Chicago has a very stringent building safety code. For years the city has been notorious for being the only municipality in the country to use its own home-grown laws instead of the International Building Code. Upcoming changes to the city laws will bring us closer to those in the rest of the country, but we're still not completely following the IBC for everything. But no matter which laws are in effect, getting caught in violation of the code is expensive.
City inspectors ticket buildings just like parking officers ticket illegally parked cars. In fact both types of tickets can be challenged at the same place, the city department of Administrative Hearings. Fines range from $20 for minor infractions to $50,000 for the worst safety problems. Of course every fine has administrative fees tacked on, so even a $20 fine will actually cost about $100 plus the cost to repair the actual problem once all is said and done. In addition to the Department of Administrative Hearings, additional violations are tried in the civil court of Cook County.
The city of Chicago's data portal contains a list of all building code violations uncovered by city inspectors going back to 2006. This massive database is one of the many resources we use in creating our apartment safety reports. But we can obtain other useful information from the list without drilling down to an individual address. Today we'll be sorting it by violation type to determine the 10 most common problems that can get building owners (including landlords) into hot water with the city. Some of these problems are minor, others are major, but in each case tenants can expect that the cost of the fine will be passed on to them in the form of rent increases.
1. Arrange Premise Inspection.
Building Code 13-12-100. Violation code CN190019. 86223 Cited.
If a building inspector cannot get into a property, they can only do half of their job. Inspectors can still assess the exterior of the building even if they can't get inside. The placement of this particular violation at the top of the list informs the entire rest of the list, in which 8 out of 9 violations can be observed without passing through a locked door.
2. Post owner or manager name and phone number.
Building Code 13-12-030. Violation code CN196029. 57033 Cited.
Every building without an owner living on site must have a sign visible from the street with the name and phone number of the manager or landlord. For some buildings it is bolted to the side of the wall about 11 feet up in the air. For others it is posted in the glass window of the building's lobby. The absence of a sign is a quick and easy indicator that the landlord is unfamiliar with the city's laws.
3. Repair Exterior Wall.
Building Code 13-196-530(b), 13-196-641. Violation code CN061014. 49653 Cited.
This is a catch-all category encompassing a multitude of problems. This is another one that inspectors can observe without entering, but unlike the owner/manager sign it is tougher for prospective renters to observe during a showing as problems may not be apparent to laymen. Unlike the first two, this is not an administrative matter. These violations are big problems that can cause lasting damage to a building.
4. Repair Porch System.
Building Code 13-196-570, 13-196-641. Violation code CN070024. 42211 Cited.
Chicago has taken a hard line on porch safety since the notoriously fatal 2003 collapse of a porch in Lincoln Park. Most porches must support a weight of 100 lbs per square foot and have secure railings if they're more than 2 feet off the ground. This is another street-visible violation but in this case it's one that tenants can sort of suss out without much training. Make sure the porch feet are firmly attached to the ground and that there's no space between the porch and the building. Look for signs of rotting wood or rust. Push against hand railings to make sure they're secure. Look at the size of the supporting beams and the manner in which they're attached to each other. You should see metal brackets and big bolts holding the porch together rather than common nails and screws.
5. Maintain or Repair Electric Elevator.
Building Code 13-196-590, 13-196-630(b), 18-30-001. Violation code EV1110. 40580 Cited.
Hey, we've got one that requires interior access! However, buildings that receive elevator violations are ones that tend to be easier to access than your average walkup as many have open lobbies during the day. Chicago's elevator code is massive and robust as well it should be. Almost every high rise has racked up a few elevator code violations, mostly because the inspections are handled by a different department than other code violations. Elevator inspectors handle only one thing: elevators. Building inspectors must handle everything else. Elevator code violations may seem scary, but they're very common and shouldn't scare you too much if you see a couple of them in your RentConfident apartment safety report. However, if you see repeated and recurring violations then you do have reason to be worried.
6. Vacant Building - Register.
Building Code 13-12-125(a), 13-12-135. Violation code CN193110. 35513 Cited.
The city definitely wants to know about vacant buildings as they tend to attract the sort of visitors that nobody really wants in the neighborhood. There are numerous city departments that work to secure and rehabilitate vacant buildings so registering each one is pretty important. This is a hybrid violation. Sometimes inspectors can easily determine if a building is vacant without someone to let them inside, other times they can't.
7. Replace Window Panes or Plexiglass.
Building Code 13-196-550(a). Violation code CN104015. 33524 Cited.
Another street-visible problem, and one that any renter can easily spot. Broken windows are a sure sign of neglect, and they're relatively cheap to fix in the general scheme of building repair costs. If a building has a broken window, pass it by and find a different place to call home.
8. Repair Exterior Stairs.
Building Code 13-196-570, 13-196-641. Violation code CN070014. 30962 Cited.
Exterior again! This covers not only porches but front steps as well. Staircases must not only be sturdy, but they must also conform to certain size parameters for the tread and rise of each step. Poorly-maintained stairs are a hazard for every tenant entering and leaving a building, especially if covered in ice or used as a fire escape.
9. Install Smoke Detectors.
Building Code 13-196-100 through 13-196-160. Violation code CN197019. 29891 Cited.
This is the lone violation on the list that requires interior access to cite, and I think it's absolutely pathetic that out of all the potential interior violations that could make the list, it has to be this one.
This is the building violation equivalent of a broken headlight. It's so inexpensive for a landlord to install a working smoke detector and yet nearly 30,000 buildings have been cited for their absence over the past 13 years. This is one that every prospective renter should be looking for in every apartment building they visit. In every showing renters should be looking up to spot the smoke detectors, not only in the apartments but also in common areas.
10. Performed work without a permit.
Building Code 13-32-010, 13-32-040, 13-40-020, 13-12-050. Violation code NC2011. 27481 Cited.
Street visible? Check. Severe problem? Check. Visible to a layman? Yup, but only with a little digging. We check for building permits as part of every one of our apartment safety reports. Those who wish to do it themselves can check and address for issued permits on the permit list at the city's data portal.
An owner can make a wide range of interior alterations such as installing new carpet, repainting, remodeling a kitchen and even building a small porch without going through the complex permit process. But major changes do require permits to ensure that they're in line with safety codes. If an apartment agent claims that a building has new wiring, new plumbing, new HVAC, a new roof, or has recently undergone a major renovation, it's worth it to check if a permit was issued for the work. If anything it will put your mind at ease, since only the most responsible landlords bother to pull permits.
So what can we learn from this? The main thing I see is that Chicago residents aren't doing their part to help inspectors do their job.
As is the case with many crimes, authorities must be able to observe an infraction to penalize the offender. Chicago residents lock their doors and leave the house during the day, leaving no way for inspectors to get inside. The real problems that plague renters - faulty heating, faulty wiring, faulty plumbing, pest infestations - none of these can be observed if nobody is around to let an inspector inside. The city must rely on violations observable from the street, some of them very minor "gotchas", to open a case and force access.
An observant landlord will note that by keeping their buildings looking immaculate on the outside, they can more easily avoid scrutiny of interior issues from the city. Of course, this is a common sense assumption that doesn't require any research to prove. What should really be gleaned from this list is the fact that the city will nail you for anything they can legitimately use from the outside of a property if they suspect that greater problems may exist inside, and that attempting to stop the inspectors from getting in will only add an additional line item to your final bill.
If you are a renter in a problem building you must remember that getting the city involved is a two step process. You have to report it, of course, but you also need to make sure that someone is around when the city arrives to have a look. You can't bet on your landlord or property manager showing up to let the inspector inside. You have to find a way to make it happen yourself.
Prospective renters must avoid getting blinded by stainless steel appliances and granite countertops. Doing so is like gauging a pizza entirely by its toppings. You also need to take the time to look at a building's exterior before signing a lease. Many agents will rush a prospective renter into the building and focus heavily on the interior of the apartment in question without allowing time to inspect the outside. Look at the porches. Look at the windows. Look at the walls. Chicago's weather is relentless. If there's problems on the outside there will eventually be problems on the inside. Home buyers usually have professional inspectors come in before they buy a new house, but renters have to do it on their own. Many major problems are obvious to even the most untrained eye. Inspectors might not be able to see the inside of a building but prospective renters can.
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