In the midst of Chicago’s craze to meet the goals set forth by its Climate Action Plan, health standards have taken a backseat. Housing conditions have a huge impact on the health of individuals, particularly for children. Yet, very little is done about it at either the federal, state or local level. The United States is the only major nation that has not adopted the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC). Chicago did adopt the standard in 2009, but precious little action has been done to make it a reality.
Old homes and buildings are the biggest culprits
Improving health conditions in Chicago’s homes is a major challenge. The majority of the buildings are old and unhealthy conditions are more prevalent in older homes. Such homes are also disproportionately occupied by the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents, so it essentially turns into a vicious cycle. Lead contamination is particularly prevalent in homes constructed in the early 90s and before, and lead contamination has been definitively linked to problems such as lower IQ scores, behavioral issues, and learning disabilities, all of which are more likely to affect children than adults.
Radon in old homes can be particularly detrimental as it can cause lung cancer in non-smokers. Carbon monoxide exposure arising from poor standards governing heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems is linked to brain damage and even early death. Untreated pets and molds that are left alone for years are capable of leading to asthma and other allergies, and they make the problem worse for people who already have such conditions. In addition, there are several other environmental toxins found in old homes that are capable of adversely impacting health.
The Chicago Building Code needs to be updated
Judy Frydland, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Buildings, sometimes feels like she has her hands tied when the DOB attempts to use the Chicago Building Code to protect residents from substandard housing conditions. The owners possess a great deal of power in this regard, and the DOB requires an owner’s consent to carry out an inspection and more often than not, DOB officials need to jump through several hoops to obtain the necessary consent. Something along the lines of having a mandatory inspection every six months to a year could become a part of the code, but such a requirement seems unfeasible at this moment.
The DOB has some authority
The Chicago Building Code does provide the DOB with some level of authority when it comes to lead and asbestos exposure. There is a provision in the code that allows that DOB to govern public nuisances that can be considered to be detrimental to health. However, another problem arises in this context.
Numerous building owners just do not have enough capital to make the necessary improvements, and the city cannot fund everyone who needs to make an improvement. This is now being dealt with in a retrospective manner as any building that needs to be renovated or constructed in Chicago today has to meet stringent green standards. Also, it would be helpful if the Code was updated to give the DOB the authority to respond to other housing-based health hazards.
In addition, there is another level of complexity. The DOB and the Department of Public Health (DPH) are responsible for different types of violations in the context of health hazards in buildings. This system is not exactly archaic but there is a lack of coordination between the two departments, which has periodically led to confusions over who is responsible for what. Making small changes with respect to power sharing between these departments is essential to improving health standards in homes.