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City Council closes “dangerous loophole” in smoke detector law

Installing or fixing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors after a tragedy will no longer get Chicago landlords off the hook for hefty fines, under a crackdown approved Wednesday in response to a fire that killed four children.

At Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s behest, the City Council agreed to close a “dangerous loophole” by eliminating “post-citation compliance” as an “affirmative defense.”

That means landlords who endanger tenants by thumbing their noses at the detector requirements can no longer escape hefty fines ranging from $200- to $500-a-day.

“If I was cited and I did not have a smoke detector at all — I just didn’t feel like putting it in or I just didn’t do it — I could go and buy one after-the-fact. After I put people’s lives at risk,” First Deputy Buildings Commissioner Matthew Beaudet told alderman last week.

“I could…have a receipt from Home Depot and say, ‘I bought this $10 smoke detector’ and I would walk…. This allows them to not only gamble with the lives of residents. It gives them a loophole when they’re actually caught. This is especially troubling, since we all know the cost of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors is very nominal.”

Already this year, 15 people have died in Chicago fires. Twelve of those fatalities occurred in residential buildings where smoke detectors were either not working or not installed at all.

Four Roseland children were among those 12. They died in an 18-unit building in the 11200 block of South Vernon without working smoke detectors in the second-floor apartment where the fire is believed to have started.

The building had reportedly failed nearly two dozen inspections over the last nine years and, as recently as June 9, was cited for failing to install and maintain working smoke detectors.

The Law Department was planning to file a lawsuit against the building owner, but didn’t get around to it before the fatal fire.

Ald. Danny Solis (25th), chairman of the City Council’s Zoning Committee, co-sponsored the ordinance with Emanuel.

But, that hasn’t stopped the alderman from questioning how the ordinance he championed would be enforced.

“I don’t think we have the manpower to check each and every building that we have in the city. I’m wondering if there is some sort of strategy for information or education that the department has,” Solis said during a Zoning Committee hearing last week.

“I’m worried about the neighborhoods — especially in poor neighborhoods — where there’s renters and there’s an absentee landlord. There’s a landlord who’s not really complying with the law. How is it that we’re going to try to push this so that it’s happening in every part of the city and in every building that needs it?”

Beaudet would only say that the Department of Buildings works with the Chicago Fire Department and with aldermanic offices to “get the word out.” He noted that the Fire Department has been “very aggressive” in giving away smoke detectors.

Solis was not impressed, telling Beaudet, “So other than the Fire Department, there is no campaign for mass information or education.”

The enforcement questions raised at last week’s Zoning Committee meeting prompted Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) to ask whether it was possible for the city to require signed leases to include a clause that a rented unit has working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

“I’d like to pursue that because … this is a crucial undertaking and we should be [more than] cosmetically doing something,” Fioretti said.

Beaudet replied, “I’m not sure about putting it in leases if we would have the power to do that. We’d have to work with BOMA [Building Owners and Managers Association] and other groups.”