This story was produced by the Illinois Answers Project, an investigations and solutions journalism news organization, and Block Club Chicago, a nonprofit newsroom focused on Chicago’s neighborhoods, in partnership with WGN Investigates.
Before moving into an apartment in Ukrainian Village last May, Liz Murray asked her new landlord if the vintage building had any rat problems.
The landlord assured her the six-flat, built in the early 1900s, was free of rodents, adding that pest control “routinely checks” for signs of infestations.
Months later, Murray found out none of that was true.
In the spring, Murray’s then 15-year-old daughter heard clattering from their kitchen cabinets. At first Murray thought little of it, but her daughter was worried, so Murray set up a camera in the kitchen.
Turns out the camera wasn’t needed. As Murray was calling 311 one day for help, a rat shot across her apartment floor. The building’s maintenance man found their apparent entryway — a hole behind Murray’s kitchen cabinets, covered in rat droppings. Not long after, a neighbor across the hall reported he had caught two rats in his apartment.
Murray, 40, repeatedly turned to her landlord and the city for help, but her pleas to fix the persistent rat problem were rejected or ignored, leaving her “flabbergasted,” she said.
“When I spoke to [a city employee], I said, ‘This is a safety issue, you guys aren’t helping me. What can you do?’ They said, ‘You can try to talk to your landlord again, and I was like, ‘Who can help me have a safe place to live? I don’t have a safe, clean space, which is what I was guaranteed,’” she said.
Murray is hardly alone. An investigation by the Illinois Answers Project and Block Club Chicago shows that since the beginning of the pandemic, record rat complaints have overwhelmed city services. The city’s resources are stretched thin, and so many residents have complained that the city’s Inspector General’s office is auditing the Bureau of Rodent Control.
Last year, Chicagoans made more than 50,000 rat complaints, a slight decline from the prior two years but still significantly more complaints than in recent years, according to data from the city’s 311 call center.
An investigation by Illinois Answers and Block Club has found that the city is ill-prepared to handle the surge of complaints. The city bureau tapped to combat rodents is short staffed and often days or weeks late in responding to complaints; its yard inspection service is limited in hours and excludes more than a third of Chicago homes. City loopholes also allow for major construction projects to begin without first addressing rat infestations. On the enforcement end, the city’s attempts to reign in the biggest violators with fines are often futile. In one instance, companies managed by a north suburban woman have incurred more than $15 million in unpaid, rat-related tickets on Chicago properties.
Most people, in fact, don’t pay their fines. The city has issued 117,000 rat-related tickets since 2019 totaling $153 million — with more than $126 million in ticket debt outstanding, according to an analysis of city data.
Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Cole Stallard and Rodent Control Deputy Commissioner Josie Cruz declined requests for an interview.
In emailed statements, a rodent control spokesperson noted that the requests for rodent abatement are “trending back towards pre-pandemic levels” even with the loss of staff, which the city attributes in part to retirements and transfers. The bureau increased its garbage cart replacement budget this year from $3.3 million to $4 million to stop rats from feasting inside broken garbage bins, records show.
But experts say the city’s efforts are no match for the city’s outsized rat problem. Chicago has topped pest control company Orkin’s list for rattiest city in the country for eight consecutive years.
“We’re outnumbered at this point. We’re way outnumbered,” said Janelle Iaccino, marketing director for Rose Pest Control. “It doesn’t give us much hope for coming down in the ranks for rattiest city.”
A puppy's short life
In Chicago and other cities across the country, rats are an inescapable part of everyday life. No matter where people live, they're likely to see rats scurrying across sidewalks and alleys and zipping into trash cans, searching for their next meal.
There's only one species in Chicago: The Norway rat. Female rats can give birth to more than 50 offspring per year. And several months after being born, female rats can reproduce. In the right environment, zoologists say, two rats can turn into several thousand over a year.
The high rate of reproduction is one reason the city can sometimes feel overrun by rats.
Rats can chew through electrical wires and destroy property, and while many people find them gross, they also pose serious health risks. The rats found in urban areas are “loaded with” diseases, said New York-based rodentologist Bobby Corrigan, who has studied rats for more than 30 years.
They carry a bacterial disease called leptospirosis, which can cause acute kidney failure and liver disease in pets. Records show that at least three people have reported since 2019 that it killed their dogs.
One of those people was Jennifer Bandola. She and her husband, Doug, lived in a house in the 1600 block of West Belle Plaine and had repeatedly called the city in 2020 to take care of a rat’s nest in their backyard, but nothing worked.
That same year, they adopted an 8-week-old bernedoodle, Georgia, and brought her home to their Lakeview home. Not long after, the puppy contracted leptospirosis and died.
“We didn’t have her very long, it was only a couple weeks,” she said. “She was just a sweet little dog who would walk around with her mouth open and wait to bite you.”
After Georgia died, they dug up the backyard flower bed where the rats lived and continued to call 311 to kill the rat’s nest, but the rats persisted. Heartbroken, the Bandolas left Chicago and moved to Bloomington-Normal.
“There is definitely something that needs to be done about the rats,” she said. “If it’s not the city who is responsible for it, I don’t know who is.”
Chicagoans have explored myriad approaches to kill the rats: dry ice, rat poison, garbage can repairs, taking a hands-off approach to urban coyotes, an army of feral cats that has also proved effective at killing songbirds. But what the situation actually demands is cleanliness because rats are only after one thing: food.
“Everyone thinks you get an exterminator, put out some poison, when in fact it’s not going to do much at all unless you correct that simple kindergarten lesson of keeping your place clean,” Corrigan said.
Chicago could benefit by following the lead of other cities that are attacking aggressive rat populations in new and interesting ways, experts say.
New York City recently hired its first-ever “Rat Czar,” Kathleen Corradi, to fight the city’s ongoing rat problem during an increase in rat sightings during the pandemic. City officials said New York City has seen a reduction in rat complaints after Corradi and her team focused on getting trash off the streets and out of the city’s waste stream.
In Somerville, Mass., a city of about 80,000, officials are using a new technology, called SMART Boxes, to reduce the rat population. The above-ground boxes trap rats and electrocute them but pose no risk to humans or pets, offering a safe alternative to poison and other traditional bait.
Colin Zeigler, Somerville’s environmental health coordinator, said the boxes are appealing in part because they collect data and send it to city officials wirelessly so they can look at trends.
Meanwhile in Chicago, city leaders haven’t announced a plan to address the rat complaints or even acknowledged there’s a problem, but the inspector general's office agreed to audit the Department of Rodent Control in January after it “received multiple complaints about the efficiency and effectiveness of the city’s rat abatement program,” according to the office's annual plan. The audit will examine response times to rat complaints and determine whether rodent control’s services are equitable and follow best practices.
The Bureau of Rodent Control has blown its stated goal of responding to each 311 complaint within five days in each of the last two years, according to an analysis of 311 data. It took more than 8 1/2 days to close out the median complaint last year and 10 days the year before, with some West and South side neighborhoods such as North Lawndale and Washington Heights taking more than two weeks to get complaints closed in recent years. At the same time, staffing at the bureau is down about a quarter of its employees since 2019, city records show. A rodent control spokesperson suggested that the drop isn’t that great, noting, among other reasons, that some employees were inactive or on leave for part of that time.
Geraldine Powell, a laborer with the bureau who retired last year, said the surge in complaints combined with the staffing shortages have stretched the city’s response times.
“You do as much as you can in the hours you have,” she said.
A citywide problem
Requests to 311 for rat control come in from all across the city, more than 546,000 in the past 13 years.
The requests do not necessarily indicate how many rats there are citywide because no one knows. City officials suggest the calls paint a better picture of who is calling, rather than where the problem is, but they can signal problem areas. And experts say that due to rats’ high rate of reproduction, delayed responses to rat complaints can result in infestations.
One of the top areas for requests is the Clearing neighborhood near Midway Airport, where residents have made 7,630 rat complaints to 311 in the past four years.
In the past two years, the city has taken longer to close out rat complaints made in Clearing and its adjacent neighborhoods of West Elsdon and West Lawn than anywhere in the city, data shows.
Tommy Lawler lives in a row house in Clearing’s Chrysler Village, which is tucked between the airport and the factories on 65th Street. He described cutting his friend’s front lawn and seeing 10 rats.
“They looked like they were in a fricking resort,” he said. “One of them was in a puddle like he was doing the doggy paddle or something. They were afraid of nothing! They didn’t care!”
In May, 13th Ward workers came to Lawler’s house and plugged a rat hole underneath his garage with dry ice, which evaporates into carbon dioxide and suffocates the rats. This service is offered to all residents of the ward, which includes the neighborhoods of Clearing and Garfield Ridge.
These appointments can be scheduled throughout the day and when residents are away from home. This offers more flexibility than the city’s yard inspection and rat abatement service, which is available in the narrow window of 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday, and requires a person from the house to be in attendance.
“People can’t always be home during the day for different reasons,” said 13th Ward aldermanic assistant Jennifer Solski, who handles rat complaints. “They’ve got young families, taking their kids to school and working: they can't be home during regular office hours.”
What’s more, the 13th Ward’s dry ice treatment can be scheduled for all homes. The city’s baiting program is only available to homes with four units or fewer, which excludes most apartment buildings. About 518,000 buildings — or about 41% of the city’s housing stock — have more than four units and are ineligible for the city service, data shows.
Clearing is far from the high-density, restaurant-laden region of the city that is historically associated with rats. Local officials speculate that their rat deluge is linked to the construction of the neighborhood’s 114,000-square foot John C. Dore Elementary School, and various construction and demolition projects across the border in Bedford Park.
Under Chicago’s permitting process, contractors are not required to do rat abatement before getting most building permits. Only demolition permits require proof of rat abatement before they are issued. For construction that includes excavation, contractors are required to keep proof of rat abatement on site and make it available for inspection.
This means that pest control is only important if a city official asks for it, although one expert cautioned that rat abatement at construction or demolition sites isn’t necessarily a solution.
Corrigan, the New York City rodentologist, said that rats are “not inclined to infest any old, abandoned property,” especially if there is no food in the building or nearby.
Mating rats ruin backyard wine time
Amanda Weinberger and her husband, Jason, didn’t wait for the city to address their worsening rat problem.
They went to war with the rats that invaded their backyard.
Heading into summer, Jason Weinberger spent two hours every Saturday and Sunday for a month setting up rat traps and digging trenches behind their North Center home that are fortified with chicken wire to prevent the rats from burrowing into their backyard. This was after rats destroyed the foundation of their back patio, chewed up their manicured garden, bathed in their son’s water table, and copulated in the moonlight while Amanda Weinberger tried to enjoy one summer evening with her friend.
“Rats are mating in the backyard while I’m sitting there with twinkling lights trying to have a glass of wine and chatting with a girlfriend,” she said. “I can’t sit there and enjoy it because our conversation is interrupted by mating rats!”
By late July, the Weinbergers had killed 45 rats outside their home.
Amanda Weinberger blames nearby dumpsters overflowing with food scraps from two restaurants — which she regularly photographs — for attracting the rats. She said her repeated calls to 311 and the alderperson’s office to address the issue yielded only partial success. One of the restaurants now has additional garbage pickup, but the other still has an overflowing dumpster, she said.
Records show that the city has not issued tickets to either restaurant. Tickets are one way the city can crack down on rats, by citing restaurants or land owners for creating conditions that are hospitable to rats, such as leaving out food or letting weeds or junk overtake a lot.
But when it comes to city services, there’s a disconnect. The Bureau of Rodent Control employees who work to mitigate the thousands of citywide rat complaints made to 311 each year do not write tickets themselves despite seeing the conditions firsthand. That job is left to other Street and Sanitation employees.
For tickets that are written, a majority go unpaid. To get a glimpse of the scofflaw rate on tickets — $126 million in ticket debt outstanding, with $153 million tickets written since 2019 — consider the case of Northbrook resident Suzie B. Wilson.
Dozens of real estate companies managed by Wilson have collected nearly 8,000 tickets on hundreds of vacant properties. The companies, which are registered to a post office box in Glenview, owe more than $15 million to the city after paying a tiny portion of the total, city records show. Wilson declined to comment.
Most of the tickets issued to Wilson’s companies were assessed on properties scattered throughout the South and West sides. People are more likely to have rats or rat excrement in their homes in these regions of the city than North Siders, but are less likely to call 311 because they don’t feel the city will help them, according to Lincoln Park Zoo wildlife disease ecologist Maureen Murray, citing preliminary research.
"Somehow they always scratch and find their way in"
In 2021, a company managed by two brothers, Ariel and Raphael Lowenstein, bought a Woodlawn apartment complex for more than $6 million, adding to their growing South Side real estate portfolio.
Woodlawn is a trendy destination for investors. Once a white, middle-class neighborhood, Woodlawn experienced waves of white flight in the 1950s and decades of economic disinvestment. Now the neighborhood is the future home of President Barack Obama’s $830 million presidential center, a development sparking fears of gentrification.
Megan Franklin, 33, moved into the building in the 6600 block of South Kenwood Avenue nine years ago, before the Obama Center site was announced. She said that living conditions at the building, where she lives with her two young sons who go to school down the street, have worsened since the Lowenstein’s company purchased the site, leading to a building-wide rat infestation and the exodus of many tenants.
Franklin said she saw a rat run under her oven, and then she found a rat’s decaying carcass in the back of her oven. When she told the Lowensteins, Franklin said Raphael Lowenstein offered her $1,500 to find a new place to live, which she refused.
Raphael Lowenstein said in an interview that they kept up on pest control and that he made the offer to ease her out of the unit because she was months overdue on rent. Franklin attributes her delayed payments to “improper rent collection and bookkeeping.”
Raphael Lowenstein also said that when the company they manage bought the building, it was mired in violations and they poured more than a quarter million dollars into it to bring it up to code. Nevertheless, rats get in the building from residents leaving doors open or due to the building’s age.
Altogether, the city has fined Lowenstein’s companies more than $130,000 in rat-related violations such as overflowing dumpsters at more than a dozen residential buildings. The brothers say they do their best to stay on top of garbage collection and other problems that “every landlord struggles with.”
“We have a rat infestation in the city,” Raphael Lowenstein said. “Older buildings are much tougher, they have a lot more holes, you are always sealing up holes. Somehow they always scratch and find their way in."
"The rats have a party in my backyard"
Research shows rat exposure can hurt peoples’ mental and psychological health. Chicagoans have described feeling constant paranoia after discovering infestations.
Transcripts of complaints to 311 show many residents at their wit’s end.
“My mom who is 76 years old is being attacked in her house by giant rats,” a McKinley Park resident reported in April 2020. “They eat at her toes at night, she told me. I was talking to her on the phone in the afternoon and a rat [was] trying to jump on her face. This was a week ago. She won't leave her apartment.”
“The rats have a party in my backyard,” a Ukrainian Village resident reported in July 2022. “They are enjoying my tomatoes. I worked hard to plant tomatoes and they are going to the rats! I have about six Tomcat bait stations in my yard, and I am still getting rats eating tomatoes!”
Rats can even undermine Chicago residents’ ability to get around town.
At least 38 people have complained about rats chewing through their car wires since 2019, according to the city’s 311 database.
Husband-and-wife Scott Tooredman and Emily Rose Asher had parked their 2011 Volkswagen behind their Humboldt Park apartment building for several years without any issues. But last year, they were forced out of the spot — not by a bad landlord, but by rats with a special interest in their car wires.
Tooredman and Asher’s car started acting up last summer: The check engine light went on, then the steering wheel stopped working.
When Tooredman asked neighbors who work on cars in his alley for their help, they found a decapitated rat in the engine.
They removed the dead rat, and Tooredman got the engine belt replaced, but the car kept malfunctioning.
Once, Asher accidentally left the windows down, and when Tooredman got into the car later that day, a rat jumped on his shoulder and ran up his arm.
The rats were coming from a nest in the building's back stairwell, Tooredman said.
Tooredman said his landlord had multiple pest control companies out to kill the rats, but nothing worked. The rats kept coming.
The battle cost the couple at least $4,000 in car repair bills and reliable transportation for more than a year.
As for Murray, whose Ukrainian Village apartment was infested with rats, she said her daughter was “terrified that she’s going to see one and one’s going to run across the floor.”
“It’s very unnerving, very stressful and I would even use the word traumatic,” she said.
When it became clear the city and her landlord weren’t going to do meaningful abatement in the building, Murray prepared to move. She worked 16 hours a day to pay for a security deposit, an “incredibly stressful” endeavor, she said.
It was hard leaving an affordable apartment they had liked before the rats invaded.
Murray eventually found a new place near Logan Square and Hermosa after weeks of searching, but the ordeal left her demoralized.
“I’m honestly just shocked at not only my landlord’s unwillingness to deal with the issue, but also, I don’t know where the city stands on taking care of the issue,” Murray said.
Murray’s landlord didn’t return messages seeking comment. Records show the city baited the alley outside the building; the Bureau of Rodent Control does not place rat poison inside buildings or in the yards of apartment buildings. They did not fine the landlord or issue any rat-related building code violations.
When Murray posted about her rat problem on Facebook, several people commented, saying they had similar experiences.
“My gosh,” she recalled thinking. “How many other people are dealing with this?”
This story is part of a larger series by the Illinois Answers Project and Block Club Chicago.