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As Tuesday’s first snowfall of this season showers the city, tenants may want to retreat from the weather into the warmth of their homes and apartments.

Anthony Vazquez

What you should know about the city’s heat ordinance

Chicago’s harsh winters can bring arctic-like temperatures and leave streets buried in snow.

The municipal code that has regulated how much heat landlords are required to maintain during the cold months was amended by the City Council in March 2005. Former Ald. Billy Ocasio, of the then 26th Ward, had introduced the ordinance in January 2004 after visiting an area school after a cold snap.

“Children there were telling me, ‘We couldn’t sleep last night.’ So, I tried to sleep at 63 degrees and I couldn’t,” Ocasio told the Sun-Times in January 2004. “It’s just too cold. If our children are not sleeping at 63 degrees, how do we expect them to pay attention and learn something in school?”

The city had previously required units to be heated at 63 degrees during overnight hours, and that requirement was increased to 66 degrees following Ocasio’s push. Nearly 20 years later, the city still enforces regulations around heat in apartments. Here is how it works today across Chicago:

How warm should your home or workplace be in Chicago?

heat ordinance flowchart

In a residential building that has both a central heater and a central air conditioner, the ordinance makes one more exception. The temperature in a tenant’s unit only has to be at least 64 degrees all day in early fall and in late spring, to give owners some flexibility in when they change from cooling the air to heating it instead.

Early fall starts Sept. 15 and ends when the temperature outdoors first drops below 45 degrees at night — or on Oct. 15 if that hasn’t happened yet. Late spring starts in May once the temperature outdoors first gets above 75 degrees, and it ends June 1.

What else should I know about the city’s heat ordinance?

Here are some ways tenants can navigate not having enough heat in their unit, according to the Chicago Department of Buildings and Philip DeVon, staff attorney with the Metropolitan Tenants Organization:

How do space heaters factor in?

Space heaters can be used by building owners to supplement heat, but it can’t be used to meet the temperature requirements outlined in the ordinance.

What if an apartment isn’t getting sufficient heat?

Tenants should document the situation as much as possible. That includes calling the city’s 311 system to report the lack of heat in their building, request a building inspection and document the reference number for the report.

Tenants can also start a log documenting the temperatures at different times of the day over the course of several days. In addition to logging the readings, tenants can take pictures of the thermometer to document the issue.

Should I tell my landlord about the problem?

Tenants should notify their landlord or building property management company as soon as possible in writing about the issue. The city can impose fines ranging from $500 to $1,000 if building owners violate the heat ordinance.

Can a tenant withhold rent because of a heating issue?

A tenant must write a letter — which includes citing the city ordinance — and deliver it to the landlord before withholding rent for the issue. A reasonable amount of rent can be withheld if the building owner does not fix the issue within 24 hours of when the tenant notified the landlord about the issue. The rules governing when a tenant can do this is part of the city’s Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance.

What other forms of remedy do tenants have?

Tenants can make an arrangement to have the issue fixed themselves and then deduct the cost from their rent. Tenants also can opt to terminate their lease and move out if the issue is not fixed 72 hours after the landlord was notified about the issue.

What should a landlord do?

The city recommends that building owners communicate with residents what work is being done to fix the heating issue, which could include providing space heaters to supplement heat, giving residents a rent credit or finding another temporary shelter for residents.

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