based attorney and former McHenry County Assistant State's Attorney.

Any damage that the renter wants fixed upon moving in should be, as Halverson suggested, in writing – prior to the signing of the lease, Buttitta said.

Added Michael Smoron, an attorney who represents the municipalities of Bull Valley, Hebron and Johnsburg: "Even if you have a pre-printed lease, nothing precludes you from adding in writing that the landlord will fix the furnace ... and have the landlord initial it. It doesn't look very legal, but it's sufficient to show what the agreement was."

For those who've entered into agreements with landlords who then neglect the needs of their tenants, Smoron has two suggestions. For one, he said, tenants can choose to withhold either part or all of a rent payment in order to cover costs toward maintenance that protects the "habitability" of the residence.

The landlord, after all, has a responsibility to keep the place up to a standard fit to live in.

"If he or she is not doing that after you've given the opportunity, I think courts are sympathetic to that," Smoron said.

Finally, Smoron suggests getting the municipality involved in more serious cases. Maintenance issues like broken windows and a lack of heat generally break municipal code, and open up a landlord to a citation.

He added that municipalities would likely try to pressure the landlord into fixing the problem before issuing code violations or ultimately taking a case to court – a sentiment echoed by Woodstock officials last year when Halverson, Zieske and others spoke out about their landlord troubles.

One reason those tenants came forward, Halverson has said, is that many felt trapped. They felt that getting the municipality involved meant they'd receive a notice of eviction – some who spoke in the fall said they'd had that fear become reality. Faced with the belief that they'd need a costly lawyer to fight a bogus eviction notice, many chose to live out their leases in silence, Halverson said.

But Smoron views the system with more hope. He said that even without hiring legal representation, a tenant has a good shot at fighting an eviction notice issued without sound reason.

"If the tenant has the courage or the ability to express the circumstances in basic language ... the court is sensitive to that and they understand it," he said.

Halverson remains skeptical a tenant could hold their own without a lawyer, and she points to her own dispute as proof. The Woodstock couple hired Buttitta to represent them against Woodstock-based Advantage Plus. Earlier this month, they filed a 61-page defense and counterclaim.

While the couple awaits a response, they've started slowly packing up their home, and searching the market for a place – although, they aren't sure yet when the time to move will come.

"It throws your life into turmoil," Halverson said. "It's very stressful and it's emotionally draining because you don't know from one day to the next what you're going to be handed."

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