By Tim Hadac
Southwest Chicago Post
...how long do you think it would take city government to send out an inspector to look into it?
A day? Half a day? An hour?
But if you live on the Southwest Side and report the same situation on your block, you know how long will it take City Hall to send out an inspector?
A few days ago, I learned the answer, straight from a mayoral spokesman:
"Quite some time."
As in, up to six months.
True story. Because city inspectors are busy looking into winter-related complaints (like complaints about landlords who fail to keep the heat up to standards required by law), these inspectors may not begin getting to illegal conversion complaints until June, I was told.
Plus, anyone who knows city government knows the ranks of the inspectors are but a thin shadow of what they once were. You call 311 for an inspector, and if they were honest with you they'd say "Inspectors? What inspectors?"
A Little Background
Illegal home conversions are homes that have been turned into boarding houses or multiple sleeping rooms. Unscrupulous landlords may do this to make more money from their properties, violating city zoning laws.
These structures are hazardous to the occupants due to the increased risk of fire from overloaded electric lines, inadequate fire exits, as well as substandard sanitation facilities and ventilation systems (meaning that they also encourage the spread of communicable diseases, as do all overcrowded living quarters).
Illegal home conversions also mean overflowing garbage carts that attract rats, local streets and alleys clogged with cars, SUVs and pickup trucks, and local schools overcrowded with students.
So yeah, we all suffer. Illegal home conversions degrade the quality of life in neighborhoods, including ours here on the Southwest Side.
Several local civic groups have fought against illegal conversions for years, most notably the Archer Heights Civic Association, one of Chicago's largest and most effective neighborhood advocacy groups.
But for quite some time now, the AHCA Building and Zoning Committee has had no report at the monthly meetings. Why? Well as we wrote in a Southwest Chicago Post story back on May 19:
Building and Zoning Committee Chairman George Vescovi expressed frustration over the failure of city officials to investigate AHCA reports of possible zoning violations. "We have three addresses we gave them last June (of 2011), and they still haven't been inspected," he stated. "I don't know who these (zoning) inspectors are or who's in charge of the zoning department; but we need to get them out here at our meeting to explain themselves."
The Southwest Chicago Post has encountered similar foot dragging from city officials in recent months. Our requests for information and investigative action on suspected illegal conversions have been met with a frustrating mixture of "I don't have that information" or "I'll have to get back to you" or "we didn't find anything" or "we were there but could not gain access, so we left a sticker"---all in Southwest Side residential neighborhoods that frankly have hundreds (if not more) of fairly obvious illegal conversions.
Ask any cop or mailman or anyone else who knows the block-by-block, house-by-house truth of the Southwest Side. Or ask any local real estate agent who walks through these homes all the time. Longtime real estate executive and Garfield Ridge Chamber of Commerce President Mary Ann Dybala said as much last week. As reported by the Southwest News-Herald:
"Dybala said the chamber has received many complaints from residents about issues such as three and four families living in single-family homes, leading to school overcrowding and a lack of parking on congested residential streets. She noted that people selling their properties still are required to pay for zoning certificates from the city, verifying that the property meets codes. But nothing is done when the zoning laws are ignored.'They don’t have enough inspectors and nothing else is being done about it,'” she said.
There was a time, of course, when the mayor took such zoning violations seriously. We recall the mayor saying:
"Neighborhood residents are being placed in danger because of illegal home conversions.The occupants are being exploited and placed in danger as well, due to potential risk of fire and the effects of overcrowding. Negligent landlords must get the message that we will not put up with this abuse, I'm asking residents to be aware of this issue and to work with the City to crack down on violators."
Trouble is, it wasn't the current mayor.
It was Mayor Daley, back in 1996 when he talked about the Illegal Conversion Task Force he formed in 1993---a joint effort of eight city departments that investigated well over a thousand citizen complaints about illegal conversions.
OK, so where do we go from here? We have a mayor who appears uninterested in an important "quality of life" issue affecting our neighborhoods, despite multiple complaints from individuals, and civic and business groups. And I've seen no evidence to suggest that our local aldermen are doing anything about it. They seem basically silent on the matter, playing go along/get along with the mayor while regular folks suffer. Again.
Well, we get what we put up with. And if we put with illegal conversions and politicians who basically flip us the bird, that's what we'll get.
So let's fight back and do three things:
1. Keep your eyes and ears open. Look for the telltale signs of an illegal conversion:
- A single-family home with multiple mailboxes, doorbells or nameplates.
- Many unrelated occupants come and go from the same residence.
- The presence of more than one family in a single-family residence.
- Construction being done to a home without a posted permit.
2. Report such cases promptly to 311, then to your alderman's office, then to your local civic association. Make sure you have your facts together and documented as best you can within reason. Never clog the system with frivolous or incomplete requests.
3. Contact the mayor and your alderman and (politely but firmly) demand that they take illegal conversions as seriously as you do. Let them know that you and your neighbors are watching them closely on this issue and will vote accordingly in the next round of city elections, which are just two short years away.
Working together, we have the power to rid the Southwest Side of illegal home conversions and make our neighborhoods better for all. Let's use our power and do it.
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