In any hour of any day the phone can ring, bringing another tale of woe.

On this line maintained by the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, tenants complain about miserly or miscreant landlords. The hot line’s an impressive operation, winning praise from residents and Mayor Daley, whose administration is better known for close ties to developers than to low-income tenants. “I am pleased to congratulate you for your efforts,” Daley wrote in an official proclamation released a few weeks ago. “By them you seek to improve the quality of life in our city.”

In June the MTO hot line finished its first full year of business with 10,000 calls, giving the group’s leaders a moment to pause and reflect. “It’s sort of overwhelming the way the calls never end,” says Tim Carpenter, MTO’s executive director. “What we hear says a lot about human nature, in addition to relations between landlords and tenants.”

The calls also reveal a lot about the city’s changing demographics, at least as far as renters are concerned. According to the latest census figures, Chicago contains about 600,000 rental units, some 60 percent of the city’s housing. The greatest concentration is from the Loop to Evanston along the lakefront. “It comes close to about 150,000 units,” says Carpenter.

Not surprisingly, most hot line callers are north-siders; the three communities providing the most complaints are Lakeview, Rogers Park, and Edgewater; Uptown and Lincoln Park are also on the top-ten list. There are surprisingly few calls from impoverished communities like Woodlawn, Oakland, and West Garfield Park. “There’s not a lot of calls from these areas because there’s not a lot of people there anymore,” says Carpenter. “Some communities have lost 50 percent of their housing stock in the last 25 years.”

Until 1992, the hot line was handled by the Department of Housing. But then the city began shifting its hot line crews to other duties and MTO found itself getting calls from irate or bewildered tenants seeking information or moral support.

“We went from about 10 random calls a week to 25 or even 30 a day,” says Carpenter. “We couldn’t understand what was going on. Then someone told us that she had seen an internal referral list for City Hall operators which listed our number as the one to direct calls to from tenants complaining about landlords.”

In other words, the calls that used to go to the Department of Housing were being directed to MTO, which wasn’t prepared to deal with them.

“In 1993 alone we counseled something like 5,500 tenants, which is amazing when you consider we’re an advocacy group, not a service organization,” says Carpenter. “We didn’t have the staff to handle those calls. We weren’t getting paid to do this. This function wasn’t in the job description of our employees. Our switchboard was going totally crazy.”

In the fall of ’93, MTO asked City Hall for help. “We felt they should at least help pay for the hot line, if only because they were referring callers to us and expecting us to run it,” says Carpenter.

The city agreed in principle, but days, weeks, and months passed without a formal contract. In January of 1994 MTO forced the issue; they warned key mayoral aides that from now on all renters would be told to call the mayor’s office.

That broke the bureaucratic logjam. Within a few weeks a contract was sent, and MTO discovered what all citizens are well advised to remember: City Hall only pays attention when it has to. “I guess we learned that the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” says Carpenter.

The contract was signed in February 1994; the city paid MTO $43,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds, antipoverty money that comes from the federal government. “We hired a full-time hot line coordinator and we started recruiting volunteers,” says Carpenter.

The hot line’s now operated by 20 volunteers and is open from Monday through Friday (on weekends, callers can leave messages on voice mail); in June it received its ten thousandth call.

Most calls deal with disagreements over repairs and security deposits. “A third of the calls are about repairs–everything from broken windows to back porches falling off,” says Carpenter. “We get a lot of rodent calls: rats and roaches, mice and squirrels, but not raccoons or possums. I’m waiting for that.”

Calls about eviction threats usually require a lawyer’s intervention. Those callers are referred to the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, a not-for-profit clinic offering free advice and representation.

“Since the hot line opened we’ve probably assisted about 60 tenants,” says Julie Ansell, executive director for the Lawyers’ Committee. “We have a staff attorney, George Hausen, who’s in court almost every day. If a case gets to court we’ll probably seek a jury trial. It’s a good settlement tool; jurors tend to be tenants so they would be more sympathetic.”

The cases offer depressing, funny, bizarre insights into human behavior. For instance, there was the case of the Logan Square landlord who fell behind on his bills. So he tried to beat the gas company by hooking his building to a nearby gas line with a garden hose.

It didn’t work. The gas leaked and the tenants called the hot line, which told the gas company, which shut off all services. The landlord found himself facing Hausen in court. Eventually a judge turned the building over to a receiver and the gas was turned back on, no hose required.

Sometimes landlord-tenant disputes are more about personalities than money. Such was the case with Loretta Smith, who had peacefully lived in the same Lakeview apartment for more than ten years, just above her landlord, before all hell broke loose a few months ago. He had asked to meet with her at 1 PM one day to talk about the plumbing. “I presumed he would call me first, but instead he was pounding on my door at one,” says Smith. “I said I wasn’t ready, could he come back in 20 minutes. He was very angry. I could hear him talking under his breath, “This is ridiculous. A landlord should be able to come in anytime he wants.’ He got so furious his response was to shut off the hot water. I couldn’t get him to turn it back on. He wasn’t answering my calls. I finally took a cold shower.”

Thus began a long and bitter battle of wills, in which Smith frequently called the hot line for assistance. Last month Smith moved to a new apartment.

Then there’s the peculiar case involving Kimmah Bey, who discovered to her horror that she was paying for all the gas used in the Woodlawn building in which she rented an apartment. “I was getting a huge gas bill and I went to the gas company and after an investigation they discovered that no one was getting a bill from that building but me,” says Bey. “In other words, all the units were hooked to my meter. Then I discovered that the lady downstairs was paying for all the lights. Maybe he figured if I paid for the gas and she paid for the lights we wouldn’t ask any questions.”

Bey called the hot line, which directed her to Hausen, who took her case to court, where the landlord was ordered to pay her over $2,000 for back gas bills. “I was so pleased with the hot line that I became a volunteer,” says Bey. “I want to help other tenants having problems.”

Of course, all these stories are told from the tenant’s point of view. Every story has another side. In Loretta Smith’s case, for example, her landlord was further angered when she tried to move in a large film editing machine through the front door, although he’d asked her to bring it in the back. Later she refused to pay a rent increase, which he said was needed to offset rising property taxes, on the grounds that it was retaliatory. He then made a clumsy attempt to evict her that failed because he didn’t follow the intricacies of the law.

Just to play the devil’s advocate, one might wonder why a landlord can’t raise the rent on a tenant who’s on a month-to-month lease, as was Smith. And can you blame him for being upset at her for lugging a heavy machine up his front stairs? And while we’re at it, why couldn’t she have postponed her shower? Smith’s old landlord probably wishes someone operated a hot line for landlords.

Carpenter doesn’t think one is necessary. “Most landlords already know their rights,” says Carpenter. “If you got into eviction court you’ll see that 90 percent of the landlords are represented by an attorney and 90 percent of the tenants are not. All we’re trying to do is even things up a little bit.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.