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Why Some Chicago Apartments Don’t Need a Security Deposit

Penalties for landlords, barriers to new tenants, and the rise of the move-in fee are sending some security deposits the way of the land line.

Photo: Heather Stone/Chicago Tribune

The practice of renters putting down a month’s rent as security deposit is going the way of landline phones: not so long ago, everybody had one, but they’re quickly becoming a relic.

It’s not that anybody is opposed to security deposits; the issue is with the tight rules on landlords’ management of the funds and their return at the end of the lease. That’s governed by six strict rules, and it really is true that because of the way the system is set up, a landlord who’s late sending a check for less than a dollar of interest can be on the hook for a few thousand dollars in fines.

It’s because of that kind of out-of-proportion liability that “a lot of our members no longer require security deposits,” says Michael Mini, the executive vice president of the the Chicagoland Apartment Association. There are no figures available on how many do and don’t collect security deposits, he said, but he believes the number of landlords who do is declining. “The rules about administration of [security deposits] have been problematic for them for a long time,” he said.

The rules exist for a good reason: in the old days, the issues with landlords using security deposits as their own petty cash accounts were countless. Tenant protections that were enacted over the course of years required the landlords to keep their hands off the funds, and even to deposit them in interest-bearing accounts. That’s not true only in Illinois; landlords in New York, California and New Jersey, among others have to maintain interest-bearing security deposit accounts.

Mini’s group is officially neutral on the security deposit issue, but Chicago Tribune’s Mary Ellen Podmolik reported that the Chicago Association of Realtors withdrew its support of security deposits as of January.

The city’s Rental Tenant and Landlord Ordinance (RLTO) doesn’t require or prohibit the use of security deposits, but for those landlords who collect one, it spells out the six rules linked above, which specify that security deposits have to be kept in a dedicated account, and that interest has to be paid back to the tenant on a tight turnaround schedule.

The irony here is that most Chicago tenants would collect less than a dollar this year—even if they’re renting luxurious apartments. The city sets the interest rate, and in the low-interest climate of the past decade, it’s been pretty low. This year, it’s 0.013 percent. That means that renters paying $1,000 a month would collect 13 cents in interest at the end of a year.

Really. 13 cents. That’s the lowest the interest has been all decade, and the sixth year that it’s been below 1 percent. Back in the 1990s, it was 5 percent. Back then, if you were renting for $1,000, you’d have collected $50. That would have at least been an amount to count on at the end of the year.

Adam and Lindsay Silca own three North Side condos that they rent out. Adam says they still collect security deposits, in part because as a professional in a finance field, he’s wired to keep track of multiple accounts anyway. He says most of their tenants stay for only a year or two anyway, so turning over the interest isn’t too burdensome; he can toss it in with whatever part of the security deposit is being returned. “I’m not having to write a single check for 55 cents or whatever to somebody at the beginning of the [next] year [of the lease],” he said.

But Silca believes there’s another reason the use of security deposits will taper off: Most landlords, including big apartment-management companies, that don’t require security deposits have replaced them with move-in fees. Those usually amount to several hundred dollars. Most tenants, in turn, perceive a move-in-fee apartment to have a lower initial cash outlay than a security-deposit apartment. Even though the security deposit is refundable but move-in fees aren’t, many renters will opt for the places that cost less to get into, he theorizes.

That would create market pressure that accelerates the flight of landlords away from security deposits. In the meantime, Silca suggests that landlords offer flexibility if they can: take either a move-in fee or a security deposit, whichever the tenant prefers.

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