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City Council members rail about problem buildings and businesses who escape penalties: ‘Continuance after continuance’

Council members used Tuesday’s budget hearing to unload on Buildings Commissioner Matthew Beaudet, though he’s on their side. “We tell the judge, ‘This building is about ready to fall down on a neighbor.’ And [the judge says] ‘OK. Nine months continuance,’” Beaudet said.

A service station in the 7800 block of South Western Avenue was cited for building code citations by Chicago’s Department of Buildings, Monday, Sept. 13, 2021.
A notice of building code violations posted last month at a service station along South Western Avenue.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

City Council members from across the city aired their frustrations Tuesday with “restaurants that turn into nightclubs” and problem buildings that are hauled into court, only to have judges grant “continuance after continuance.”

Buildings Commissioner Matthew Beaudet was testifying at budget hearings and Council members used the opportunity to unload — even though the new commissioner was firmly on their side.

“We attend the court hearings. … We tell the judge, ‘This building is about ready to fall down on a neighbor.’ And [the judge says], ‘OK. Nine months continuance,’” Beaudet said.

“It’s frustrating. It’s a good thing it was a Zoom call because I may have lost it, otherwise.”

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) started the chorus with a complaint about a business on West 107th Street that’s a magnet for gangs, guns and drugs, but somehow manages to stay open.

“This has been going on since December 2020. They have a cease-and-desist order. ... We went through everybody. When will we stop them from using their business?” Austin asked.

Far North Side Ald. Debra Silverstein (50th) said she, too is “extremely frustrated” by problem “buildings that have been in court for years” only to squirm off the hook because their cases have been “continued” again and again.

Finance Committee Chairman Scott Waguespack (32nd) urged Beaudet to push the envelope, if necessary, to crack the whip on “restaurants that turn into nightclubs” and become magnets for crime.

“If they’ve got 20 violations and I call up the owner … who lives …. out in the ’burbs or another state and [says] ‘That’s my tenant’s problem.’ The bar owner who’s having shoot-outs. No, it’s not. It’s your problem and I’m gonna make sure it’s your problem. And if you want an economic impact, I’ll make one on you. That’s what I would like to see more of,” Waguespack said.

“If we have to nit-pick the heck out of a property to put an end to some of the problems that are going on, we should be doing that — all within legal bounds, though. We have to make sure we’re using every tool in the box to drop the hammer on these businesses that are starting gun fights in the middle of the street.”

Beaudet agreed that, to confront a nuisance, “You [sometimes] have to be a bigger nuisance.” And that’s what his department does.

“Every Friday night, every Saturday night, we’re out there until 2 a.m. It’s some frightening situations that you’re in sometimes. But, when we show up, we show up in full force. It’s us, CPD, BACP. … We shut ’em down for a little bit. They lawyer up,” the commissioner said.

Beaudet said at least part of the problem is buildings that “call themselves vacant” but are actually functioning as “party venues” while the owner of the property claims a tax break.

“If we keep knocking out their opportunity to have these party venues, maybe they’ll get tired and go somewhere else. Or maybe they’ll just sell the property to somebody that’s actually gonna use it.”

The problem created by giving county tax breaks to property owners who make “good faith efforts” to lease or rent their vacant property was highlighted this week by Block Club Chicago.

“We need to attack a lot of these buildings that are quote, unquote `vacant,’ but we know that they’re party venues. We know that they’re taverns. We know that they’re an active business. They’re just calling themselves vacant to go under the radar and, at the same time, the property owner who may be out in California or New York is getting a tax break,” Beaudet said.

“There’s been several bills in Springfield [to change that], but they always get crushed by the lobbyists down there.”

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) offered a suggestion while City Hall waits for a legislative fix that may never come.

Why not expand Chicago’s drug and gang house ordinance to include businesses?

“It was to address the drug dealing that was going on in apartments. But now we have it going on in storefronts. And the owner of the property does not care as long as he or she is getting their monthly rent — even though it’s wreaking havoc on the community. And when one goes out, another one moves in,” Hairston said.

“If we were to have those confiscated, it would be an opportunity to have the property placed into the hands of somebody responsible. And that’s how we would help to heal our communities.”