City Hall inspector general pokes holes in Chicago’s process of building inspections
In her first full-blown audit, Inspector General Deborah Witzburg takes the Department of Buildings to task for fulfilling its inspection mandate only when certificates of occupancy are required.
Some Chicago buildings are being constructed and occupied with potentially unsafe conditions — without required inspections — because the Department of Buildings relies on permit holders to request inspections, an internal audit concluded Thursday.
In her first full-blown audit, Inspector General Deborah Witzburg took the Department of Buildings to task for fulfilling its inspection mandate only when certificates of occupancy are required.
The department issued 5,351 construction permits between 2017 and 2019 that did not require a certificate of occupancy. The Buildings Department had conducted “all related inspections” for only 16.7% of those buildings as of April 27, 2021.
“The Department of Buildings is responsible for making sure that buildings are safe to use. And if we are totally reliant on permit holders to call for required inspections, then we’ve set up this risk of there being unsafe buildings that are being occupied and used,” Witzburg told the Chicago Sun-Times on Thursday.
Of 80 permits issued during that three-year period, 42 buildings “did not have all required inspections,” even though the buildings were fully constructed. In each case, no certificate of occupancy was required; general contractors had not requested inspections.
Only 49.7%, or 198 of 398, required inspections for those 42 buildings were performed. Less than 3% received “passing marks,” including 35 single-family homes, several of which “had already been sold or listed for sale,” the audit concluded.
As of December 2020, 83% of building permits issued over the three-year period “remained open.” Those permits “should have been deemed expired or the contractors should have completed the associated work,” the IG said.
When permit holders request the required inspections, 91.5% of those inspections are conducted by city inspectors. The percentage was even higher — 98.9% — for the 1,236 permits issued during the three-year period for buildings requiring a certificate of occupancy.
That disparity might be remedied by requiring certificates of occupancy for a “wider variety of buildings” instead of relying on developers to request building inspections.
Certificates of occupancy are not required for single-family homes, two- or three-flats.
Certificates of occupancy are required for projects:
• Involving the construction or substantial alteration of four or more residential units or non-residential space exceeding 10,000 square feet.
• A change of occupancy type.
• The construction or substantial rehabilitation of any space for certain occupancy types.
“If we aren’t inspecting buildings, we aren’t catching potentially dangerous conditions. …There might be things in these buildings that aren’t up to code, that aren’t constructed safely and there would never be an opportunity to uncover that risk and to fix it because the building never was properly inspected,” Witzburg said.
To bridge the safety gap, Witzburg urged the Department of Buildings to monitor permits with no requests for required inspections; track the construction status of buildings; and ensure building inspectors and their supervisors use the department’s data management system.
Buildings Commissioner Matthew Beaudet mostly embraced the recommendations. But he argued that there are “clear limitations” to the permit and inspection data management system the department has spent “well over a decade” trying to replace.
Until that happens, Beaudet said he’s using a “daily email” to identify “permits over six months old with no inspection requests.” Inspectors will be assigned to those locations to “determine the status of construction, he said.
Witzburg acknowledged that there are “systems and process challenges” to her recommendations, implying some suggestions might create more work for the city’s army of building inspectors.
“A certain sub-set of buildings require a certificate of occupancy before they can be used or occupied. In those situations, the Department of Buildings was very good at ensuring that all of the required inspections were conducted. And so, one of the questions we raised is should we expand the sub-set of buildings which require certificates of occupancy?” she said.
“That is one of the questions that we put on the table. I don’t think that is the only way that the Department of Buildings could take a more proactive approach. But that’s worth examining.”