I-Team Report: Just a Matter of When

February 25, 2009 9:24:53 PM PST
It isn't a matter of if there will be a fire at the Diplomat; city officials say it's just a matter of when the single resident occupancy hotel or SRO will burn.The Diplomat is where low income, special needs tenants pay little rent and expect few amenities. They are entitled to safety though.

But I-Team has learned that for more than 18 months, city inspectors have found numerous, life-threatening violations, the same kinds of problems that once caused Chicago's deadliest SRO fire.

The single room occupancy Paxton Hotel went up in flames in the middle of the night in March of 1993. Twenty residents were killed in a building filled with major code violations.

Sixteen years later, there are fears that the Diplomat Hotel in Lakeview could be next.

"This building has to be vacated because of systemic problems for both fire and safety, which puts the occupants and general public at risk, and also the great probability of fire," said Steven Quaintance McKenzie, senior counsel, Chicago Dept. of Law.

But the Diplomat is not vacated yet. And on Wednesday night nearly all the 95 rooms were still occupied.

The story began a year and a half ago when the city charged building owner and SRO magnate, Jack Gore with dozens of safety violations that he promised to repair.

After initially being refused entry to check on the progress, Chicago fire and building department inspectors say they have since found the violation notices were ignored.

"We've been out here about 8 times, about 8 inspections so far," said Ron Essex, Chicago Fire Department inspector.

In housing court on Tuesday, city inspectors rattled off a list of violations that still exist: overloaded electrical circuits, broken light fixtures, faulty lighting system, compromised walls and doors, a defective sprinkler system, and an inadequate fire suppression system.

On top of those safety violations, the city stripped Gore of his SRO license last week after finding the elevator out of service, cockroaches in rooms, inadequate repairs to broken windows and filthy, frayed carpeting.

"In the year and a half of litigation he has done nothing to repair these problems. Instead he has delayed. He has not provided proof of testing for emergency system lighting for a month. He has been held in contempt. He has the money to make the repairs, he is choosing not to make the repairs," said Quaintance McKenzie.

"I stayed there about three months and it was a whole mess," said Maggie, former Diplomat resident.

Despite the Diplomat repeatedly failing safety code inspections; losing its city license to operate and as of last week losing it's mortgage, it was still open on Wednesday night with city attorneys saying it is not a question of whether there will be a fire, it is a question of when.

Which all leads to another question: how can this be allowed to happen?

"A number of residents fear for the security of the building....Mr. Gore has owned this building for many, many years. Shortly after I became alderman I had a meeting with him about cleaning this building up and making it safe for the residents. There has only been minimal improvement," said Ald. Thomas Tunney, 44th Ward.

One of the Diplomat's attorneys, Pat Cummings, promised to provide a statement to the I-Team on Wednesday concerning the hotel's safety provisions. Neither Mr. Cummings nor his partner responded.

Judge Ann Houser was visibly disturbed with Diplomat's attorneys, telling them on Tuesday that she will wait until a hearing next week to see if there is real evidence she hasn't seen in two years that will prevent her from evacuating residents.

"I think its a safer gamble to keep them in a tinder box that is there for more one week," said Pastor Brian Hiortdahl, Resurrection Lutheran Church.

The Chicago Department of Human Services will try to place tenants in other low income housing if the city shuts down the Diplomat.

"I think it's hard for people, especially for people who are struggling, to be forced out of their communities," said Jennifer Gonzalez, Lakeview Action Coalition.

The Diplomat isn't Jack Gore's only low income housing unit or clash with the law. He owns several SRO's in Chicago, including the Irving, Chateau and Abbott Hotels. The city has sued Gore and his management company, Sabra, numerous times, also for code violations.

After almost two years, the Diplomat Hotel process will drag on for at least another week while tenants remain in what you heard described as a "tinder box."

And 16 years after the Paxton Hotel fire, this new case revives old concerns about the fire safety of single resident occupancy hotels; the city's legal ability to shut down dangerous buildings; and the availability of affordable housing for displaced residents once they do.

The I-Team tried to reach the man who owns the buildings in Florida but got no answer.