Two more Chicagoans died this week in yet another high-rise fire in a building admittedly not up to basic fire codes. As the deaths mount, Chicago Aldermen are left to explain why it’s so important to city officials that 759 high-rises be allowed to thumb their noses at safety codes. In some cases, residents have been waiting nearly a half century for sprinklers and alarms. And if the Chicago City Council has its way, they’re going to keep waiting.
What could cause the city of Chicago to force all high-rises to be equipped with fire safety devices like sprinkler systems and fire alarms? The movie The Towering Inferno. That’s right – In 1974, the Steve McQueen/Paul Newman film capture imaginations of Americans and instilled fear and terror into the residents of high-rise buildings in every major city in the nation.
In 1974, large, residential high rises were being built across America to accommodate the nation’s steady population growth. And in an effort to save money and increase profits, developers refused to take advantage of new fire safety technologies such as sprinklers and alarms. But after the release of The Towering Inferno, building codes and city ordinances were updated to force developers and builders to include such safety elements in all new high-rise construction.
Due to the high cost of retrofitting all residential high-rise buildings with sprinklers and fire alarms, large condominiums, apartment complexes and commercial office buildings were repeatedly exempted from updating the fire safety standards. But all that changed in 2003 when six government employees were killed in a fire inside a Cook County Administration building. At the time, Chicago’s Fire Commissioner remarked that at just a few minutes before 5:00 on a Friday, firemen on the scene never imagined there would still be County employees at their work stations. Trapped in a burning, smoke-filled stairwell, those six County employees lost their lives waiting for a rescue that never came.
Almost immediately, the city council began debating ordinances requiring high rise owners to retrofit their buildings with sprinklers and other decades-old safety measures. The fight came down to Mayor Richard Daley siding with large property owners and the powerful Finance Committee Chair Ald. Ed Burke on the side of residents and pushing for complete installations in all high-rises. Burke’s ordinance would have forced all high-rises to install sprinklers and fire alarms by 2008. Daley’s ordinance only forced high rises containing businesses, not residences, to install sprinklers. And he gave property owners until 2016 to comply.
Even in 2004, city officials repeatedly found ways to avoid forcing Chicago’s high-rises to upgrade their fire safety equipment and response procedures. As documented in a 2004 article from Insurance Journal magazine, ‘The Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board said the Chicago Building Committee’s recent move to defer an ordinance mandating sprinklers in all commercial high rises is another stall tactic by the city.’
A decade of extensions
During a decade of repeated extensions, close to 1,000 Chicago high rises were still not required to be retrofit with sprinklers and alarms. After the extensions and exemptions of 2004, the city council granted further extensions again in 2009. The new guidelines created a vague compliance mandate that required two-thirds of high-rises to be upgraded by January 1, 2012 with the remainder upgraded by January 1, 2017. The City Council also authorized a fine of $500-$1,000 per-violation per-day for building owners refusing to install sprinklers, fire alarms and other safety measures.
Last year the Chicago Tribune reported, ‘By late 2011, roughly half the residential high-rises had not submitted reports, much less implemented the safety features. The City Council gave them more time, to Jan. 1, 2015.’ The renewed interest was brought about by yet another high-rise fire in January 2012 in one of the pre-1975 buildings in question. That South Lake Shore Drive high-rise fire killed one resident and injured 9 others.
Aldermen called out
After this week’s fire on South Shore Drive, many residents are questioning why two more people had to die so that high rise building owners can avoid the cost of installing smoke alarms and sprinkler systems. Critics are looking back to the December 2011 extension that allowed multi-unit residential buildings like the one that burned on Wednesday to go another two years without installing safety equipment.
At the time, two Chicago Aldermen with a number of pre-1975 high-rises in their Wards sponsored the 2011 ordinance that gave owners the additional two-year extension. South side Alderwoman Leslie Hairston (5th) and north side Alderman Tom Tunney (44th) co-sponsored the law and are now taking heat from their constituents over the results. While Ald. Tunney hasn’t been available for comment, Ald. Hairston is proudly standing by her support of the repeated extensions.
“You’ve got people losing their homes, associations that have been burdened with façade repairs and life safety evaluations in addition to regular maintenance,” Hairston was quoted by the Chicago Sun Times explaining her sponsored ordinance granting the extensions to high-rise owners, “Those costs are going up and the number of unit owners are going down as the people have had to walk away from their units. It’s very easy to have a mandate. But the question always is, how do you pay for it?”
Ignoring the fact that many Chicago high-rises are owned by billion-dollar real estate investment funds, Wall Street banks, wealthy property investors and multi-national commercial corporations, Ald. Leslie Hairston continues to portray these high-rise owners as working class families struggling to put food on their tables during the down economy of the past five years. “If we want to keep working people in the city, we have to work with them,” she added, “Otherwise, there’ll be a bunch of abandoned buildings, no tax base and only the wealthy will be able to live here.”
A closer look
While there certainly are families and individuals living in high-rise condominiums who have unfortunately been foreclosed on, that begs an often-asked question. When a multi-billion dollar, multi-national bank confiscates a residential property after a foreclosure, is that bank required to maintain the safety and upkeep of that property? If so, as most courts have already declared, then many of the buildings Hairston refers to aren’t owned by struggling, near-homeless families. They’re owned by corporations like Bank of America and Wells Fargo.
In the case of this weeks’ fatal fire at 6730 S. South Shore Drive in Ald. Leslie Hairston’s Ward, one need only look at images of the gorgeous view from the 16-story lakefront high-rise that overlooks beautiful Lake Michigan, as well as the golf course. Current real estate listings show the property to be equipped with its own exercise facilities and situated only steps from the beach. Describing the fire-stricken high-rise and many others just like it, Hairston attempts to explain, “You have a lot of units empty in that building because of foreclosure. Where does the money come from to pay for it?”
To many Chicagoans however, that argument is getting old after 39 years. And it’s difficult for many struggling residents to understand why homeowners who can afford beautiful lakefront beach properties with exercise facilities and golf courses can’t afford to install sprinklers and a fire alarm. Most Chicago homeowners don’t live in such luxury and have to maintain their homes to code without 39-years of extensions. City officials have announced that they intend to investigate the circumstances surrounding this week’s deadly fire, and may possibly look at moving up the deadline for retrofitting Chicago’s high-rises with sprinklers and alarms.
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