Christine Wagner's first apartment in the city had a roach problem. There were so many, she said, that by month 10 of her lease, she had filled a plastic baggie with their carcasses.
But Wagner's landlord, who managed a Bowmanville apartment building rife with code violations and rarely answered his phone, was unmoved, she said. He sent someone to fumigate the two-bedroom unit once, leaving the wood floors slick with bug spray, but when that didn't work, he started ignoring Wagner.
"It got to be so bad, you'd see them every day, all over the place," she said. "The whole building was infested, but no one had ever really stood up to this guy except me and my roommate."
Chicago's peak apartment hunting and moving season has wound down, and with it the stresses of finding and furnishing a place to live. But even after Chicago's renters have exchanged the first month's rent for their keys and cracked open the Ikea boxes, a new source of anxiety can arise: peculiar, law-flaunting or downright horrible landlords.
The Chicago-based Metropolitan Tenants Organization gets an average of 10,000 calls a year from unhappy tenants around the region whose landlords refuse to do basic maintenance on their units, from fixing a broken refrigerator to keeping the heat on through the winter, according to John Bartlett, the nonprofit's executive director. He said the hotline is busiest in August and the beginning of fall.
"It could be there's a leak, there's mold, broken windows. ... It runs the gamut," he said.
In addition to repairs, the three biggest complaints Bartlett receives are related to evictions, security deposits and rent hikes. Often, he said, tenants are not aware of their rights, so they let small problems go unresolved or use larger problems as an excuse to stop paying rent entirely, which is also illegal.
Bartlett said Chicago's rental protections are strong, but slightly weaker than those in New York and San Francisco, which are two of the most expensive cities to live in, but also are places where rent controls and eviction policies give renters more flexibility.
But, he added, at least Chicago renters can report building and unit problems by calling 311—an option that many cities lack.
Katie Goldberg, 23, said she could tolerate some of the problems in her Hyde Park apartment, such as crumbling corkboard in her kitchen cabinets and barless windows exposed to break-ins, even though her landlords almost never responded to complaints. But after subletting her room in a two-bedroom unit on South Ellis Avenue in the summer of 2010, she returned to discover the unit had no hot water.
"The only water we had was ice cold," she said. "I told [the landlords] there must be an issue with the boiler, but only after two months of this did I finally get the news that they were replacing the boiler."
Chicago's renting ordinance requires landlords to keep building and unit appliances in working order.
For Emily Heavey, 26, of Avondale, the last straw for her lease on a house in Logan Square came earlier this year, when her landlord put the home up for sale and then changed his phone number. One evening Heavey came home from work to discover that, in an attempt to show the house to prospective buyers, the man had kicked down their garage door and left it broken.
"I was like, we keep things there. It's where our bikes go," she said. "And that was two months at least before we were able to move out." The door was never fixed, but Heavey and her roommates were able to end their lease early when the landlord found a home buyer.
When complaining about the cockroaches didn't work for Wagner, 23, she stopped paying the full rent and sent her older brother, Jack Wagner, to City Hall, where he filed dozens upon dozens of complaints, from the rickety elevator that hadn't been inspected since 1996 to the emergency exit that had been chained shut.
"I had a list of all the building violations I found just walking around," he said. "I sat there for like three hours filling out reports."
When it was finally time for Wagner to return her keys and move out, two months early, she dropped a small bag of cockroaches, collected on the apartment's worst days, into the envelope along with the keys. Together they went in the landlord's mailbox, and she never heard from him again.
Wagner, who now lives in Buena Park in an apartment with on-site managers that feels "like heaven" in comparison, said her first rental experience taught her to be more assertive.
"People shouldn't have to settle," she said. "Your home is such a vulnerable place, and you don't want to put it at risk, but you have to remember that you do have rights."