Behind Closed Doors: The Other Most Common Building Violations in Chicago

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Last week I used the Chicago data portal to investigate the most common building safety code violations in Chicago and discovered that the frequency of violations is dictated not by the real distribution of problems throughout buildings, but instead by the ability or inability of the city inspectors to observe the state of individual properties. Of the 10 most common overall violations, 8 of them can be observed without entering the building at all, one could be observed by entering publicly accessible areas, leaving only one - the absence of smoke detectors - to require access behind closed doors. Even that one lone interior violation can technically be observed by an inspector without permission to enter the property if they give a good hard look through the windows.

But what if the inspectors have someone on the inside to open the door? This near unanimity of exterior violations led me to wonder what the most common interior violations are, so today I'm going back to the data portal to find out.

I'm using the same sort order as last time, combining violations by their index numbers and counting them. However, this time I'll be skipping any violations that can be observed from the street by someone without permission to enter. Of particular interest to me was the number of these violations that require an owner's permission or a master key to observe (boiler rooms, basements, etc.) as opposed to an occupant who might only have keys to their own residence unit. What I found were seven types of violations that didn't require a master key and three that might occasionally need one.

1. Carbon Monoxide Detectors in Residence

City code 13-64-190, 13-64-210. Violation code CN197087. 22767 Cited.

Unlike smoke detectors which must be installed in every residence, CO detectors are only required in Chicago residences with heating appliances that burn fossil fuels, and even then only within a certain distance of furnace room. Access through closed doors is required for this one in order to determine if a device is a smoke detector, a CO detector or a combination device. The mandate to install CO detectors is a far more recent addition to the law code, not appearing in its current form until 2007. This sort of violation can be observed without a master key.

2. Obstructed Exit

City code 13-160-070, 13-196-080. Violation code CN015062. 19260 Cited.

This is a hybrid violation, a catch-all that covers everything from padlocked gates in the yard to boarded up doors and furniture or other debris blocking a fire exit from the inside of a building. As such it only requires key access some of the time, and in most cases no master key is needed.

3. Repair Interior Walls/Ceiling

City code 13-19-540c. Violation code CN101015. 18712 Cited.

Ok now we're getting to the nitty-gritty. This is probably what many of you thought would be in the top spot in last week's list. But no, it's way down here, many tiers down in the global list from the heavy hitters that are visible streetside. This refers to holes and cracks in walls or ceilings, the main thing that many think of when they consider the mental image of a slum apartment. No master key is needed to observe this violation.

4. Repair or Rebuild Garage or Shed.

City code 13-196-530, 13-196-641. Violation code CN079014. 17017 Cited.

Another hybrid violation, but when the problem with the garage or shed is located inside the inspector must be granted permission to enter. In some cases a tenant can handle this one but in other cases a master key is needed. Looking at the actual violations, most involve issues that can be observed without entry such as damaged roofs, sagging gutters and rotting wood but a scant handful mention rotting roof joists or other issues that could only be seen if someone with a key was present.

5. Repair or Wreck Dangerous Residential Premises.

City code 13-8-100, 13-12-125, 13-12-130. Violation Code CN193019. 15575 Cited.

It was really surprising to me at first to see this one, which is basically condemnation of a building, so high on the list. I definitely didn't expect to see it showing up higher than some of the others included below. But then I remembered that the data portal list goes back to 2006 before the foreclosure crisis. Some areas of the city still have huge swaths of vacant land where foreclosed and vacant housing was torn down in the early part of this decade.

Master key access is needed to truly observe if a property is damaged beyond the point of repair, or at least to the point where it merits this particular citation. The frequency with which the city hands out this pretty severe citation should not result in prospective renters or buyers thinking that it's a minor issue.

6. Maintain Building in Safe condition.

City code 13-12-130, 13-8-100, 13-12-125, Illinois code 65 ILCS 5/11-31-1 plus a bunch of other subordinate issues. Violation Code CN193000. 15760 Cited.

This is a massive catch-all citation issued when a building is posing an "actual and imminent danger to the public." Similar to the repair/wreck citation, it's the other one that is handed out when the problems with a property are just far too numerous to list in detail. However, this one indicates that a building can still be fixed, while the ones that get the repair/wreck citation are largely past that point.

While master key access is not strictly required for the violations to merit this particular code, its existence implies a laundry list of major maintenance issues that were probably uncovered with the assistance of owners or their employees.

7. Maintain Window.

City code 13-196-550b and f. Violation Code CN104035. 15362 Cited.

Unlike the broken glass of last week's list, this one usually refers to rotted window frames, which must be inspected up close to uncover problems. No master key is needed to observe these issues and they are very, very common. Some owners like to cap the exterior of their window frames so that inspectors can't see the damaged wood underneath, an action which does prevent them from receiving this particular citation. Without this masking procedure this one would probably be much, much higher on the list.

8. Repair Window Sills.

City code 13-196-530e, 13-196-550, 13-196-641. Violation Code CN065034. 14220 Cited.

Windows again! Windows have several different parts: the panes, the frames, the sills, the screens and the lintels. Each one gets its own separate violation code. This is one that can sometimes be observed from the street, other times observed from inside a residence unit, but rarely requires a master key for an inspector to spot. Washed-out mortar in the joints between the sill and the rest of the wall is the most common problem, and one that can lead to pretty bad water damage.

9. Repair Interior Stair System.

City code 13-196-570. Violation Code CN106015. 11952 Cited.

Missing handrails, squeaky steps, rotting stringers, broken treads. There's a lot of things that can go wrong with staircases, and when they do the chance of someone getting injured gets quite high. No master key is needed to observe this violation.

10. Heat Unit Adequately.

City code 13-196-410. Violation Code CN132016. 10999 Cited.

My guess is that the only reasons we had to get way down to #10 on the interior list to find this one is that it can only be issued between September 15 and June 1, and also because it is a violation that is unique to multifamily residential property. Everything else we've listed thus far can be applied to any type of building. This is the seventh on the list that definitely does not need a master key to observe.

So what do we learn from this?

Again, access is the primary factor in a violation appearing on this list rather than the actual distribution of problems. Hardly anything on this list needs a master key or the owner/landlord's permission to observe provided a cooperative tenant can be found. Does this mean that landlords can get away with absolute chaos in the boiler room and expect it to never be found? Not necessarily, as correlation does not indicate causation and boiler rooms aren't exposed to the elements. Does this mean that landlords need to do whatever is necessary to ensure that tenants won't let inspectors into the building? Definitely not. To do so via excellent customer service is fine. To do so by strong-arming or threatening tenants into submission is going beyond building code violations and entering into criminal assault.

Windows are a big problem in Chicago. They're necessary for fresh air and natural light, but they also pierce the envelope of the building and they're rarely maintained to their fullest extent. Given that three of the four parts of a window appear on either this or last week's lists and that the lintels would have been #11 on this list had I continued it, the need for owners and renters both to take good, hard looks at their windows is extremely apparent.

Many renters will look for cracks in walls or ceilings while viewing apartments. They're easy to spot and a sure sign that the place is a dump. But not many will try to open and close every window. Not many will look at window frames for flaking paint (which may still contain lead), or lean outside to look underneath windowsills for damaged mortar. They don't understand the significance when they see that the window lintels and frames are capped on the outside by metal sheathing to hide their true condition from inspectors. To the average person, a windows is something you're supposed to look through, not look at. To a prospective landlord or renter the clarity of the glass needs to be the least important part of the window.

The absence of utility issues (water, power, gas) was somewhat surprising to me. With the exception of the elevators on last week's list which get a pass due to them being handled by a different inspection department, everything on this list and the previous list is structural rather than mechanical. I suppose this is partly because payment and utility company issues are as much a party to problems with plumbing and wiring as the actual apparatus that may be present in any given building. Owners are more likely to call in licensed contractors for wiring and plumbing problems while structural problems may be sorted out in-house by unlicensed employees. Also a factor is the code itself. The city's electric code and plumbing codes are far closer to the International Building Code than the parts that pertain to structural elements, meaning that outsiders have a far better chance of making mechanical repairs in line with the city's laws than they do of making legal structural repairs.

Access aside, the biggest issue facing Chicago renters spans both lists and again pertains to something transparent and rarely observed: the air. The only indoor violation to make it into last week's list of the actual most common violations was the absence of smoke detectors. The top violation on this week's list is the absence of carbon monoxide detectors. I think the main problem here is landlord education. Landlords may assume tenants are supposed to provide air quality detectors in the same way they provide light bulbs, unaware that the law places responsibility on the landlord. Tenants may also remove them of their own accord if they give too many false alarms, which can still get the landlord in trouble. The fine for missing smoke detectors is currently $300 and the fine for missing CO detectors is $200, plus administrative fees. The cost to install one of each detector is about $30 plus the cost of batteries, and hey, they may save some lives. In this era, every violation goes on public record for all to observe even if the issue is resolved without a fine. For a landlord to operate without smoke or CO detectors in 2019 seems careless and foolish.

Postal carriers carry special keys that allow them access to building lobbies for delivery of mail. Utility company meter readers have special rights to access locked areas on private property to do their jobs. It seems to me that the only way we'll be able to make the most commonly cited violations match up with the actual problems in our city's buildings is to provide the city inspectors with a similar way to access all areas, along with increasing the size of the staff so that they can actually handle the full property inventory. Until then, landlords and renters (and homeowners too!) can use these lists as guides instructing them on what to look for when seeking out problems in Chicago's many buildings.

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Kay Cleaves

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