In the Community: Chicago’s Small Landlords

In 1902, Jane Addams, celebrated Chicago activist and the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, conducted a study of the city’s tenements. She was surprised to find that many landlords lived near or even in the buildings they rented. “Their interests are identical,” Addams wrote, noting that “the tenant and the landlord are represented by the same type of person.” For small landlords, the discrimination and oppression their tenants face is also a part of their own lives.

General Taylor, who has managed a building on Chicago’s West side for over 30 years, knows that when people hear that he’s a landlord they don’t always get the right idea; “I’m not a slum landlord,” he assures me. “I don’t believe in that.” Instead, General, a humble, soft-spoken man, is one of the thousands of small, independent Chicago landlords who rent apartments in their building or even their own home, much like they did when Addams conducted her study over a hundred years ago.

In 1999, this understanding that small landlords live, work, and are a part of their communities influenced the creation of Spanish Coalition for Housing’s Chicago Bilingual Landlord Association (CBLA). The CBLA was established to help landlords become more knowledgeable property owners in the face of discrimination, and to protect themselves while also providing stable, safe housing for their tenants.

Being a small landlord isn’t easy. Housing laws are complicated and overseeing a property comes with a lot of responsibilities. After working for Black and Decker for 34 years, General has the skills to do 95% of the maintenance on his property and ensure that the other 5% is done right –but when it came to property taxes, legal rights and responsibilities, and tenant screenings, he knew he would need some help. “If you don’t know what you’re doing it can really backfire and hurt you in the long run,” General says. “[The CBLA] helped me in a whole lot of ways I didn’t know myself.” Since becoming a CBLA member in 2013, General has accepted help with his property taxes, doing background and credit checks, serving 5 and 10 day notices, and filling out forms to help Section 8 tenants.

The CBLA is one of few organizations in Chicago that focuses on the needs of small, low-income landlords. They provide training on landlord responsibilities and conflict resolution, and work to foster trust between landlords and tenants. “The tenants feel more comfort knowing that Spanish Coalition for Housing landlords understand the rules, rights and regulations because of the Chicago Bilingual Landlord Association,” landlord specialist Edward Skoda explains. To General, positive relationships with his tenants are very important, and being a landlord is his way of “helping someone to move forward, instead of just sit still.”

With the CBLA’s help, General has made the most of his role as a landlord, and he encourages other small landlords to also seek out help when they need it. “Just because it’s dark today, it don’t mean it’s going to be dark tomorrow,” he says. “If you don’t know something, ask.”

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