A Roseland fire in a building without working smoke detectors that killed four children moved the City Council Wednesday to tighten the noose against “bad landlords” yet again.
“This is a shot across the bow [to landlords]: Get your act together. We’ve lost some kids because of bad actors,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said after the vote.
This time, Chicago will try creating a “bad landlords” list to inform tenants and both shame and punish building owners who fail to provide the most basic services.
They were pressured into action by Eric Patton Smith, whose daughter, Eri’ana, was one of four children who died last fall in a Roseland fire in a building without working smoke detectors. Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) recognized Patton Smith prior to Wednesday’s vote and suggested that the ordinance be named after the four children killed in the Roseland fire.
The 18-unit building that burned in the 11200 block of South Vernon had been cited for serious violations six times over the past nine years, according to Buildings Commissioner Felicia Davis.
The most recent inspection — on June 9, 2014 — cited the building owner for failing to install and maintain working smoke detectors, City Hall said.
Earlier this week, the grieving father pleaded with the City Council’s Budget and Zoning Committees to do something — anything — to crack the whip on landlords who don’t give a damn.
“Losing a child hurts, regardless of how you lose them. But, to find out that you lost your child simply because someone did not put a smoke detector in or did not fix a $20 lock on a door to keep a vagrant out is hard. It’s very hard,” Patton Smith said.
“How do you go through with life after losing a child for something so simple? A lot of times, I want to blame myself. If I would have known that all I had to do [was buy] a $20 lock or a smoke detector, I would have put it in myself. … That day has forever changed my life and it could have been prevented.”
Patton Smith said he grew up in South Side apartments with broken boilers and no heat and never once got offered a discount on rent because of the sorry conditions.
“I understand your concern for your constituents that are [landlords]. But, this is drafted for those that really just don’t care. … They’re trying to get renters in at a cheaper price that won’t complain while they go along and collect the rent while you live in unsafe conditions,” the grieving father said.
“It’s unacceptable to lose four kids due to a house fire that could have been prevented….The next day, they went to his properties and found out all of his properties had the same problem. All had no working smoke detectors at the door and things of that nature. All of his residents were in danger….If this ordinance saves one life, it’s worth your vote. It’s worth everything that’s going into it.”
The ordinance poised for approval at Wednesday’s City Council meeting would create a bad landlords list comprised of building owners who have had more than three cases taken to administrative hearings officers over the prior 24 months for violations like inadequate heat, lack of working smoke or carbon monoxide detectors.
The first list will be posted online next week, triggering a new round of penalties that would make landlords ineligible for zoning changes, business licenses, building permits, and acquisition of city land.
Bad landlords would also be required to turn over to the city the names and phone numbers for all of their tenants. The city or delegate agencies will use the information to reach out to impacted tenants and let them know about building conditions and resources available to them.
Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) has voiced concern about “due process” before people get on the list. He noted this week that, “Once you’re on the list, it’ll be very difficult to get off.”
Buildings Commissioner Felicia Davis replied, “The buildings we’re talking about have already had ample time to comply. These buildings have received in the past 20 notices and have failed to comply and to fix those issues. These buildings have gone into administrative hearings at least twice with the finding of liable and sometimes more and they have still failed to address those properties.”
Davis said she’s well aware that there are plenty of good and well-intentioned landlords in Chicago.
“We’re talking about the landlords who just take the money from their tenants and don’t invest back in those properties to provide basic service and protection for those tenants,” the commissioner said.
Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), whose Far South Side ward includes the scene of the fatal fire, was all for the crackdown with no reservations.
In fact, Beale talked about imposing a new and costly requirement that would mandate hard-wired smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in residential buildings.
“This is probably at least my third or fourth time being in this body where we’re amending the building code because we have bad landlords. Yet, we never get over the hump. We have to find a way to protect these tenants,” Beale said.
“I’m sick and tired of children losing their lives at the expense of bad landlords. We need to go at `em with everything we have. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s time for it to stop. We don’t want to bury another baby because a landlord did not do their due diligence. And most of `em don’t care because they don’t live in the city…They just want their rent.”