Addressing Substandard Housing in Chicago

Posted on: May 29th, 2018 by aavrushin

June is National Healthy Homes month and a perfect time to think about how substandard housing impacts the health and well-being of children and to reflect on a strategy for addressing substandard housing in our community.

Millions of families throughout the nation struggle to secure safe, healthy and affordable housing. This is especially true for vulnerable families that live in or near impoverished communities where the only affordable housing units are less likely to be properly maintained by the owner. Housing is a key social determinant of health and the primary environment for most people, especially children who spend as much as 90% of their time indoors.

An unsafe home can significantly harm those residing in the home. Approximately, 1.2 million children living in Chicago and Cook County, Illinois, are at risk of serious health problems, including asthma, lead poisoning, learning disabilities, behavioral and mental health problems, long-term brain damage, and cancer because of residential environmental hazards. Research finds that substandard housing is often associated with environmental hazards and associated with children’s and adolescents’ negative health and well-being outcomes, including poorer emotional and behavioral functioning, lower cognitive skills, and a host of physical ailments.  Moreover, studies show that environmental hazards can contribute to school absenteeism, learning difficulties, academic failure, unemployment, lifelong health problems, socialization issues, and crime.

In Chicago and Cook County, substandard housing is often concentrated in areas with older housing, particularly low‐income communities of color (where children make up an estimated 27% of residents living in poverty). Conditions are worsening, especially for low-income renters who also face a relentless affordable housing crisis. Even with Chicago’s Affordable Housing Requirements Ordinance, which is designed to economically blend rental or owner occupied market rate developments to allow for occupancy by qualified individuals or families at an affordable rate, little new, safe, and affordable housing is being constructed, and the Chicago Housing Authority has razed subsidized housing units, leaving an estimated 2,000 units vacant rather than rehabbing them. In Chicago, one in five residents pay over 50% of their income to housing. With limited resources to address housing hazards, generations of families are exposed to the cumulative effects of unhealthy homes, which studies have shown widen the social and health disparities in lower income, communities of color.

Proactively Addressing Substandard Housing Working Group

For the past two years, participants of the Proactively Addressing Substandard Housing Working Group (PASH), including Loyola, have been developing a program that seeks to change how Chicago inspects rental units with the hope of reducing the number of substandard units while increasing the availability of safe and affordable housing.

Currently, Chicago’s Department of Buildings manages complaint-based program that depends on tenants to contact the city about home health hazards, at the risk of landlord retaliation.  Contacting the City does not guarantee that the home will be inspected and the hazard remediated.  Moreover, lead-based paint hazards are only addressed after a child is identified as poisoned.  The City’s reaction-only approach has proved nominally effective in creating safe housing and protecting the health of residents and children.  Moreover, the failure to address unhealthy housing has resulted in shifting costs to our medical, educational, and other economic and social systems to address related harms.

PASH is promoting a comprehensive proactive healthy homes inspection program, “Chicago Healthy Homes Inspection Program” (CHIPP), to work alongside Chicago’s current home inspection program.  Elements of the proposed proactive healthy homes inspection program include the following:

  • Require that all rental units in the city will be inspected for health and safety hazards, on a 7-year periodic cycle; units found in violation will be inspected more frequently;
  • Landlords register the properties and pay a yearly $80/unit fee;
  • Tenants and landlords are notified in advance of inspection, including a copy of the inspection checklist;
  • Follow-up inspections, which includes an $80 fee/unit, ensures compliance of violations;
  • If hazards go unfixed upon re-inspection, landlords pay $200-$500/day in penalties until repairs are made; and
  • The annual fees and any penalties cover the basic costs of the program.

Other cities have implemented similar proactive healthy homes inspection programs to address substandard housing.  Research finds that these programs do improve home safety and positively impact the health of residents, cuts down on medical costs, increases children’s chances in school, and enhances housing values while preserving low-income housing.

An effective proactive rental inspection program will identify threats to safety and health before injury can occur to children.  Notably, a home health inspection can help identify deteriorated lead paint, contaminated house dust, lead in water that are causes for lead poisoning and mold, moisture, pests, inadequate heating and other triggers that are related to asthma.  Periodic scheduled code enforcement through proactive rental inspections addresses housing quality and therefore supports renters’ health, especially those at most risk.

PASH is in the process of developing its strategy to advocate for CHHIP and a proactive healthy homes inspection program and we need input and assistance from the community to move the initiative forward. If you are interested in learning more about PASH or becoming involved in this initiative, I encourage you to contact me, Adam Avrushin,

If you are interested in more information about proactive rental inspections, I encourage you to go to the Change Lab Solutions website, who has been tracking the work of various city efforts throughout the nation.

There are also amazing Chicago organizations that are doing the important work of promoting and/or advocating for the right to affordable and safe housing:

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