Access All Areas: The Most Common Violations in Subsidized Housing

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When I started writing about common Chicago building code violations a couple of weeks ago I had no intention of this becoming a series. But the further I’ve dug into the matter, the more I have realized that it’s not only a serious issue, but one that is very difficult to get a handle on with a cursory review of the Chicago data portal. Since inspectors can only find issue with elements of a building that they can see first hand, the top violations we’ve found so far have been predominantly those which can be spotted without entering the building. Once we eliminated those, even the top 10 interior violations did not require an owner to be present, only a tenant.

In the interest of discovering the actual most common maintenance problems facing Chicago renters I had to go deeper. By doing so I uncovered something that might have disproved my thesis of the past two weeks. (Don’t worry, I’ll go back and fix those two articles in a bit.)

A New Data Source

When the issue of access became apparent over the past two weeks I asked myself, “What if there was a situation where granting access to a building inspector was mandatory for business to continue?” It turns out that there is such a situation, but to find it we must move away from the Chicago Department of Buildings and look instead at another agency that provides both inspections of buildings and public reports of their findings. I found that data source at the Chicago Housing Authority, the municipal agency which administers government subsidized housing.

A large number of subsidized renters participate in the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV/Section 8) program, which allows them to rent in any privately owned building that will accept them, but still allows them to use government assistance to pay a portion of the rent. But before the CHA will agree to spend taxpayer money on HCV subsidies, the apartment in question must pass a rigorous inspection. Unlike the inspections conducted by the Chicago Department of Buildings, CHA inspections require the owner or someone from their staff to be present. Rather than penalizing owners by issuing tickets and fines like the DoB does, failing a CHA inspection results a mandate to repair the issues in order to continue with the rental transaction. I figured that the CHA would probably keep their own list of the most common violations and it turns out that they do. They even publish it on their website. They also publish a handy PDF handbook outlining everything their inspectors look for when visiting a property.

Chicago’s HCV program is quite robust. Of the top 3 municipal public housing authority populations in the nation, we’re #3 following New York and Puerto Rico, but we’re the first on the list to have more renters in the HCV program than renters living in city-owned housing projects. (Source – PDF) As of 2016 we had 52,478 occupied section 8/HCV units, each of which must be inspected prior to move in and again every two years for the duration of the subsidized tenants’ stays.

Of course moving from the city data portal to the CHA presents us with some new variables affecting the data. The information provided by the CHA isn’t as robust. We can’t see exactly how many of each violations have been found. We can’t see how different categories of violations have changed over time. We can’t be sure if the list has been editorialized to alter the order or include issues that are subjectively important to CHA but not actually prominent.

The CHA inspectors follow a different checklist than city inspectors when visiting a property, but both are looking for similar problems for the most part. By looking at HCV eligible housing we are removing the most expensive forms of housing from the pool. If the Chicago data portal lists are a deep sea net dropped in a single large section of the ocean, the CHA lists are a fly fisherman standing on the edge of a lake.

However, by focusing on the CHA lists we’re also removing all the commercial and industrial buildings from the pool of potential properties. This is a distilled set of violations found in rental housing that is affordable to the average tenant. And with those barriers to inspector access removed we have a whole different list of violations in a whole different order.

In the event of a revamp of the CHA website I’m going to paraphrase their top 10 list here with some comments of my own.

1. Inoperable light fixtures and improperly wired electrical outlets.

Comparable city violation codes: EL1819, EL0023, EL0036, EL1816, EL1875, EL1823, etc.

Improperly wired outlets could be missing covers, missing ground fault circuit interrupters, missing supporting connections to the surrounding walls, or otherwise installed poorly. They can lead to electrocution and fire.

But Chicago, we have a problem. The top item on the list is one that hasn’t appeared on either of our two DoB-sourced lists.

Seeing this at the top of the list was a bombshell for me. At first I thought that the CHA inspectors were uncovering electrical issues missed by city inspectors because the city does not require active utility service accounts in the properties they inspect, while the CHA does. Wanting to confirm this hypothesis I returned to the city data portal and used a different categorical sort method to check if I’d missed a huge number of electrical violations when researching for the previous two articles. It turns out I did, an error so major as to disprove everything I said in the past two articles.

The Chicago Department of Buildings has a separate department of inspectors handling electrical inspections, much as they do for elevators. Within the city data portal list of violations, electrical issues are split into over 290 different categories, meaning they escaped my categorical roll-up and sort. That’s nearly 20% of the total number of violation categories in the city’s list. When I sorted the list by individual violation codes I wasn’t able to see how many electrical violations there really were. It was only when I sorted by the Electrical inspections department that I could see them.

Across the 290 categories of electrical violations, city inspectors have cited 94414 separate problems over 14 years, which makes electrical problems our number one issue for both the city inspectors and the CHA.

I’ll expand on what this means for the prior two articles further down. For consumers and landlords it means that they should make sure the power is on for showings, test every light fixture and bring a small electrical appliance with them to test every outlet. I recommend using a portable hair dryer as they’re lightweight and for their size they put a pretty heavy load on a circuit. Check outlets and light switches for missing or cracked covers and gaps between them and the wall.

2. Deteriorated and unstable paint on surfaces in units built prior to 1978 in units where children under the age of 6 will reside.

Comparable city violation codes: CN102015, CN061034.

This is a variant of a violation that appeared on last week’s list, “Repair Interior Walls.” However the CHA version has a spin unique to rental housing focusing on lead based paint and its effects on the brain development of young children. As many subsidized renters do have large families it is doubly critical for the CHA to pay attention to this matter within Chicago’s many vintage apartment buildings. It is logical that this would be a far more common issue in low income housing than it might be in other parts of the city’s building stock, and therefore something that the CHA inspectors are more likely to encounter.

This is an issue that is easy for renters and landlords to spot without the aid of an inspector.

3. Missing, inoperable or incorrectly mounted smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

Comparable city violation codes: CN197087, CN197019.

It’s our old faithfuls returning from the past two weeks. In this case the CHA groups the two air detection devices into a single line item, and their appearance towards the top of the list tells me that the city and the CHA agree that missing smoke detectors and CO detectors are major hazards facing city residents and for some reason a huge stumbling block for landlords.

4. Broken or inoperable windows. (Panes, sills, frames.)

Comparable city violation codes: CN104015, CN104035, CN065034, etc.

Another case where the CHA has bundled together several items from the past two lists, and another case where the CHA and the city agree that the problem is both common and severe. Perhaps the mental image we carry in our minds of slum apartments should be updated to include damaged windows and missing smoke detectors.

5. Exposed electrical wires or connections.

Comparable city violation codes: EL1829, EL1822

Another issue that doesn’t appear in our previous two articles, and once again it’s an electrical issue. Unfortunately faulty wiring is something that not every renter can assess on their own, as much of it is concealed behind walls. However, most renters know that exposed wires, uncovered outlets and wobbly ceiling fans do not bode well for their safety.

6. Broken/faulty locks and drafty doors.

Comparable city violation codes: CN073014, CN073024, CN105035, CN105055, CN105085, CN134066, etc.

The condition of door locks is something unique to the CHA’s inspection list. The city may cite an owner for missing deadbolts or exterior locks with no keys, but they do not test whether these locks actually work. Doors are a focus of both the city and the CHA, although the two agencies focus on different aspects of these doors. The CHA is concerned about drafts, most likely because heat is expensive and often on their dime. The city is concerned about peepholes, pest prevention and fire safety.

7. Cutting hazards such as protruding nails.

Comparable city violation codes: None

I could find nothing in the city’s list of violations about exposed nails or similar cut hazards. Considering that many city inspections occur at construction sites the presence of exposed cutting hazards is to be expected. This is one that is unique to the CHA and unique to residential rental situations where workmen’s compensation is not available. However, I don’t think it would be too outrageous for the city to include a search for such things in residential properties that are clearly move-in ready.

8. Gaps/holes around heating system flue pipes or absent gas service.

Comparable city violation codes: CN063044

The part about absent gas service is unique to the CHA, tied to their requirement for active utility services at the time of inspections. However, the part about gaps around heating system flue pipes is a pretty severe one. You don’t want gas powered furnaces venting their exhaust into your living quarters. You also don’t want rodents and bugs using gaps between pipes and walls to travel between dwelling units.

9. Pest infestations.

Comparable city violation codes: CN199019

In terms of building code violations the city appears to be more focused on rats and getting owners to participate in their rat abatement programs than they are on other pests such as insects or pigeons. The CHA is worried about any pests that could cause harm or disease to the renters in their care.

10. Holes and large gaps over 1/4″ on walls, ceilings or floors of living space areas.

Comparable city violation codes: CN101015 etc.

Both the city and the CHA are concerned about intact surfaces. However, the CHA’s specific mention of the quarter inch distance tells me that their concern is about pest entry points rather than the water leaks that occupy the city’s attention.

CHA vs. DoB

What we have here is two agencies with clearly different priorities. The CHA can focus exclusively on the concerns of residential rental housing while the city must focus on the preservation of their building stock, conservation of natural resources and fire safety. The two groups use very similar checklists but different methods of operation. City DoB inspectors can arrive unannounced and issue citations based on partially completed inspections. This results in a large number of citations for problems that are entirely red tape, such as posting owner signs and lack of access. Since there are so few city inspectors handling every building in the city, they mostly only visit the largest buildings, attending to the rest only if an occupant notifies them of a problem.

CHA inspectors meanwhile must meet with an owner or their agent at the property in question, and the property must be prepared in advance of their arrival by turning on utilities. They have far fewer locations to cover, but there are also fewer of them on staff. The wait times for a CHA inspection can be quite long, but unlike the city inspectors they won’t settle for a partially completed job.

Some of the issues we’ve seen in the DoB lists reappear here. In some cases multiple violations from the city’s lists such as problems with windows and missing air quality detection devices are bundled together into single line items on the CHA list. In general if an item appears on lists from both agencies we can figure that it is in fact a serious and common issue that both renters and landlords need to be aware of. This includes electrical issues, which were omitted from our articles but should actually be #1 on the first list.

Following the overwhelming prominence of exterior problems in the DoB lists was shocked to see none at all on the CHA list. Looking at the handbook it is clear that the CHA inspectors must consider exteriors as part of their work so we can’t say they’re simply ignoring them. This is where the matter of access becomes crucial, and it definitely still is crucial despite the discovery of all the electrical violations. I would guess that if city inspectors had access in the same way that CHA inspectors do, both top 10 lists would be mostly interior problems.

Racism, Privacy and Subsidized Housing

The notorious reluctance of landlords to get involved with the Section 8 program has been attributed to racism and classism within the landlord community for decades. The city must regularly crack down on landlords who refuse to rent to subsidized tenants, as they are a protected class. But as someone who’s gone through Section 8 inspections from the landlord side, I can tell you that the fear of CHA inspections causes as much resistance as preconceived notions about low income tenants do.

Landlords know that any property eligible for use by subsidized tenants must be subjected to inspection. They must subject themselves to a process that they risk fines to avoid. Given wait times for CHA inspections and the mandate to reinspect any issues until they are resolved, the process can take up to six months, during which time the apartment in question must remain vacant and cannot be rented to any fair market tenants who might want it. In a hot market like Chicago that’s a pretty ridiculous thing to ask. I’ve been informed that the wait times for inspections have improved somewhat since I left property management. Even so, the the reputation remains.

For every landlord who would be fine with Section 8 tenants if they weren’t black or poor, there is probably another who would be fine with it if it didn’t expose their properties to scrutiny from knowledgeable experts who actually know what to look for.

In order to separate the culture-based resistance from the privacy-based resistance I wanted to get the numbers for successful placements from the 2005 Hurricane Katrina/Rita emergency HUD vouchers as compared to the successful placements of those who were in the HCV program organically. Unfortunately I was not able to find this data in time for publication, and even if I did I’m not sure that I’d be able to separate the effect of the Hurricane vouchers from other changes occurring within CHA policy simultaneously.

The Impossibility of Universal Inspections

Before one calls for universal inspection of any property offered for use by workers or residents other than the owner, we must consider how the home sales market operates. Inspections are recommended for home buyers, but the buyer must contract with a third party inspector directly. Not all of them do, and not all inspectors follow the same checklists. Some buyers are more trusting of the condition of a property, while others are certain that they can handle any inspection tasks on their own. If the comparatively sedate private real estate sales market can’t get a handle on universal inspections, the chaotic rental market certainly can’t be expected to either.

One encounters similarly variable levels of trust in rental situations for both residential and commercial property. Some folks simply don’t care what condition the property is in provided they can get shelter from the elements. Others are put off by the “nanny state” scenario that would arise from mandatory inspections as part of every property transaction. Besides that there’s the sheer volume of inspectors that would be needed for such a scenario to effectively work. Given the long waits involved for renters in the HCV program, the idea of the delays that would arise from expanding the inspection mandate to cover every private market transaction is just abhorrent.

Access May Not Be Such a Big Problem After All.

So yeah, I was wrong. Everything I said in the past two weeks was wrong. Sort of. The most common problem facing Chicago buildings is not the lack of inspector access. It isn’t the failure to post owner signs, or cut the lawn or fix our cracked windows. Rather, at 94,414 citations spread across 290 separate violation codes, it is our wiring.

Wiring inspections require access. In fact they require master key access. They’re not subject to the weirdness that is Chicago’s unique building code, since we mostly follow the international code for the part that pertains to wiring. The sheer number of wiring violations on both the city and CHA lists casts some doubt onto my thesis that lack of access for city inspectors is preventing the discovery of a whole host of problems. All told there were 362,600 exterior violations and 326,515 interior violations. Even if we remove the 40,580 elevator code violations from the tally of interior citations due to the different inspection department, the two are now roughly even, and it’s all due to those wiring problems.

In the first article I somewhat discounted elevator violations because they are handled by a separate department, and the same is true for electrical violations. But unlike elevators, every building in Chicago has wiring.

So is access really an issue preventing Chicago’s inspectors from doing their jobs? Kind of. Wiring aside there’s a lot more exterior violations than interior ones in the top 50 most common citations. There are almost as many access problems (86,223) as there are electrical problems (94,414). Electrical and elevator issues aside, the most common violations on the city’s list are all exterior except for the smoke detectors. With the access problems removed, the CHA list shows us that all of those exterior faults aren’t as common in residential rental housing as interior problems are. Yes, access is still an issue for city inspectors in the Conservation (existing buildings) department. Yes, that lack of access can lead to substandard housing conditions for everyone except subsidized tenants. But the bigger problem across the board is that faulty wiring is endemic to the city’s buildings, possibly because the problems can be hidden away from the view of consumers and require expert analysis to detect. Electrical faults were the 4th most common cause of residential fires nationwide. Renters and landlords both need to brush up on their understanding of circuits, wires, breakers, fuses and outlets.

Summarizing

What a ride. Data analysis is a garbage in, garbage out scenario and my choice of sorting methods for the previous two articles was admittedly slightly garbage. But still we have learned some important information.

  • Chicago landlords are servants of four masters: the tenants, the lenders, the city inspectors and the CHA inspectors.
  • There are 1462 different citations that a city inspector can issue while CHA inspectors follow a whole separate checklist. 20% of those citation categories pertain to electricity.
  • The city conservation department and the CHA both employ insufficient numbers of inspectors given the size of their workloads.
  • Limited access for city inspectors tilts the city citations in favor of miscellaneous red tape issues and things which can be observed from the street, while the real problems for residents are inside and hidden from scrutiny.
  • Privacy concerns may be a greater factor in landlord resistance to subsidized tenants than racism or classism is.
  • The civilian market no longer knows what to look for when it comes to finding safe housing on their own, a problem that will only become more severe as wealthy young white collar workers with little hands-on housing construction experience are making up more and more of the Chicago’s renting population.
  • Missing smoke detectors and CO detectors are the low hanging fruit of building flaws.
  • Even the prettiest apartment can hide problems that nobody with expertise has been able to observe.

Next week I have one more installment in this series planned. I may well turn every point I’ve made thus far on their heads, but I suspect that I won’t, as next week we’re going from a global scale to a very precise one. Next week to close out the series we’re talking about the uniquely Chicagoan institution of porch code violations. Thanks for sticking with me so far. I hope you’ve learned something. I certainly have.

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Kay Cleaves

Founder and owner of RentConfident. She's the primary developer of the website and research engine code. She's spent over 10 years working in the Chicago rental industry and has assisted with over 1200 leases.