You may have tried to walk out your apartment building and nearly fallen because inches of snow sat on your stairs.

What can you do about it? Who's responsible for clearing the snow?

Turns out the law is "rather vague" about it, said John Bartlett, executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization.

City ordinance requires property owners to maintain the public sidewalk, but not specifically to remove snow from the stairway of private property.

"Once it gets on to the private area of the property, there's nothing, as far as I know, that says they are required to shovel it," he said.

However, the Chicago Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance says tenants can seek to remedy the "failure to maintain stairways or porches in safe condition and sound repair." But "safe condition" is not defined, he said.

"One could argue that having ice and snow on them is not safe," Bartlett said. If somebody slipped and fell, it's possible the owner could be responsible, he said.

Douglas Pensack, associate director of the Illinois Tenants Union, said in an email the city's building code requires landlords to maintain entrances and walkways in a "clean and unencumbered" manner.  It could be argued that would include keeping snow and ice off stairs and walkways, but he said the city hasn't normally cited landlords for that.

Bartlett encouraged renters to check their leases to see if there is anything included about snow removal. If it's in the lease agreement, then the owners must remove the snow.

Renters can call their landlord, write a letter or email and take a photo documenting the problem so the landlord can't deny he or she wasn't aware of it, he said. It could later be used to help establish a pattern of the landlord failing to maintain the property.

It also puts the landlord on notice that the tenant wants something done. Some owners hire managers or companies to clear the snow. If they are not doing it, it's good for the landlord to know, he said.

In the future, Bartlett suggested renters inquire when apartment hunting about who shovels the snow.

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