Grieving Father Blasts Shortcomings of Lightfoot’s ‘Scofflaw List’
This commentary is a first-person story produced for the Better Government Association’s What the Gov? platform where we provide information on the inner workings of local and state government and amplify community narratives and voices through civic reporting and programming.
Editor's Note: Eric Patton Smith is a lifelong resident of Chicago’s South Side and an activist for housing safety.
After a fire killed his daughter Er'iana and her three siblings — Carliysia “Lisa” Clark, Carlvon “Carvie” Clark, Shamarion “Mari” Clark-Coleman — in an unsafe apartment building in 2014, he pushed Chicago aldermen to hold landlords more accountable. The Chicago City Council passed the “Eri’ana Patton Smith and Coleman/Clark Kids Tenant Protection Ordinance” in 2015 based on his proposal. It created a public list of problem landlords who would be barred from most city contracts until repairs were made. Those reforms were never fully implemented.
In April, a Better Government Association and Chicago Tribune investigation revealed the city failed to adequately address fire safety problems in residential buildings that caught fire from 2014 through 2019, killing 61.
Following our report, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration compiled a new ‘scofflaw’ list of 98 unsafe buildings. Still, the BGA and Tribune revealed the list excluded hundreds of properties where city officials found life-threatening housing violations. Lightfoot has declined to comment.
In this piece, Smith reflects on what he’s lost — and how he feels about the latest changes Lightfoot made to his original ordinance.
On a very cold Feb. 2, 2007, Eri’ana Patton Smith graced my world. The weekend was shaping up perfectly: My baby was born that Friday, sharing her Auntie Mickey’s birthday, and my Bears were playing in the Super Bowl that Sunday. I would later learn I wouldn’t have the perfect weekend only because the Bears lost the game. But what I got instead changed my life — an unmatched love that’s impossible to duplicate and that I never knew could exist.
“Princess” Eri’ana never wanted to be away from her dad, making sure I was available when she wanted. She caught on to things quickly, and I can’t take all the credit. I would teach her sisters and brothers, and she picked it up from them, from tying their shoes to riding bikes — even reading. Because of this, Eri’ana was writing her own name before 3. She also showed musical interests at this time, constantly singing.
I had my baby every other weekend and part of the summer, so we were extremely close. And the love I received from Lisa, Carvie, Mari (I called him Manny) and the surviving child, Mykayla, aka “Pooh,” was never in question. This was my family unit. Lisa, Carvie and Manny are biologically the children of Carl Clark; Eri’ana is biologically my child. But if you ask Carl or me, we’d tell you all of these are our kids.
Their mother and I outgrew our relationship, but I never let go of the relationship with all these babies, making myself available for phone homework help or arguing with school officials about which entitlement programs they rightfully deserved or traveling 8 miles just because my Princess wanted me to walk her to school.
Eri’ana and her siblings were raised as one unit with a bond of love that could not be broken.
There are words for a person who has lost a spouse: widow or widower. There is a description for children who lose their parents: orphaned. But there is no common word for a parent who loses a child.
I can’t help but think of the seeds I never got to see grow. I’m sure Lisa would be finishing college. Carvie would be in the Army (and upset by the Taliban). Manny would probably be a budding entertainer on TV or a YouTube star. And Princess Eri would be getting ready for high school.
I never got to talk to my baby about her first crush, take her to her first homecoming dance, see her graduate and boast proudly about her success.
On Oct. 8, 2021, seven years after these babies died in a preventable tragedy, the city of Chicago commemorated the Great Chicago Fire — not by remembering the victims but by remembering the damages and cost. Is it just me to think it’s insane that we hear more about the mythical story of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow than we do about the 300 people who perished in this fire? Where is the empathy for the people?
In my worst hour, I tried to focus my grief and anger into an ordinance — the Eri’ana Patton Smith and Coleman/Clark Kids Tenant Protection Ordinance — to make life safer for every citizen of Chicago. But the ordinance has been politically shredded and renamed. I guess I should have expected nothing less from a city where politicians are well-known for the hot air that comes from their mouths.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her office are classless for not informing me they would be doing this. But nonetheless, I fight.
Now the mayor wants to combine the slumlord list and make it a minimum year and a half in court before slumlords are placed on the list. This helps no one in danger. The angels I loved died in a fire in a building that did not pass at least 15 inspections over five years and was allowed to be sold to a new owner, who faced a court hearing just before the fire. The building would not have made Lightfoot’s list. And this mayor thinks that “more time” is the answer.
That leads me to one question: How do we fix our city’s problems when the people in charge seem to have an incentive to leave it broken?