Deadly Fires, Broken Promises
This project is a collaboration between the Better Government Association and the Chicago Tribune.
After a fire killed four children in a South Side apartment building with known fire safety problems, indignant politicians again vowed consequences for landlords who fail to keep tenants safe.
It was just one more in a pattern of broken promises going back more than a century.
“We are putting these negligent landlords on notice that we mean business,” then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced after the 2014 tragedy. “We will not stand by and allow these landlords to neglect the services and protections their tenants are entitled to under the law.”
Emanuel pushed two new ordinances through the City Council. One required fines on landlords who violate smoke detector regulations. The other established a public list of problem landlords.
More than six years later, both ordinances are routinely ignored. City officials soon abandoned the list of bad landlords, and records show they do not consistently impose the required fines for smoke detector violations.
Eric Patton Smith, the father of one of the children who died, was a driving force behind the list of problem landlords. He solicited support from City Council members, testified at a council hearing and even drafted an initial proposal.
“It was supposed to give renters some type of power, give the community some type of power, to be able to push back against the slums,’’ he said. “I’m thinking we made a change.
“Boy, was I wrong.”
In a city scarred by a long history of tragic fires, an investigation by the Chicago Tribune and the Better Government Association found political rhetoric about strict enforcement repeatedly gave way to broken promises, watered-down regulations and abandoned reforms.
After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Joseph Medill was elected on the “fireproof” ticket but caved on his most ambitious plans. In 1958, when 92 children and three nuns died as a result of a Catholic school fire, the City Council pushed back deadlines for one of the first serious fire sprinkler mandates. And in 2003, when six died in a Loop high-rise, the City Council demanded that sprinklers be installed in tall buildings but exempted many older structures.
More recently, Chicago officials backed off their long-standing opposition to tamper-proof smoke detectors, but many property owners won’t be fined for violations for more than a decade — a move that puts the city well behind the rest of the state.
Chicago’s approach contrasts with some other major cities that are moving away from complaint-based systems and toward routine inspection schedules. Some other cities also are investing in beefed-up data collection and requiring landlords to be licensed.
The BGA/Tribune investigation revealed how fires killed 61 Chicagoans from 2014 through 2019 in buildings where the city had been warned about fire safety problems yet failed to adequately address them. The majority of those fires were in low-income neighborhoods mostly populated by Black and Latino residents.
Efforts to reach Emanuel for comment were unsuccessful.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot also declined requests to be interviewed for this report. However, her administration recently made some promises of its own.
In February and March, Lightfoot’s administration supported two initiatives she said would increase accountability for landlords. One is a new ordinance phasing in requirements for tamper-proof smoke detectors over the next decade.
The second is yet another list of problem landlords.
“The top priority of this administration is to ensure the health and safety of our residents in every neighborhood of the city of Chicago,” Lightfoot said in a news release after the City Council approved the smoke detector ordinance.
Critics say Chicago has long lacked the political will to enact substantial safety reforms and crack down on landlords.
“Chicago has a system set for going through the motions and basically failing,” said Douglas Pensack, a former associate director of the Illinois Tenants Union. “The building code is pretty strict, but it is poorly enforced and there is great bifurcation in the way it is enforced.
“Unless there is a tragedy involved or somebody dies, no one looks back.”
‘Sincerely, a grieving father’
In the months after his daughter and her three siblings died in their South Side apartment in 2014, Patton Smith was sending emails to city officials late into the night.
As he learned more about the numerous housing code violations found in the building where his daughter died, he wondered: Why didn’t the city do more before the fire? Why wasn’t it easier for tenants to learn the enforcement history of their buildings?
The grieving father was determined to get the attention of public officials, he said, even after his family warned him his efforts would be futile.
“This city took my life,” he remembers insisting at the time. “Something is going to happen.”
Patton Smith first emailed the Emanuel administration in late 2014 with an idea on holding landlords more accountable for unsafe buildings. He suggested a law requiring rental properties to display color-coded signs with the number of safety violations found there. His draft of the ordinance included a forfeiture provision for landlords of the worst-maintained buildings.
“I even understand that if presented it may not pass the council cause a lot of council members are real estate owners,” Patton Smith wrote to Emanuel’s office, “but if you can look at this ordinance and have someone get back to me I would appreciate it. Sincerely, a grieving father.”
Emanuel’s response came from Farzin Parang, then the mayor’s deputy director for legislative counsel and government affairs and City Hall’s point person on Patton Smith’s proposed reforms.
“I agree with your instinct that it would be very difficult to pass in its current form,” Parang wrote to Patton Smith. “Not only are some council members real estate owners, but the real estate industry as a whole will come out against it in full force.”
Parang asked Patton Smith for patience as a draft proposal worked its way through the political process.
The ordinance passed by the City Council in 2015 was named after Patton Smith’s daughter and her siblings, but it was not what the father had hoped.
No color-coded signs would be posted on buildings. Instead, the city would electronically publish a list of problem landlords, barring them from most city contracts until repairs were completed. Landlords would qualify for the list if they failed to fix serious safety issues after at least two separate enforcement cases over two years.
After the ordinance took effect, representatives for the building owners’ industry met with city building department officials to express concerns. Mary Kay Minaghan, then a lobbyist for the Chicagoland Apartment Association, said landlords mainly feared the information might not be accurate.
The city stopped adding landlords to the list in 2016. It was produced only twice before being abandoned.
The Tribune/BGA investigation found the ordinance had problems from the beginning.
Violations referred to Circuit Court didn’t count against landlords, eliminating some of the most serious safety violations. The list was also based on repeat violations at individual buildings, rather than all of a landlord’s properties. And the list relied on record-keeping systems city officials acknowledge are outdated and incomplete.
In the end, a total of 44 buildings and their landlords ended up on the list before the city stopped using it.
A BGA/Tribune analysis of building code violations from 2013 through 2020 found hundreds of landlords might have qualified if the city had not abandoned the list.
Parang, now executive director for the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago, said he didn’t remember many of the details of putting together the ordinance.
Patton Smith said he had no idea the ordinance he championed in his daughter’s memory was no longer being used by the city.
“For what reason do politicians sit and allow this to go by the wayside?” he said. “That hurts like hell.”
In a recent interview, Buildings Commissioner Matthew Beaudet said his office is working on an improved list of problem landlords.
“The problem landlord list was a problem in and of itself, in that it was very ineffective,” he said. “The building that actually prompted the problem landlord list would not have been on the problem landlord list.
“And then with this new list that we’re looking at, we’re going to be doing more inspections tied to that list,” Beaudet said.
On March 11, as the Tribune and the BGA were pressing Lightfoot’s office for a response to their findings, the mayor issued a news release proposing the creation of “one consolidated list based on criteria that will address the most egregious offenders.”
“I am confident the new Building Code Scofflaw List will allow the city to more closely monitor these buildings, hold building owners accountable, and, most important, enhance the safety of building occupants,” Lightfoot said in the release.
Pensack, formerly of the Illinois Tenants Union, said the city’s new plans could help if adequately enforced, but substantial improvements to housing safety in Chicago would require much stronger efforts to ensure property owners follow the rules.
“It is going to require strictly enforcing the building code and not going from one hot-button issue to the next.”
The ‘tamper-proof’ debate
In addition to the failed list of problem landlords, the City Council adopted another Emanuel-backed reform after the 2014 fatal South Side fire.
The ordinance mandated fines for landlords whose properties did not meet smoke detector requirements. Before, landlords could avoid fines if they fixed the problem before their first hearing on the issue.
A city spokeswoman acknowledged this law is also not enforced, and fines for missing smoke detectors are issued case by case.
Four years after the tragic incident prompted the efforts at reform, another fire killed 10 children at a Little Village building with no working smoke detectors and a long history of housing safety problems.
Before the notorious 2018 fire, city inspectors documented a lack of these lifesaving devices in the main building or in the nearby coach house three times over 11 years, including once just seven weeks before the fire. Under the 2014 smoke detector ordinance, the landlord should have been fined for those violations. Records show he was not. Investigators determined the same problem existed the night the children died.
In the political fallout from the fire, city officials offered up a new set of promises.
Chicago aldermen introduced an ordinance to speed up enforcement of smoke detector requirements, a proposal that died in committee nine months later.
The Little Village fire also inspired a 2019 proposal by Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th, to require that smoke detectors in buildings throughout the city be equipped with a tamper-proof battery that lasts 10 years unless the detector is wired into the home’s electrical system. The design prevents residents from simply removing the batteries when the alarm sounds.
An Illinois law already requires this type of smoke detector; the legislature approved it in 2017 over the objections of the Illinois Rental Property Owners Association. At least 13 other states have similar laws in place.
But Chicago opted out of the safety measure, in part because the Chicago Fire Department opposed it.
At the time, CFD spokesman Larry Langford said the high cost of the better smoke detectors would be a problem for some homeowners. The new models cost $18, he said, versus about $5 for standard models.
But by February 2021 — following inquiries from the BGA and the Tribune — the Fire Department reversed course and supported the change. The City Council then finally passed an ordinance that by 2023 requires property owners who are replacing smoke detectors to install tamper-proof devices with long-lasting batteries. But under the ordinance, fines cannot be issued for violations in owner-occupied units until 2033. That is a full decade after the deadline set for the rest of the state.
Russ Sanders, executive secretary with the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association, said working smoke alarms are especially critical in older buildings without other modern fire safety provisions.
“For these older buildings, they got smoke alarms but they don’t have sprinklers, and if they don’t maintain the smoke alarm you’ve got no protection,” Sanders said.
Though the overall rate at which people die in residential fires nationwide has fallen since its peak in the 1980s, the risk is increasing for those who live in single-family homes or two-flats, according to the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit fire safety advocacy group.
In larger apartment buildings, the number of deaths per 1,000 fires was 29% lower in 2019 than it was in 1980, the group reported. But in one- and two-family homes, there was a 28% increase. The organization also found smoke detectors decrease the risk of someone dying in a house fire by 55%.
In Chicago, records show, there were no working smoke detectors in at least 69 of the 140 fatal fires from 2014 through 2019. Ninety-two people died in those fires.
A reactive approach to safety
After a fire trapped and killed 66-year-old Johnny Horton in his East Garfield Park apartment in 2016, firefighters found — in addition to a lack of working smoke detectors — a daisy chain of extension cords from an overloaded outlet on the back porch.
Investigators determined the electrical overload started the blaze. Horton’s sister told police they used the porch outlet to power a freezer because using the kitchen outlets tripped the circuit breaker.
Public records show the rental property had not been inspected for at least five years before the fire. That’s because Chicago — unlike some major cities — does not routinely inspect all rental properties without first getting complaints. In this case building records show no one complained.
A Tribune/BGA review of all fatal house fires in Chicago from 2014 through 2019 found more than two dozen similar cases in which firefighters said safety conditions played a role in the blazes, but records show the buildings had not been inspected by the building department for five years, sometimes more.
In Chicago, nearly all housing safety inspections are prompted by a complaint to the city’s 311 hotline — a reactive approach to enforcement that can let life-threatening hazards go undetected.
Some major cities have adopted programs to routinely inspect all rental units to detect problems without relying on complaints. In Boston, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., landlords are required to register with city officials, who then determine how often a unit needs to be inspected based on the landlord’s history.
Chicago used to have an annual inspection program for buildings taller than three stories, but the City Council eliminated that requirement in 2017, saying it was outdated and distracted inspectors from focusing on buildings with known problems.
“Honestly, mandatory inspections favor bad landlords,” Beaudet said. “There’s only a number of hours in the day and I’d rather have the inspectors out where they need to be rather than going through a high-rise luxury apartment building.”
Beaudet said the city’s complaint-based system is a better way to find problems and target issues. “The public will tell us exactly where we need to be,” he said.
The BGA/Tribune investigation found the city failed to fully investigate many complaints of serious safety issues before fatal fires broke out. Sometimes, weeks or months passed before an inspector attempted to visit the building.
Two years after City Hall abandoned its annual inspection mandate in 2017, the City Council also eliminated the requirement for building inspectors to respond to 311 complaints within three weeks — even for allegations of serious problems.
That decision followed a 2018 inspector general’s report chastising the building department for failing to meet the 21-day deadline more than half the time.
Buildings department spokeswoman Mimi Simon said the elimination of the mandate freed inspectors from wasting time responding to complaints that wouldn’t have resulted in code violations — such as wintertime complaints of apartments being too hot.
But the changes left Chicago with no rules governing how city officials should respond to complaints about building hazards.
Gregory Miao, a senior attorney at ChangeLab Solutions, a tenant research and advocacy organization, said any successful inspection program should strongly enforce consistent rules.
“Letting those landlords get away with doing what they’re doing and issuing them notice, that is the worst outcome,” Miao said. “You’ve effectively done nothing.”
Editor’s note: This story has been revised to clarify Chicago’s deadlines for requiring tamper-proof smoke detectors.
AnnMarie Hilton, Carolina Gonzalez, Nicole Stock, Sahi Padmanabhan and Deborah Wilber contributed to this report as interns for the Better Government Association.