• Alex Nitkin
    OCT 06, 2021

    City must map out an ‘endgame’ to transform ‘problem’ buildings languishing in court, top buildings official says

    Chicago Department of Buildings Comm. Matthew Beaudet answers questions during a budget hearing on Tuesday. [Alex Nitkin/The Daily Line]

    Chicago’s top building regulator mulled a series of strategies on Tuesday to crack down on dangerous “problem properties,” including by barraging by deadbeat landlords with fines and working with the city’s housing department on a new program to put buildings in more responsible hands.

    The issue came up repeatedly during the council’s more than three-hour hearing with the Chicago Department of Buildings, which is responsible for enforcing structural safety regulations across the city’s built landscape. Multiple aldermen, including Ald. Scott Waguespack (32), pressed buildings department Comm. Matthew Beaudet on whether the city has recourse to “really stick it to these out-of-state, out-of-sight property owners” whose buildings become magnets for crime.  

    Waguespack said he tells property owners who live outside the city that illegal businesses like “restaurants that turn into nightclubs at night” are “your problem, and I’m going to make it your problem.”

    “If we have to nitpick the heck out of a property to put an end to what’s going on, we have to be doing that,” the Northwest Side alderman said. “All of it has to be within legal bounds…but we have to make sure we're doing everything in our toolbox to drop the hammer on these buildings that are having gunfights in the middle of the street.” 

    He was one of multiple City Council members, including Ald. Debra Silverstein (50), Ald. Leslie Hairston (5) and Ald. Marty Quinn (13), who voiced frustration on Tuesday with how long it can take to legally drive off scofflaw property owners — especially when the city is relying on glacial court processes to unfold.

    “I have a problem building like that too, where we take them to court and we just continually get court continuances,” Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38) said.

    Beaudet gave credence to Waguespack’s strategy of burying property owners in tickets, saying buildings inspectors will sometimes join police officers and Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection officials to cite businesses on weekends. But even the toughest enforcement has its limits when each case gets to court, he said. 

    “It’s unfortunate, but if you want to fight a nuisance, sometimes you have to be a bigger nuisance,” the commissioner said. “And we can shut them down for a little bit, but then they can lawyer up and try to get back online.” 

    The City Council this year passed an ordinance (O2021-1193) to expand the reach of the city’s Building Code Scofflaw Ordinance, which draws up a public list of properties the city has taken to court and renders them ineligible for zoning changes, tax-increment financing assistance or land deals with the city. 

    Related: Crackdown on scofflaw building owners advances as aldermen press officials over tech upgrades

    But more can be done, Beaudet said — including by working with the Chicago Department of Housing and Department of Planning and Development to build out programs that envision an “endgame” for nuisance properties.

    “If the city can work with a nonprofit or a reputable owner who wants to come in and turn that property around, that's where we need to be, because we need to get those properties out of those folks' hands,” Beaudet said. “We need to bring some of the economic-based departments into the mix to have an endgame, so it's not just enforcement action after enforcement action and getting the same results.”

    Ald. Greg Mitchell (7) said he is working with the housing department on an ordinance “to get a program going that will do just that” by turning over new properties to developers with “specific instructions” on how they should be redeveloped. Mitchell said after the hearing that he has been working on the proposal for more than two years but declined to offer more details, telling The Daily Line that the ordinance is still a work in progress.

    A spokesperson for the housing department wrote in a statement Tuesday that the department is “working to create a program that, similar to the Troubled Buildings Initiative, collaborates with other City Departments to identify nuisance, vacant and abandoned single family one- to four-unit unit buildings.”

    “Once buildings are identified, the goal is acquisition, rehabilitation through local developers and reoccupation by interested homeowners,” department spokesperson Eugenia Orr wrote in the statement. “The department is in the process of researching the hurdles associated with the acquisition and rehabilitation of vacant and abandoned buildings to adequately address blight in affected low to mod income communities including the 7th ward.”

    “Alderman Mitchell has led efforts to move this initiative forward and the Department is excited about future opportunities to better communities as a result,” Orr added.

    Ald. Michael Scott (24) chimed in to say he would like the city to “set up a land bank” that could “take 20 of those properties and put them back on the rolls at the same time.

    City leaders could also attack the issue by lobbying county or state legislators to pass legislation that makes it harder for landlords to hold onto vacant properties, Beaudet said. He held up a printed copy of a Block Club article about a South Shore business group pushing to rein in a county property tax break available to owners of vacant storefronts.

    Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi includes a “vacancy adjustment factor” when calculating properties’ taxable value so his office can adjust for landlords who have less income due to a lack of tenants.

    “We need to attack these buildings that are quote- vacant, but we know they're party venues, we know they're a business, and at the same time they're going under the radar and the property owner who may live out in California or New York is getting a tax break,” Beaudet said. 

    Beaudet said he would rather lean on city-led redevelopment initiatives than “go to the court system,” which he called “very, very challenging.” He added that he sympathized with aldermen who are “frustrated” with the slow pace of legal proceedings. 

    Hairston said the court delays can also hurt small property owners, like a condo association in her ward that recently “managed to cobble together a way to come into compliance” after the city took them to court — only for the judge to kick the case months into the future on a continuance. 

    “There needs to be some kind of monitoring of what’s going on, because this is really unfair,” Hairston said. “This was a tremendous burden to them.”

    Beaudet said his department can work to make sure that a coming multi-year revamp of the city’s information technology landscape includes the creation of a public database showing when each property owner is next due for a court appearance. And at the urging of Ald. Brendan Reilly (42), the commissioner said the tech upgrade would also open the department’s best opportunity to create a long-promised public registry of lobbyists and consultants who work to expedite building permits on behalf of property owners.

    Related: Put the gas on $400M overhaul of city IT infrastructure, aldermen urge assets department

    In response to prodding from Ald. Tom Tunney (44), Beaudet said his department will begin next year to update its “outdated” software system used to track building permits but declined to set an end date on the project.

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