New high-rise fire safety law goes into effect Jan. 1

A new law is set to go into effect impacting hundreds of high-rise residences in Chicago, and many of those buildings are still not compliant. As a result, the condo associations could be headed to court.

In the aftermath of the county building fire 11 years ago, Chicago enacted a new high-rise fire safety code. The code requires residential high rises over 80 feet tall to make a variety of fire safety upgrades by Jan. 1, 2015, itself an extension of the original deadline.

"Every building was afforded an extension when Mayor Emanuel passed an extension," says Chicago Building Commissioner Felicia Davis, "and said to every building, 'please use the next three years to become compliant and put these systems in place.'"

But 400 residential high rises, most built before 1975, have yet to meet the fire code changes. On Friday, the city will begin the process of taking those buildings to court and the possibility of fines.

"The fines range from $1,000 to $2,500 per day," Davis says.

The fire safety upgrades are not cheap. They do not compel sprinkler systems, but do include enclosing stairwells, building wide communication systems, and self-closing fire rated doors.

"Nobody is trying not to do it, but people do not have the ability or capability," says 5th Ward Ald. Leslie Hairston. "I don't know how $1,000 a day translates to safety. If I don't have it, I don't have it."

Hairston has five high rise buildings in her South Side ward that haven't yet complied. They're occupied largely by long-time condo owners who are retirees on fixed incomes. She says they are financially unable to make the upgrades and fearful of the prospect of fines.

While there will be no more extensions, the commissioner says the city will work with those high-rises that have shown a willingness to comply.

"Ultimately, our responsibility is to see that those buildings become compliant," Davis says. "It's not to ding the buildings with excessive fines, but to make sure every person in that building is made safe."

Some building owners and condo associations contend that the city has sent confusing directives with inspections that have been contradictory. The commissioner insists the message has been very clear and she believes that roughly 1/3 of the non-compliant buildings will get work done quickly once they get a notice to appear in court. But some buildings haven't even started work yet, and those are the ones that may be looking at the stiffest fines.
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