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If you're in Chicago, you might have seen the horrific news from Albany Park, where a massive fire started in an apartment building yesterday and eventually resulted in the total destruction of two adjacent businesses. (As of now, it appears that nobody living in the building was seriously harmed.) The apartment building's owner, Gary Carlson, is a well-known slumlord in the neighborhood, and owns 60 buildings and at least 500 units in buildings that have repeatedly faced code violations. While Carlson blamed the city for targeting him with fines due to a previous incident when a firefighter was shot near one of his buildings, his glib response to Block Club speaks volumes about how easy it is for landlords to get away with poor maintenance: "I’ve got so many violations.... I think that I may set the Chicago, maybe the world record for the number of violations that I have."
Why did the fire happen? First and foremost, the lack of a dedicated landlord registry, tied to a regular inspection regime that proactively addresses harmful building conditions, is a major concern. Injustice Watch reporter Maya Dukmasova compared Chicago's lack of rental inspection policies to the standards of the "pre-FDA food industry," a damning analogy that shows how little we care about renter safety. Moreover, the city's own list of 'scofflaw' landlords, meant to name and shame those who have repeatedly broken code violations, did not include Carlson, and to date only 98 properties are even listed, according to a Tribune investigation last year. Over and over again, tenants' lives are threatened by this routine neglect, while Carlson has repeatedly received federal and state funds for owning units that rent to subsidized tenants. It just doesn't make sense.
The case for a proactive rental inspection program from this situation is clear. Progressive allies in the Housing Committee fought for a pilot program in last year's budget, but it did not pass. But this situation also reveals just how badly we need Just Cause for Eviction. Especially if we do not have a regular inspection program, how can we expect tenants to raise concerns about building safety, when they can face the immediate threat of eviction in retaliation from their landlord? It's a sad, cruel system, benefitting nobody but the landlords who extract money from renters and government subsidies while leaving people to risk death in their homes. We will see more fires like this one, again and again, until City Council passes both Just Cause and a proactive rental inspection program. We cannot let tragedies like this continue, but unless City Council changes course, it's exactly what will continue to happen.