The Attorney of the Day (AOD) eviction defense team at LCBH recently represented Juan and Maria Salazar (not their real names) and their three small children. The family was being evicted from their apartment in South Chicago for alleged non-payment of rent. Maria is a woman from Mexico whose status in the U.S. is undocumented. Juan is a U.S. citizen, Maria is from Mexico and their three children are U.S.-born. The Salazars discovered that the utility meters in their two-unit building were arranged such that they were paying the electricity bill for the common areas of the building and garage, which is a violation of the Illinois Rental Property Utility Service Act.
They sent a letter to their landlord requesting a remedy for the illegal utility tap. One week later, in retaliation, the landlord knocked on the door with a power drill in his hand to present the Salazars with a five-day lease termination notice. According to Juan and Maria, the landlord threatened to change their locks and report Maria to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement if they did not immediately vacate. Juan and Maria were taken aback, as they had faithfully paid their rent each month. The landlord’s efforts at intimidation continued, and the landlord proposed that she would not file an eviction case if Juan and Maria allowed her to sell their children’s social security cards and birth certificates on the black market. When Juan and Maria refused, the landlord broke into their unit and stole their children’s documents anyway.
When Juan and Maria first met with their LCBH attorney, Maria expressed concern that she was risking the loss of her job, deportation, and separation from her children if she did not cede to the landlord’s demands and promptly leave the apartment. Our attorney assured the couple that they were acting well within their rights defending themselves in eviction court if they chose not to leave. The attorney filed a jury demand on Juan and Maria’s behalf and counterclaims for damages based on illegal retaliation, threat of lockout, and violation of the Illinois Rental Property Utility Service Act.
Undeterred, the landlord attempted to break into Juan and Maria’s apartment to change the locks just as the couple was returning from a court hearing. Later, an unknown assailant fired shots into Juan and Maria’s apartment. Fortunately, no one was harmed, and while no evidence implicating the landlord has surfaced, the tenants nonetheless suspected that the landlord was responsible, and decided to leave the apartment in fear for their children’s welfare.
The landlord eventually hired an attorney who quickly recognized the strength of Juan and Maria’s case and brought the landlord to the negotiating table. The landlord agreed to pay Juan and Maria $2,000.00 in settlement of their claims against her. The landlord also agreed to a dismissal of her back rent claim with prejudice, sealing of the case record from public viewing (thus saving Juan and Maria from any negative mark on their credit), and allowing the couple ample time to find a new home .
Juan and Maria found a safe apartment for their children and have had no further contact with their former landlord. Juan and Maria’s story highlights the often heavily unbalanced power relationships between landlords and tenants. Assertions by renters of their rights may prompt unreasonable landlords to retaliate and abuse their perceived power with threats and sometimes physical violence. The Salazars’ story is a reminder of just how important legal advocacy is for renters in vulnerable positions.