61 died in Chicago buildings previously deemed fire hazards: report

A joint investigation between the Chicago Tribune and Better Government Association found 61 people died in buildings previously deemed fire hazards.

Video Transcript

- It's an investigation called the Failure Before Fires. From 2014 to 2019, the better government Association in Chicago Tribune found 61 people. 61 died in fires and buildings. The city of Chicago knew had dangerous hazards. A majority of the victims are Black and more than 1/3 were children. You could read more about this story right now by the watchdog group Better Government Association here to talk more about this issue and the investigation from the BGA is Madison Hopkins. Good morning, Madison.

MADISON HOPKINS: Good morning, Stacy. Thank you for having me.

- You know, we're talking about 61 victims here. I think it's really important to point out the families, the children involved in this.

MADISON HOPKINS: Right, it is. It's such a devastating toll from the failures that we've seen here for enforcement issues in the city of Chicago. And as you mentioned, it's late into this you. And a lot of these cases, what we're talking about here is people calling into the city in advance of a fire to talk about-- to ask for help with the very same issues that later contributed to their deaths or the deaths of others. Bigger issues like missing smoke detectors, blocked exits, electrical problems. And to see that a lot of people just obviously didn't get the help that they needed is devastating.

- Let's go in and talk about those breakdowns too because it seems like there are several different places where the system failed. So many of these people who died in the fires. So what is the first step here? They made the phone calls. They asked the city for help. And then at that point, what happened in some of these cases?

MADISON HOPKINS: So we found that in many cases, inspectors would either not come out in response to complaints at all. Or if they did, they would come out and for whatever reason said, they were unable to get inside. They knocked on the door, nobody answered and so they would be if you close it up after that.

But even if inspectors did get inside and find the problems, we found they were still failures every step of the way. And that there is no guarantee that a building inspector, writing up a landlord for something like a lack of heat or something like a blocked eggs isn't very serious. There's no guarantee that that problem is actually then going to get fixed because of a very convoluted bureaucracy that can take very long time to work through. And ultimately, puts the interests of landlords above the safety of tenants.

- So in other words, there can be an inspector. They could go, they could write violations up. The landlord could get notified. And then at that point, it seems like your investigation uncovered that a lot of the landlords didn't really respond or fix the problem at that point.

MADISON HOPKINS: Right. That's exactly right. It's that there's-- for starters, there's no clear rules on how the city needs to handle any given violation no matter how serious it is. And what that means is that some landlords might get a warning letter while other landlords are taken to court for the same issue. But even then, we found that the system isn't set up right now, which is clearly not working.

We found issues, we lingered on while they were working their way through court for 5, 10 years sometimes. And then even at the end of those, often, issues still weren't resolved. And that's because landlords could pay a fine in some cases. They could make settlement deals with the city. But what it means and the bottom line for these tenants is they were left living in unsafe conditions that the city could have prevented. And they later than died in fatal fires that were directly hampered by these problems.

- All right, Madison Hopkins. Thank you so much. We appreciate it.

MADISON HOPKINS: Thank you.

- I should also mention too they're having a May 12th virtual event. The public is invited. You could get all the information, more BGA articles at www.BetterGov.org. CoverGirl.