Chicago city officials have resisted efforts to modernize the city’s dated and disorganized building inspection system, even as residents continue to die from fires in unsafe buildings, an Illinois Answers Project and Chicago Tribune investigation found this month. Members of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration dismiss ideas like creating a citywide apartment registry or scheduling regular proactive safety inspections, saying they would be too expensive and hard to pull off.
But many of its peer cities are finding ways.
Illinois Answers’ and the Tribune’s two-year follow-up to their Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative series found examples of programs being employed in Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Los Angeles that Chicago policymakers could emulate to improve building safety. Those examples have been joined by a wave of smaller cities, such as Syracuse, N.Y., Grand Rapids, Mich. and Brooklyn Center, Minn., that have moved in recent years toward proactive rental inspection regimes based on comprehensive apartment registries.
“We’re seeing more and more [cities] start to shift from a complaint-based system to more of a proactive system” for building safety inspections, staff attorney Greg Miao of the research firm ChangeLab Solutions said in an interview earlier this year. Miao and other advocates say proactive inspections are the only way officials can effectively find and fix safety hazards on a wide scale.
Chicago relies on a system that, for the most part, only conducts safety inspections after tenants complain to 311. Meanwhile, a host of other American cities are steadily moving toward systems built to catch issues before they have the potential to become deadly.
After the 2010 Census flagged safety issues in nearly 10% of Seattle’s homes, elected leaders in that city pushed a series of studies into the effectiveness of its complaint-based safety inspection system, according to Bryan Stevens, a spokesman for the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections.
City-backed researchers “found the complaint-based system only captured a portion of substandard rentals,” Stevens wrote in an email. “Tenants’ fear of retaliation, distrust of government, and lack of awareness of the City’s complaint-based inspections were identified as part of the problem.”
The Seattle City Council voted in 2012 to pass the Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance, which required city officials to compile a registry of the city’s rental buildings and conduct randomized, staggered inspections of every home at least once every five to 10 years. The ordinance took full effect in 2014.
Inspectors in the Emerald City now find and work with landlords to fix hundreds of life safety issues every year, none of which surfaced in complaints. In 2022, city workers found more than 500 instances of improperly installed or maintained electrical equipment and 400 missing smoke alarms. And those only represented about one-third of the city’s inspections, most of which are performed by city-qualified private contractors, Stevens said.
The creation of a city-held apartment registry to log the inspections opened a cascade of benefits, he added.
City officials used the registry to create an email listserv of 19,000 unique property owners and managers — a resource that came in handy when the city needed to communicate quick policy changes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Simply the fact that properties need to register improved awareness of the City’s housing standards on the part of landlords,” Stevens wrote. “The [proactive inspection] program and associated outreach also increased awareness by tenants that they can call the City.”
Denver’s push to modernize its building inspection network is far more recent, but officials are just as bullish on its effects.
An idea surfaced in the Denver City Council during the pandemic when members noticed that cities with rental registries and proactive inspection systems — including nearby Boulder — had an easier time making sure tenants were being kept safe.
The council passed an ordinance in 2021 requiring landlords of Denver’s approximately 25,000 rental properties to apply with the city for licenses by Jan. 1, 2023. In order to secure a license, which will renew every four years, property owners must pass an inspection verifying 25 basic habitability requirements.
“This is all about establishing minimum housing standards,” said Eric Escudero, spokesman for the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses, in an interview. “We’re not looking for granite countertops. We’re talking about, is there running water? Are there broken windows or black mold?”
A similar permitting requirement is set to take hold in January 2024 for owners of Denver’s single-unit rentals, like leased houses and condos.
As of this week, the city has issued about 3,100 multi-unit apartment licenses and nearly 1,200 single-unit rental licenses, officials said. They have also begun to mail penalties to landlords who have missed the deadline to apply for licenses.
Escudero said Denver leaders expect the licenses to paint a detailed picture of the city’s housing stock — and to create a culture of accountability for landlords.
“We believe that if we’re successful, this will be the largest increase in minimum living standards in Denver history,” Escudero said. “When people are spending thousands of dollars on rent, they should have a home that’s safe, period.
“If you are a neglectful landlord, it’s going to become really hard to do business in Denver,” he added.
Housing organizers and tenants’ rights groups have spent more than a decade pushing New Orleans to crack down on neglectful landlords who maintain unsafe apartment buildings.
New Orleans’ existing complaint-based system erects a variety of barriers for any tenant who wants to force their landlord to fix exposed wires or replace a missing smoke alarm. Renters who complain must overcome a fear of retaliation from landlords, hope the city’s understaffed Office of Code Enforcement can spare an inspector and then wait months or longer for the city to follow up with penalties or a lawsuit that would force the property owner to act.
“Those are three very big hoops to jump through, and a good outcome for the tenant becomes less and less likely as the process moves along,” said Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center.
Hill’s organization was part of a coalition that supported a proposed “Healthy Homes” ordinance that would have compelled the city to license landlords and conduct proactive housing inspections resembling the new systems in Seattle and Denver.
However, the ordinance’s City Council sponsor subbed in an amended proposal amid pushback from landlords that dramatically rolled back the plan.
The ordinance that ultimately passed last fall only mandates regular inspections for buildings that have received a significant number of complaints, keeping the onus on tenants. The approved ordinance still requires landlords to register their buildings with the city, but sponsors nixed an associated fee requirement and let property owners self-attest to their own buildings’ safety.
Hill said she and her peers were disappointed by the outcome, but they won’t stop pushing for proactive safety inspections. She also said she is encouraged by parallel policy movements sweeping through other cities, including Chicago, where a similar “Healthy Homes” ordinance remains stalled in the City Council.
“We’re excited for the national movement around this issue that’s taking place, and I wish the best of luck to the organizers and advocates in Chicago who are working on this issue,” Hill said. “Because it’s very clear that ensuring that everyone has access to safe housing can only be a benefit to communities.”
A joint investigation with Illinois Answers and the Chicago Tribune found that smoke alarms were absent, defective or missing batteries in 57 out of 87 fatal residential fires in Chicago from 2020 through 2022.
Fires Continue to Kill People in Unsafe Buildings as Chicago Ignores Problems with its Inspection System
As other cities across the country adopt innovative programs to fix problem buildings, Chicago lags behind