Illegal Urban Apartments Can be Deadly

Illegal urban apartments are the products of greed, poor regulatory control and lack of awareness of problems that come from adapting marginal spaces for human occupancy.

By Rebecca Martin

There are many problems associated with illegal urban apartments in major U.S cities. From Los Angeles to Chicago to New York, unpermitted rental units have risen to numbers which challenge the capabilities of local governments. Sporadic crackdowns intended to address the problems reveal larger issues such as the lack of affordable housing. Cities such as New York have looked into ways of bringing illegal urban apartments up to code as a means to address the lack of alternative housing for low income families.

Illegal urban apartments

Illegal urban apartments result from landlord greed, poor enforcement and mistakes in trying to squeeze too many living spaces into places designed not designed to be used as sleeping quarters.

During the Covid moratorium on evictions, many tenants in illegal urban apartments found that their rights were not protected by law. They faced shutoffs of utilities and evictions. Social distancing made inspectors reluctant to interact with tenants and landlords on day to day basis.

As cited in a recent series on permitted housing in Los Angeles, a local attorney with Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, Trinidad Ocampo described very dire conditions for tenants in unpermitted housing.

“The people that are experiencing some of the worst harassment and conduct by their landlord are the ones in illegal units,” said Trinidad Ocampo, an attorney with Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County.”

She goes on to describe dangerous living conditions, eviction threats and even an instance in which a landlord removed the front door where a single mother lived with her children. In a city where a boarded up building may appear abandoned, landlords who purposely maintain the properties in such a way as to avoid detection, keep tenants in a state of uncertainty through threats of eviction and false threats of legal actions. Safety and health issues are not even on the list of priorities in these cases in which collecting rent is the sole intent.

Los Angeles Tenants Union organizer, David Roud said this story is all too common:

“There are illegal, unpermitted units all over the city, where people are being really seriously exploited. Cases like this that we’re aware of are just truly scratching the surface.”

Major Cities Have Different Approaches to Illegal Urban Apartments

Dilapidated buildings are not the only source of concern in Los Angeles. Several deaths due to fire in illegally converted garage apartments in the 90’s led to recommendations by a joint council committee to make renting illegal units a misdemeanor with subsequent fines. They suggested that landlords of illegal urban apartments be required to pay for relocation of their tenants an public education programs to teach tenants about the risks involved in illegal housing. A proposal to legalize converted garages which met safety requirements was quickly disregarded by homeowners who cited traffic congestion, parking problems and diminished property values according to the LA Times, May 28, 1997.

Subsequently, Los Angeles has adopted the view that stricter penalties for landlords is the optimum method of addressing the problem of illegal rentals with a move towards felony convictions and strict timelines for addressing compliance or the relocation of tenants. Despite concerns that alternative housing could not meet the demands. The need to establish safe housing for tenants weighs heavily against concerns that the housing situation cannot accommodate the numbers of tenants who would be displaced.

This hard-line approach is very different than New York City’s push to bring illegal rentals up to code, a controversial approach to the issue brought under even more scrutiny following the recent drowning deaths of tenants in illegal basement apartments.

Chicago also faces criticism for its handling of urban housing and illegal rentals.

“From 2014 through 2019 there were 140 fatal fires in residential buildings in Chicago, killing 170 people. In 42 of these fires, which caused 61 deaths, the city had prior knowledge of fire safety issues that remained unfixed at the time of the blaze.”

The majority of the victims were black according to the Chicago Tribune.

“Responsibility for these failures lies with the city’s elected leaders, who cut back on inspections, eased regulations and failed to follow through on promises of reform after headline-making tragedies; with city lawyers and hearing officers who deferred to property owners; and with front-line inspectors and their bosses at the Department of Buildings — an agency created after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 specifically to prevent fire-related tragedies.”

Some of the fires were caused by tenants using stoves or space heaters to keep warm and others involved wiring and electrical issues which were known safety issues. Some fires occurred in abandoned buildings set for demolition but inhabited illegally long after they were condemned.

“The fires were concentrated on Chicago’s historically underserved South and West sides, highly segregated by race and income. Of the 61 people who died, 39 were Black, 15 were Latino and one was South Asian. Only six were white.”

Illegal Urban Apartments Include Basements

Building safety is not the only concern in Chicago. Chicago has its share of illegally converted basement and attic apartments as well. There are even instances where screened porches have been repurposed as apartments, blocking secondary exits for entire households. These illegal conversions often lack proper ventilation and natural light, adequate ceiling height and adequate exits in case of an emergency.

In Chicago, complaints regarding illegal rentals can be made by dialing 311. But in the Chicago Tribune article it is noted that often 311 operators are not equipped to recognize the nature of the complaint and may fail to direct it to the proper inspection or enforcement agency.

Chicago Regulations Moving in Wrong Direction

Chicago’s building codes also changed late in 2019. They reduced the minimum ceiling height from 7’6” to 7’ making it easier for Chicago homeowners to convert attics and basements to rental units. The codes also changed for basements, reducing the minimum ceiling height to 6’4” to allow for ducts, beams and girders. The average height for a man in the United States is 5’9”. Try to visualize a ceiling 7’ overhead and how quickly such a space could become a deathtrap.

Starting May 1st, 2021, Chicago landlords were able to do something which was illegal since 1957. They were able to apply for approval to add ADU’s, additional dwelling units. A new ordinance by The Chicago city Council Committee on Housing and Real Estate legalized coach houses, attics, and previously illegal garden units (basement units). This was an all-out attempt to provide more affordable housing in 5 zones of Chicago. It was also intended to cut down on unapproved Airbnb rentals which Los Angeles addressed by cracking down on Airbnb’s through legislation.

According to one Chicago home inspector’s website:

“If your property is a single family home, licensing tends to be more lenient.”

When we look at the previous studies done of building compliance to safety codes in Chicago in which inspections and agencies found hazards, and some buildings having more than one hundred safety citations without action, and the number of deaths which ensued, this does give one room for pause. Especially in those areas in which the majority of tenants are minorities.

Although home inspectors may call for adequate egress, light, ventilation and insulation and recommend a plumber for drainage issues and installation of new drains, and moisture-proof materials and even installing new AC/Heating, these recommendations seem geared at suburban homeowners. These are a demographic more likely to file for a building permit and hire professionals for the work. This does nothing to address the do-it-yourself landlord looking to earn money rather than put out the investment to improve property values.

The same website also offers this tip for dealing with inspectors:

“Whether you get a permit or not, a municipal inspector may come knocking. If so, be nice, be polite, say Yes Sir and Thank you Sir; even if you think he is being a pain in your side.”

Inspectors Need Better Training in CO Poisoning

According to The National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors (NBBI), one of the problems is that, in most jurisdictions, carbon monoxide failures are investigated by the fire marshal’s office and they are not likely to be trained in investigation of boilers and water heaters. This results in many incidents being blamed only on a venting system and not on the fuel-burning device itself. If the fuel-burning device is experiencing incomplete combustion it is releasing toxic fumes. If a problem is found with the venting as a result, fixing the venting is only one part of the problem.

Some states are adopting new guidelines for addressing this issue with inspectors and requiring that full inspections are made which address the entire system. But this is just one of the problems with inspections. During Covid, inspections dropped by large numbers and the number of citations issued in most large urban centers were also less than the previous years. The backlog of inspections is immense and the backlog of thorough inspections is questionable.

But another question comes to mind; Are attics and basement apartments really suitable for human habitation by their very nature? These are spaces normally known for their lack of natural light and ventilation which were never meant to be utilized as primary living areas.  According to Wikipedia:

“Attics help control temperatures in a house by providing a large mass of slowly moving air, and are often used for storage. The hot air rising from the lower floors of a building is often retained in attics, further compounding their reputation as inhospitable environments.”

While basements are described by the following:

“It generally is used as a utility space for a building, where such items as the boiler, water heater, breaker panel or fuse box, car park, and air-conditioning system are located; so also are amenities such as the electrical distribution system and cable television distribution point.”

Neither of these definitions create a picture of a space suitable for primary habitation. And certainly not without major modifications to the contrary. Yet, illegal or not, major municipalities are debating whether these living spaces are up to the task of filling the gap for affordable housing in housing markets severely lacking any alternatives.

Some municipalities are choosing to follow the path of litigation to bring landlords into line, while others grapple with ways to legalize such housing options. But the problem of illegal conversions continues to exist.  And whether it is the recent flooding in New York which resulted in tragic losses or the recent carbon monoxide deaths in Chicago, the issue of safety continues to elude an acceptable solution. As this problem is confronting city officials across the country it does seem that federal intervention needs to occur at some point with universal standards of housing for all Americans.

Yet, this is a contentious issue, with not only lack of affordable housing to consider. Homeowners seek to protect single family neighborhoods and their integrity as well. So we routinely create a self-perpetuating system which drives the underprivileged; minorities and immigrants, into illegal housing run by unscrupulous landlords who rely on sheer numbers and overloaded inspectors for protection. While the prevention of future tragedies is stuck in a morass of issues, resolutions, and changing city governments, the only resource appears to be the individual litigation after the fact. Until we come up with solutions, this is sadly where we are at.

Litigation does more than address individual acts of negligence, however. It can result in the change of laws and the threat of litigation and make the world safer.  We experienced that with the requirement for smoke  detectors in housing units; we are seeing it impact legislation for carbon monoxide detectors and ultimately we will see it push for solutions to suitable housing.

An article from San Francisco regarding illegal rentals urges the landlords to carry significant insurance in case of an incident. This should be a policy for income property and not a homeowner’s policy. This will cover their legal costs for a wrongful eviction and other liability. And the landlord should disclose to the tenant that they are renting an illegal unit so that it cannot be claimed otherwise in case they end up in court. This advice seems to sum up the attitudes of those who choose to be landlords illegally. The focus is on how to protect oneself legally without much regard to the safety of the tenant.

Demand Certificate of Occupancy Before Renting

The law is very clear on what constitutes an illegal rental; it is any rental which does not have a Certificate of Occupancy, stating that is safe for human habitation. If a rental cannot receive a legitimate Certificate of Occupancy then it is considered unfit for human habitation. And in many cities, tenants have rights to sue their landlord just as the tenant of a legal unit might, if they were unaware that no Certificate of Occupancy was in place.

However we look at it, the problem of illegal urban apartments is most impactful on those groups of people deemed to be discriminated against by the Urban Institute’s paired -testing research.  They identified these groups at risk for housing discrimination as including housing voucher holders, same sex couples and transgender people, racial and ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities. Families with children are often directed towards larger, more costly units and often fall into that category.  Their research over many years showed that those with disabilities were often discriminated against more than minorities,

There are several factors at work in all these instances. Real estate agents and rental housing providers show fewer properties to these groups. Landlords are reluctant to make modifications for those requiring wheelchair access. Standards which limit two persons to a bedroom may impact the home search for larger families. And in the case of those who hold housing vouchers, the landlord has the ultimate power of refusal. There are many factors in our society working together to limit options for renters based on demographics.  They include economic inequalities as well.

When we read stories like the one in our last blog, in which a disabled mother and her daughter perished in a Chicago basement apartment from carbon monoxide poisoning, all of these factors come to light in a tragic way. They become more than statistics.  There may be no instant solution to the problem of affordable and safe housing in sight, but one has to believe that we can do better as a nation. The answer lies with both the federal government and a united effort by all municipalities to find solutions. In the interim we have little recourse but to examine each tragedy one by one and hope that by doing so, that laws will change.


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