Public Officials, Advocates Call for Reform After Investigation Reveals Dozens of Fire Deaths Linked to Enforcement Failures

Mayor claims building code enforcement problems were part of the past, but advocates say actions Lightfoot has made haven’t gone far enough and fail to address systemic problems of inequity.

Firefighters work at a November 2014 fire in the Hollywood Park neighborhood where a 10-year-old boy died on the top floor. Multiple tenants said they heard no smoke detectors. (Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune)

This project is a collaboration between the Better Government Association and the Chicago Tribune.

Tenant advocates and public officials are calling on Mayor Lori Lightfoot to hold landlords more accountable and establish clear rules on how the city handles housing safety complaints after a Better Government Association and Chicago Tribune investigation revealed that known hazards were allowed to go unfixed, sometimes for years, before fatal fires.

“The Failures Before the Fires” series examined every fatal residential blaze in Chicago over six years and found city officials previously knew of fire safety problems in about a third of the blazes. The hazards included poor electrical wiring, a lack of heat, inadequate exits and other code violations that could hinder people’s chances of survival. Sixty-one people died in those 42 fires; most were Latino or Black.

“The city seems very happy to let tenants bear the brunt for poor maintenance,” said Jake Marshall, an organizer with the Chicago Tenants Movement.

The series also detailed a reactive and inconsistent approach to enforcing building safety codes in which officials rely on tenant complaints to identify problems but often close cases without fully investigating the problems or ensuring they are fixed. City officials also have acknowledged they are often reluctant to fine landlords over violations, viewing it as a financial burden.

“The attitude with leniency for landlords seems to be, ‘It’s OK for tenants to live in really unsafe conditions if it looks like their landlord is not rich,’” Marshall said.

Asked this week about the investigation’s findings, Lightfoot contended that her administration has begun to address some of the issues the stories raised. She noted her administration recently announced a plan to revamp the city’s long-abandoned Building Code Scofflaw List to identify building owners the city has sued over violations. Her announcement came after the Tribune and BGA questioned the administration about problems with a similar list.

She also tried to pin the enforcement failures on past administrations.

The review “was on historical events, most of which took place before I came into office,” Lightfoot said Wednesday. “There’s a lot that has been done in the two years since I’ve been mayor to make sure that we’re stepping up enforcement of building code violations.”

Her comments followed an event for the city’s Invest South/West program, which aims to revitalize economically disadvantaged areas in the city through $750 million in grants. Many of the fatal fires examined in the BGA/Tribune investigation occurred in those same areas.

Marshall said there was no reason to believe housing safety enforcement is any better under Lightfoot than it was under previous Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “I don’t think Lori gets to act like this is old news,” he said.

Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert called the mayor’s remarks “outrageous,” saying it shouldn’t require another deadly tragedy for Lightfoot to take significant action.

“So she’s going to wait for a big fire and only then do something? That’s just reactionary,” said Golbert, whose office acts as attorney and guardian for thousands of young state wards. “That’s not what good public officials do.”

Golbert said Lightfoot’s response was an insult to the memories of three of his colleagues who died in a 2003 fire inside the Cook County Administration Building. After that fire at 69 W. Washington St., which killed six people and injured more than a dozen others, the Chicago City Council required commercial building owners to install sprinklers but gave residential buildings the option to pursue less expensive fire safety upgrades.

John Bartlett, executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, said the city needs broad reforms to its building inspection program.

“We need a larger change than just a little tweak here and tweak there,” he said. “People have turned to the city because they think (officials will) do something, but they’re not.”

Bartlett added he thinks city officials are focusing their building enforcement efforts on new construction at the expense of tenants living in older buildings.

“To me the resources are not being fairly or equitably distributed,” Bartlett said. “We have to deal with the issue of why so many of the people who died in these fires were people of color.”

The Tribune/BGA investigation found that when violations were sent to administrative hearings or to court, hearing officers and city lawyers often accepted evidence provided by landlords about alleged repairs without sending inspectors to verify those repairs actually took place — even for serious issues such as a lack of smoke detectors. In some cases, city officials accepted the landlord’s word or a simple photograph of a smoke detector as evidence that a working device was installed.

The city also could not provide any record of an inspection in response to about half of the complaints it received about buildings where the 42 fatal fires later occurred. The city in 2017 eliminated the annual inspections that used to be required in many rental buildings and now waits to inspect until residents report potential safety hazards.

As the BGA and the Tribune were working on their investigation, Lightfoot publicly backed two new fire safety initiatives. The first requires the installation of tamper-proof smoke detectors with long-lasting batteries in many city homes.

The other is the updated Building Code Scofflaw List, which aims to target dangerous buildings for increased enforcement.

The list is similar to an initiative city officials adopted in 2015 after a South Side fire killed four children. That list was produced only twice before being abandoned, the Tribune and the BGA found.

Department of Buildings Commissioner Matthew Beaudet joins a team inspecting a residential property with code violations in March in the Austin neighborhood. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)

Buildings Commissioner Matthew Beaudet said the new list would not meet the same fate. “We’re not going to create a list and then just not do anything with it,” he said in a meeting of the City Council’s Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards last week.

The BGA/Tribune investigation also found the 2015 list relied on outdated and incomplete city record-keeping systems, a barrier Beaudet acknowledged still exists. He called his department’s attempts to upgrade computer systems “a work in progress.”

Beaudet said the upgraded list will allow residents and city officials to better track the worst offenders. But some aldermen questioned whether that’s possible without more money to adopt the technology necessary to link up the enforcement actions of multiple city departments and publish information for the public. The ordinance provides no new sources of funding.

“If we don’t move forward to make sure that the systems are in place, this ordinance, although the language is in place, will be pretty much abandoned,” Ald. David Moore, 17th, said this week in an interview.

“There’s no teeth in it without the system up and running.”