Local News  Landlords ignore orders to fix hazardous porches
By: John Bebow and Kathryn Masterson, Tribune staff reporters. Tribune staff reporter Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.
The Chicago Tribune (June 27, 2005)

"Two years after a fatal porch collapse in Lincoln Park prompted a citywide inspection sweep, about half the structures that failed still don't have the permits required for proper repairs.

In the wake of the late-night porch collapse that killed 13 people and injured dozens more in June 2003, hundreds of people called in complaints about other shaky porches.

The city ended up suing the owners of more than 500 other porches that were found to be hazardous."

An analysis in 2004 by Red-Eye, an edition of the Tribune, showed that the owners of more than 350 hazardous porches scattered around the city hadn't applied for permits to fix the problems.

Now, new data provided by the city to RedEye and the Tribune show that 250 of those porch owners still haven't applied for repair permits.

"I think that's outrageous," said Francis Patrick Murphy, an attorney who represents victims of the 2003 Lincoln Park porch collapse and the incident last month in which a porch railing failed and seriously injured two people. "And if there are people living in there, then that's almost criminal conduct."

The more than 500 porch owners taken to court had problems serious enough to require permits for reconstruction, said Peter Scales, a spokesman for the Buildings Department. Inspectors are just now doubling back to re-inspect the 250 sites whose owners still haven't taken out permits because "we also had to give them time to go through the whole court process. Now it's time to check up on them.

Some owners may have reconstructed their porches without getting the building permits, and others may have ignored the problems, Scales said. "If the old porch is still there, we're going to take them right back into court," he said.

Checking up on those porches will be the first priority of a new squad of city porch inspectors being formed this week by Chicago Buildings Commissioner Stan Kaderbek.

Kaderbek said landlords must keep their properties safe and follow through with repairs when the city finds problems.

"This is a huge burden," he said. "We really want the landlords to step up. It's not our job to baby-sit. It's our job to enforce the building code."

If tenants do not believe their porch is safe, they should talk to their landlords or call 311, which will send a Buildings Department inspector to look at the property, Kaderbek said.

Kaderbek plans to highlight porch safety on Monday morning with a media event to showcase a freshly rebuilt porch on North Burling Street, Scales said.

The new structure replaced one of many hazardous porches found in a citywide sweep after the late-night porch collapse during a party at 713 W. Wrightwood Ave. two years ago. The Wrightwood porch was built without permits and was not up to city code.

The city Law Department has not comprehensively tracked the court cases filed after the 2003 citywide porch crackdown. But in a spot-check of court records, the Tribune found building owners who hadn't corrected porch problems even after being ordered to by a judge and others who received little more than slaps on the wrist.

For example, at 1415 W. 82nd St. inspectors in 2003 found a back porch so rotted and flimsy that an inspector was able to wiggle part of it with a single finger. More than a year ago, the building owner was ordered to file an application for repairs. Building owner Gwendolyn Pass was fined $1,560 last September for the problems, but court files show no record of the fine being paid. Pass said the building has been in receivership since November and is currently in foreclosure proceedings, which she is fighting. She could not recall whether she paid the fine or if it had been waived.

"I started the process of fixing the porch when they took over the building," Pass said. "I hired an engineer and we came up with a plan on how to fix the problem. But the city wouldn't give me a permit. I want to do right by tenants."

In the stifling heat last Friday, many residents near the intersection of 82nd and Bishop Streets sought refuge on their porches. But not at 1415 W. 82nd St., where the porch wood remains spongy, with railing slumped forward and pieces of guardrail missing.

"Nobody ever goes back there," said Estella Lee, who lives on the second floor of the building. "It's pretty bad."

In another case, at 7948 S. Carpenter St., the building owner was fined $4,500 last year for problems that included rotted and broken porch handrails and a deck that was warped in several places. The fine was reduced to $200 after other building problems--a leaking roof, overgrown weeds and chipped paint--were corrected. On Friday, the porch deck still appeared to be rotted, with some planks missing.

Stephen Figueroa, owner of the Carpenter Street building, said, "I don't remember anything" about city inspectors requiring that the porch be repaired.

Finally, at 6917 S. Eggleston Ave., a rotted porch led city attorneys last fall to draft a $3,000 fine against the building owners. But the city settled for $500. A new company owns the now-vacant building and has until October to fix the porch and other building violations, according to court records.

"We are aware of the problem and our intention is to work with the city and fix it," said Robert Bingham, vice president of XEZ Inc., which bought the building last month. A representative of Chase Mortgage Holdings, the previous owner, couldn't be reached for comment.

Murphy, the attorney who represents victims of porch and railing collapses, said he has dealt with about 75 cases involving injuries and deaths from porches in his 25-year career.

"Every time it gets warm you have a problem with porches," said Murphy, a partner with Corboy and Demetrio in Chicago.

Part of the problem, Murphy said, comes from the Chicago climate--wet and cold in the winter, hot in the summer--that can damage the wood used to construct many city porches.

Ald. Bernard Stone (50th), chairman of the City Council's Buildings Committee, said there is no excuse for the owners of bad porches to get light treatment in court.

"It's absolutely terrible," Stone said. "It's asking for another Wrightwood."

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