To date, Chicago has had a “complaint-based” housing code program. Inspections and enforcement are largely driven by tenant complaints. This places the tenant in the position of the “bad guy.” Ratting-out the landlord to the City Department of Buildings when the conditions become intolerable frequently results in spoiling the relationship with the landlord, retaliatory rent increases and, typically, eviction. Renters move from one problem building to another, exposing children, the disabled, and the elderly to a wide variety of unhealthy, costly conditions: mold, lead, bed bugs, roaches, rats, disrepair in major structural systems (electrical, plumbing, heating), high rates of asthma, school and work absenteeism. There is little incentive for landlords to put and keep buildings in safe, habitable condition. Buildings deteriorate and neighborhoods decline; making them easy prey for tax foreclosures, mortgage foreclosures, abandonment, racial and economic isolation, or gentrification. In a 2013 report, “The National State of the Nation’s Healthy Housing,” completed by the National Center for Healthy Housing, the Chicago metropolitan area ranked 29th out of 45 large urban areas. Its previous ranking was 11th, suggesting that the area’s stock of healthy housing is deteriorating. Fortunately, Chicago will not be the first to adopt a proactive rental inspection program. Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, Sacramento, Kansas City, and a number of other cities have gone before us.
Under the proposed Chicago Healthy Homes Inspection Program (CHHIP) Ordinance, the landlord would pay a modest user fee (estimated at $40 per unit per year) and the City would proactively (without waiting for a complaint) inspect rental units on a periodic basis. Landlords with good track records would be inspected less frequently. Such a system seeks to promote five of the eight, healthy homes principles: Keep It Dry, Keep It Safe, Keep It Pest-Free, Keep It Contaminate-Free, Keep It Thermally Controlled. It is assumed that landlords will pass the user fee to tenants. But the fee is substantially less than what renters currently pay in tolerating and mitigating unsafe, unhealthy conditions in their homes and the costs of having to relocate involuntarily. The CHHIP holds the hope that, over time, relationships between landlords and tenants may improve, as will the quality of Chicago’s rental housing stock without the displacement associated with gentrification. These improvements harbor the potential for decreasing evictions and stabilizing of families and neighborhoods. The CHHIP is but one tool, but an important one.