The Safe Homes Act: What Tenants and Landlords in Illinois Need to Know About this Lesser-Known Law

By: Blake A. Strautins, Partner, and Pooja Dosi, Associate, Kluever & Platt, LLC

As a tenant, it is important to know what housing rights you have, particularly when it concerns your safety or the safety of those in your household. And as a landlord of private rental housing, it is important to be aware of the rights that are afforded to your tenants if they are facing dangerous or violent situations at home.

The Safe Homes Act (“SHA”), 765 ILCS 750/1et seq., initially passed into law by the Illinois legislature in 2007, aims to protect victims of domestic and sexual abuse. The SHA is rarely mentioned, but the stated purpose of the statute is to “enabl[e] victims of domestic abuse or sexual violence and their families to flee existing dangerous housing in order to leave violent or abusive situations, achieve safety, and minimize the physical and emotional injuries from domestic or sexual violence, and to reduce the devastating economic consequences thereof.” 765 ILCS 750/5. The SHA does not apply to tenants living in public housing, but only applies to those living in privately-owned rental housing, even if the tenant has a portion of rent paid by a Section 8 voucher or some other form of government assistance.

Before the SHA, a tenant who was a victim of sexual or domestic abuse in his or her home could not end his or her lease or change the locks to prevent imminent threats of abuse without facing financial penalties. The SHA, however, permits a tenant to vacate the premises and terminate his or her written or oral lease when the tenant’s physical safety and emotional well-being are in danger due to an abuser. Alternatively, if the tenant has a written lease, he or she may instead opt to change the locks in order to protect oneself from the abuser re-entering the tenant’s home.

In order to benefit from the SHA’s protection, the tenant—or a member of the tenant’s household—must either face a “credible imminent threat” of domestic or sexual violence at the premises or have been a victim of sexual violence on the premises, and must have given the landlord written notice three days before or three days after the tenant vacates the property. 765 ILCS 750/15. Section 15 of the SHA provides that the notice must state that the reason for vacating the premises was because of a credible imminent threat of domestic or sexual violence or because of sexual violence against the tenant. Id. In the case of the tenant having been a victim of sexual violence on the property, the tenant must provide the date of the sexual violence and at least one form of evidence to support the claim of sexual violence along with the written notice. Id. Evidence of sexual violence can be in the form of medical, court, or police evidence of sexual violence, or a statement from a victim services employee or rape crisis organization from which the tenant has sought services. Id. It is also important to note that the sexual violence must have occurred within 60 days of the date of the tenant giving the landlord written notice. Id. If these procedures are followed properly, the tenant has an affirmative defense to any action brought by the landlord for recovery of rent for breach of the lease, and the tenant will not be responsible for any rent for the period after which the tenant vacates the premises.

If the tenant chooses to stay in his or her home but wants the locks changed, section 20 of the SHA provides that the tenant may request that the landlord change them. This request must be in writing, must state that one or more of the tenants has a reasonable belief that one of the tenants or a member of the tenant’s household is under a credible imminent threat of domestic or sexual violence at the premises, and the notice must be from all tenants who have signed the lease as lessees. 765 ILCS 750/20. However, the tenant requesting the change of locks need not obtain written notice from the person posing a threat who is a lessee, provided that the notice is accompanied by a plenary order of protection or a plenary civil no contact order granting the tenant exclusive possession of the premises. Id. If the threat of violence is from a person who is not a lessee, the tenant must provide at least one of the following forms of evidence to support the tenant’s claim of domestic or sexual violence: medical, court, or police evidence of sexual violence, or a statement from a victim services employee, domestic violence employee, or rape crisis organization employee from which the tenant has sought services. Id.

Once the landlord has received proper notice of a request for change of locks, the landlord must change the locks or provide tenant with permission to change the locks within 48 hours. Id. If the landlord fails to change the locks within 48 hours, the tenant may change the locks without the landlord’s permission. Id. If a landlord takes action to prevent a tenant who has complied with section 20 of the SHA from changing the locks, the tenant may seek a temporary restraining order, preliminary or permanent injunction, and recover their reasonable attorney’s fees and costs. 765 ILCS 750/25.

Finally, section 27 of the SHA enforces the protections afforded to abused or threatened individuals by prohibiting landlords from disclosing information to a prospective landlord that a tenant has exercised his or her rights under the SHA, or information the tenant has shared with the landlord in exercise of those rights. 765 ILCS 750/27. The victim, or a parent or guardian of the victim, may waive this prohibition with written consent. Any landlord that violates this prohibition may be liable for actual damages of up to $2,000.00, and payment of the tenant’s reasonable attorney’s fees and costs. 765 ILCS 750/29.

It is critical that landlords and tenants be familiar with the SHA. As a landlord, knowing which laws apply to your tenants can help you avoid frivolous lawsuits and unnecessary fees and costs associated with hiring a collection agency or law firm to collect rent for breach of a lease in a situation where the tenant is not liable for such rent. Equally important, knowing your rights as a tenant/victim of domestic or violent abuse may help save your life or the life of a loved one by removing yourself or the victim from a dangerous or violent situation.