The Cost of Compliance

June 24, 2008 8:43:33 PM PDT
Five years ago this week, a porch collapse that ended tragically prompted new city rules, and some say, new problems. Whether you talk to a city leader or a property owner, there's no dispute that porches should be safe, but at what cost? Some owners accuse the city of over-reacting and sticking them with a hefty price tag.

A summer night's party in Lincoln Park ended in tragedy when the porch on which people were partying gave way beneath them. The crowd plummeted to the ground. Thirteen young people, most in their 20s, lost their lives. Dozens were injured.

Daniel Roig of KRW Consulting was one of the structural engineers tapped by the city to investigate the cause of the collapse. He says the porch was likely too big and poorly attached to the building.

"It looked great because it's brand new lumber, it looks like the deck boards and the hand rails that you're used to seeing in the suburbs. But they have absolutely no very good connection at all," Roig said.

The city of Chicago was sued but has since been deemed not liable. Its response was to toughen the criteria for city porches. Roig helped set the new standards and says it's unlikely that any porch built before 2003 will meet city code.

Scott and Cindy Payne own a six-flat in Old Town with a porch similar to the one that fell. The city forced them to make changes.

"We assumed that we would have to tweak it here and there, but we didn't know that it would wind up costing us, I believe the grand total was, somewhere around $25,000," Cindy Payne said.

The buildings department spokesperson Bill Mccaffrey acknowledges the costs may be high and in a statement said, "Those requirements are in place to protect public safety, regardless of cost. It may be possible to do it in a way that we're not doing it, but we are doing it this way to guarantee safety. If we were to relax standards, we wouldn't be able to ensure the same level of safety that we have now."

But some builders, engineers and owners alike are asking, where is the line drawn between safe and excessive?

"It's built to a point that I believe if the building fell down, the porch would probably stay up," said Mike Navarro, owner, Alpine Construction Company.

"The porch is two and a half times stronger than the building. So at this point, it is becoming an overkill," said Roig.

Robin Smith says she feared losing the West Side home where she has lived for nearly 20 years. Homeowners can be fined daily for non-compliance.

"Between the fines and not being able to get the money to do the repairs, what was I going to do?" Smith said. "Had I not been able to go get that money, I couldn't have kept this property."

After taking a second mortgage on her two-family home to cover nearly $30,000 in costs for the new porch and other mandated upgrades, Smith had a few words of advice for city leaders.

"Give us a break! You hit us with something so serious that you know it's going to cost somebody that kind of money, don't add all those things up at one time. I feel like they're trying to pay the Olympics that's coming," Smith said.

The city contends that porches are safer today than they were five years ago, and they have seen a steady decrease in the number of complaints in the last few years. The city also encourages residents to call 311 if they feel a porch should be inspected.

Tips for a visual inspection

Residents shuld check for the following conditions:

? Split or rotting wood, or evidence of water damage
? Loose, missing or rusting hardware, such as bolts
? Loose or missing anchors where the porch attaches to a house or building
? Missing, damaged or loose support beams and planking
? Excessive movement of the structure when walked on
? Wobbly handrails or guardrails

If problems are identified, stop using the porch, balcony, deck or stair immediately and report it to the building owner, manager or condominium association. If the problem is not addressed, please call 311 and request a porch inspection.


Load Comments