How a Simple Rental Registry in Chicago Could Limit Widespread Housing Scams

In Chicago, it can be hard to trace who owns a building, something scammers take advantage of. Advocates are proposing legislation to change that, to save unsuspecting tenants from eviction.

The Chatham neighborhood in Chicago (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

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When the management of her building in Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood changed last year, JoLondon Jamerson saw a sign posted in her lobby with the name of a new management company, along with information on how to pay them. Jamerson sent her rent in monthly $650 money orders to the address for months, as did other tenants in her building. Unfortunately, none of those payments made it to the rightful building owners. Jamerson now believes the flyer she saw was fraudulent, part of a widespread practice of scammers soliciting rent payments from unsuspecting tenants.

When the actual management company, BSD Realty, got in touch in April, they claimed she was in arrears to the tune of $9,300 and filed an eviction notice. However, the company had never contacted Jamerson with the correct payment method and address after they took responsibility for the building. In a text sent to an organizer at the Metropolitan Tenants Organization last February, they claimed not to have even added her to their rent rolls.

BSD Realty revised the estimate to just two months’ rent — $1300 — after Jamerson brought the inflated figure to their attention. (Jamerson and advocates believe the higher figure — which would have represented over a year of rent, predating when BSD even took over the building — was retaliation for Jamerson’s participation in tenant-led protests.)

Such scams as Jamerson fell prey to are enabled by Chicago’s spotty regulations for landlords and building managers who do not have to register in any easily accessible database. The existing laws provide little recourse if owners and property managers don’t contact tenants upon taking over their buildings.

“Because we don’t have a landlord registry, there’s no way to say, ‘I know for sure I paid my rent,’” says Sam Clendenning, an organizer with the Metropolitan Tenants Organization.

This is why organizers are pushing for the city to keep an easily accessible landlord registry for all rental properties. The proposal appears in two proposed laws legislation advocates are backing; a “Just Cause” bill that would strengthen eviction protections and a yet to be introduced Chicago Healthy Homes Ordinance that would require proactive inspections of rental properties.

Both require the landlord’s contact information and address to be available online, as well as that of any management company handling the property. Most landlords own their properties under Limited Liability Corporations, which can make it difficult to trace ownership. Under both pieces of legislation, they would have to list the true owner of the LLC. Under the Healthy Homes Ordinance, large landlords would also have to pay a registration fee, which would help fund proactive inspections.

“The true power and ownership is obscured as much as possible,” says Annie Howard, a housing organizer with the Chicago Housing Justice League, a driving force behind the Just Cause bill. “There’s no real pressure on building owners to reveal themselves.” Some landlords may not want to reveal themselves because they are posing as small landlords by splitting their properties among LLCs. And some properties are only owned temporarily before being quickly flipped for a profit, which is why some management companies don’t put much thought into contacting tenants.

Chicago’s current laws for identifying ownership are vague and offer little enforcement. Under the current landlord-tenant ordinance, the owner or property manager is required to inform a tenant when they take over a property. But the law provides little recourse if this provision is not followed. If a tenant sends a written notice asking the landlord for proper identification, for instance, and the landlord does not respond, the tenant could receive one month’s rent “or actual damages.” But this enforcement is circular, as it requires the tenant to know who their landlord is and reach out to them first.

“If they don’t have an address, they can’t actually give the notice,” says Michelle Gilbert, the legal and policy director at the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, a Chicago-based nonprofit.

Under the Just Cause and Healthy Homes Ordinance, landlords would not be able to legally collect rent or evict a tenant until they’ve properly registered. If they fail to do so, they would face fines.

Most tenants will not double-check that the entity identifying itself as the new management company is legitimate or look up the building’s owner, Gilbert says. Even if they try to do so, the process is convoluted. To look up the name of a property owner, the tenant has to have the building’s property identification number (PIN) and plug it into the Cook County Recorder of Deeds website. To get that number, they have to first enter their address into the Cook County Assessor’s website. However, some larger multi-family buildings have multiple addresses, but only one officially registered with the assessor.

Even if the tenant does get the name of the property owner, it will likely just be the name of an LLC that owns the building. Getting the name of the LLC’s owner would require accessing yet another database. But the Cook County Recorder of Deeds website is often months out of date, as it relies on paper records that have to be manually put into the system.

If a renter has cleared all these hurdles, none of these actions will give them what they may be looking for: the name, proper email or address of the management company. This is because the company does not have to register any of these with the city.

This convoluted system has led to the proliferation of scams, which have caused evictions for nonpayment. Sam Clendenning says he knows of at least 10 tenants he has worked with who have been in eviction proceedings as a result of scams and the failure of landlords and management companies to properly contact tenants.

One version of the scam involves obtaining keys for foreclosed or abandoned properties and illegally renting them out to tenants.

“As long as people have been renting buildings in Chicago, there have been people breaking into units, changing the locks and renting them out without the owner’s knowledge,” Clendenning says.

“It’s actually surprisingly easy for someone to get the key,” Gilbert from Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing comments. A scammer may pose as a potential tenant, receive a key from a lockbox for a viewing and then duplicate it. Then they list the property online as if they are the designated real estate agent.

She says the scam frequently occurs in Real Estate Owned (REO) properties, which are properties taken over by banks after a foreclosure. Many of these properties have been left vacant by banks. She estimates that the Lawyers’ Committee is currently working on eight such cases.

Gilbert says that when the tenant seeks legal help, it’s often because the real landlord has already taken action. “By the time they get to us, the tenant is worried about being evicted,” she says.

She is convinced legislation is needed to mitigate the situation. “The city of Chicago could have a website that shows who is the management company for each of the properties,” she says. “That doesn’t seem to be a huge thing. But it would definitely be helpful to tenants.”

This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.

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Roshan Abraham is Next City's housing correspondent and a former Equitable Cities fellow. He is based in Queens. Follow him on Twitter at @roshantone.

Tags: chicagohousing solutions

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