A tight housing market and rising interest rates are shutting out many would-be homebuyers – and that’s put the squeeze on Chicago’s rental market.
According to city data, 60% of Chicagoans live in rental properties, and a June report by real estate platform Domu finds the median rent for one-bedroom apartments in Chicago is up 8% since January. With fierce competition for apartments, the city’s renters – many of whom are Black– are more vulnerable targets for scammers and shady landlords.
The Chicago Better Business Bureau’s regional director Dennis Horton said a common scam circulating right now is fake apartment listings created using photos from real listings, but created by people who don’t actually own the property being advertised.
“People looking for apartments will go online and find what they think is the perfect apartment property for them. They’ll see great pictures with great amenities and low rents. And that’s where the trouble begins,” Horton said. “They talk to a landlord who they never actually will be in contact with other than usually through emails or text messages and then they are asked to complete an application, pay the deposit, first month’s rent. And then they do all of those things and they never hear from that ‘landlord’ again.”
Michelle Gilbert, legal and policy director at Lawyers Committee for Better Housing, said in some cases, victims are even moving into apartments only to find out later the person they were paying rent to is not the legal owner of the property.
“We have litigated these cases where someone holds him or herself out to be an agent for the landlord and sometimes even has keys, allows a tenant to move in, the tenant will pay rent. And before they know it, they’re getting a notice that the person that they’ve been dealing with is not the agent for the property and then they’re forced out of the property, forced to be evicted in very short order,” Gilbert said.
One big red flag for potential fraud: the method of payment tenants are asked to use, said Horton.
“If you’re asked to pay through online apps like Venmo or Zelle, you are dealing with a scammer,” he said.
Horton said some quick online searching and in-person confirmation can also help renters avoid scammers.
“Make sure that you do look online for that address. If you search online for that address and it pops up again, you’ll know that it's being used as a scam property,” Horton said. “And make sure that you go see the property in person. You don’t want to just take the word of someone who you haven’t actually met because very often these reported landlords give you an excuse for why they can’t meet with you — that they are out of town or have several different people who are looking for this property so you need to hop on it right now or you're going to lose out. Make sure that you are being proactive and going and seeing the property and if you knock on the door and someone opens that door and says it’s not for rent, then you have saved yourself possibly identity theft and losing a lot of money.”
Horton also advises property owners to sweep listings regularly to make sure their properties aren’t being spoofed online.
Gilbert cautions property owners to closely review eviction cases in potential tenants’ records to make sure they aren’t running afoul of fair housing law themselves.
“We know in the city of Chicago, 40% of all evictions do not result in judgments against the tenant. In fact, we know because of the racial impact of eviction, that if a landlord denies someone housing just because the case was filed, they’re probably acting illegally and against fair housing for a tenant,” she said.
Gilbert said tenants should check their records as well to make sure they aren’t being eliminated from consideration based on old eviction filings.
“We’ve been doing a lot of work on sealing old eviction records and it’s sad how many cases we find where the tenant isn’t aware of the old eviction record until a credit report is run and they’ve wasted the money for the credit report and they’re probably not going to get the housing,” said Gilbert. “So check your credit. You may be eligible to have that record sealed.”
Gilbert offered the following resources for more information on tenants’ rights. Those looking to find out more about sealing eviction records can contact the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing directly.
- Cook County Tax Portal: https://www.cookcountypropertyinfo.com/
- City of Chicago Building Permit and Inspection Records: https://webapps1.chicago.gov/buildingrecords/
- Rentervention chatbot: https://rentervention.com/
- City of Chicago Know Your Rights for Landlords and Tenants materials: https://www.chicago.gov/city/en/depts/doh/provdrs/renters.html
- Cook County Legal Aid for Housing and Debt (for landlords or tenants facing eviction): https://www.chicago.gov/city/en/depts/doh/provdrs/renters.html