As Chicago Punts on Apartment Safety, Denver Shows What’s Possible

Chicago has no way of tracking landlords, nor does it require rental units to be inspected. That was the case in Colorado’s largest city, until officials decided to do something about it.

Kevin Lewis, an independent inspector, examines a single-family rental home in Denver. (Photo by Chet Strange / Illinois Answers Project)

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The tenant of a two-story house in east Denver had been expecting Kevin Lewis when he knocked on her door this past June.

After a brief introduction and a glance around the home, Lewis quickly checked the water pressure, power outlets and the cooling sources in each room. He reached a wiry arm up to a ceiling smoke alarm and pressed a button, prompting a chirp to echo through the house.

“Music to my ears,” Lewis said, already halfway to the basement to make sure the boiler had a working gas line connection.

Minutes later, Lewis was gone — on to the next house.

Lewis wasn’t sent by the city to investigate a complaint, nor by a prospective buyer. Instead, he was hired by a property management firm to comply with a new city policy requiring regular inspections on rental units.

Before 2022, oversight of building safety in Colorado’s largest city largely mirrored Chicago’s system: homes would be checked for safety upon construction, but otherwise city inspectors would only visit to respond to complaints from tenants or neighbors. The result in Chicago is that many warnings go unheeded by the city, sometimes with deadly consequences.

Chicago housing organizers have pushed for a pilot program that would require proactive safety checks to make sure rental homes have met basic standards: working smoke detectors, adequate heat and cooling, free of mold or lead paint. City officials have pushed back, saying the city lacks the ability or infrastructure to change.

Many Denver city officials argued the same. But they took on the challenge, and five years after the idea to register and inspect rentals was introduced, officials say the new program is making meaningful progress.

‘We’ve got to do something better’

In 2017, a family in the North East Side district of Denver told their councilmember, Stacie Gilmore, about the unlivable conditions in a house they rented. When they moved in after having paid a security deposit and their first month of rent, they discovered black mold and exposed wires. City officials later discovered evidence of meth in the house.

“That was the impetus of us saying we’ve got to do something better,” Gilmore said. “We knew we had to do something to protect renters.”

Before the rental licensing system, Denver health officials logged between 1,200 and 1,300 complaints in a typical year related to unhealthy or substandard living conditions in rental homes, said Amber Campbell, spokesperson for the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment.

Eager to push owners to fix their properties before they become bad enough to prompt fines, Gilmore and her staff looked to other cities for ideas. They landed on Boulder, Colorado, a suburb about 25 miles away that has been issuing landlord licenses and keeping public records on inspections for the last 50 years.

Initially, Denver city officials were reluctant to take on the herculean project as real estate interests pushed back hard, calling the plan overreach.

But the proposal got a boost during the COVID-19 pandemic, when city officials struggled to communicate and enforce emergency housing policies because they had no central log of who owned each building, said Kinsey Hasstedt, a senior policy director for Enterprise Community Partners, a group that advocates for affordable housing development in Colorado.

“We talked a lot about the benefits of having the knowledge of where all the rental properties were and who was administering them, and to be able to contact those landlords swiftly about changes in policies and the availability of support,” said Hasstedt, who worked with Gilmore to help develop the ordinance.

By 2021, Gilmore and her colleagues landed on a licensing system that both registers landlords and requires safety checks, enforced through the Department of Excise and Licensing, which was already responsible for regulating short-term rentals.

Apartment owners would have more than a year to apply for licenses certifying that their buildings were being kept in livable conditions. License application fees range between $50 and $500 per building, depending on its size — small enough that officials hoped wouldn’t prompt any rent hikes.

Each license application must include sign-off from a third-party inspector attesting that the building has met a host of safety criteria.

That’s how Lewis got involved.

Outsourcing inspections

Lewis, an independent contractor and developer, saw an opportunity to expand his business. To be recognized by the city, Lewis took a pair of hourslong tests from the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors and the International Code Council.

“The exams are not that simple — it’s comprehensive tests on basic building, plumbing, electrical and mechanical,” Lewis said. “You gotta know it. The city wants inspectors to really understand building codes so they can do the inspections correctly.”

The inspections Lewis conducts, however, are quick and straightforward. He fits 10 checks into a typical work day, usually charging property managers between $100 and $200 per building, he said.

In multi-unit apartment buildings, the inspector only has to enter 10% of the units — rounded up, and chosen at random — to confirm they hit every standard.

Unlike in Chicago, where city building inspectors have discretion to mark more than 1,000 potential violations when responding to a complaint, Lewis carries a single-page list with about two dozen questions: Does the unit have an accessible back exit? Does it have a fire extinguisher? Are there holes or leaks in the ceiling?

Next to each question is a box to check one of two options: compliant and not compliant.

On his way out of the home in east Denver, Lewis pointed his pen toward the upstairs bathroom.

“There’s some caulking around the shower tiles that should probably get redone,” the inspector said. “You might want to tell your property manager about that.”

Lewis did not write that part down. Instead, he prepared his checklist for a report attesting that the house was safe enough to be worthy of a four-year license.

A rocky rollout

Denver’s residential rental licensing system hit bottlenecks almost immediately after it went into effect at the beginning of 2022.

To start, there were no qualified inspectors. The city had to wait for contractors and tradespeople to be certified.

The process picked up when city departments began to sponsor workforce development programs and even subsidize the cost of the classes and tests. Six months later, Denver counted about 50 qualified inspectors.

The department fields between 800 and 1,000 apartment license applications per month, a pace Molly Duplechian, the licensing department director, called “a good clip.”

To date, nearly 4,000 single-unit rental properties, like the one Lewis inspected, have been licensed ahead of the December 2023 registration deadline.

Multifamily buildings, on the other hand, were required to get licensed by the end of 2022. Of the estimated 25,000 multifamily rental buildings in Denver, about 20% were licensed as of Aug. 31, said Eric Escudero, spokesman for the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses.

For Peter Wall, director of government affairs for the Denver Metro Association of Realtors, that slow pace indicates poor communication and excessive red tape. Wall’s group lobbied against the licensing program.

Many of the city’s landlords were never notified of the new requirements — especially smaller “mom-and-pop” landlords who were already devoting attention to their tenants’ maintenance needs, Wall said.

“It always felt like a solution in search of a problem,” Wall said of the inspection and licensing system. “And at the end of the day, something ain’t working in terms of [the city’s] communications strategy.”

Officials and advocates for the licensing system both acknowledged the difficulty of making all the city’s landlords aware of the new requirements and then choosing who to penalize for shirking compliance.

And even for the buildings brought into compliance, the city has few ways of measuring whether landlords have made them safer as a result. The third-party inspection system and its pass-fail nature mean the city has no way of tracking how many smoke detectors landlords have installed or how many boilers they’ve repaired as a result of the program.

Wall said the new regulations have prompted fixes in enough cases to put a financial strain on landlords. Particularly burdensome, he said, is a requirement that every unit have a back door or window that would allow tenants to escape during a fire — already a requirement for homes in Chicago.

“Especially in garden-level units, which are some of the most affordable in the city, do you really need an egress window or fire escape to be able to pop out of those units?” Wall said. “The costs can add up pretty significantly for mom-and-pop landlords who need to hit all the items on the list. You can pretty quickly get into the tens of thousands of dollars.”

In March, the department began issuing notices of violations to apartment buildings that had not yet applied for licenses. They started with the buildings that had existing complaints and citations from the city’s health department.

“There’s a category of people who are still totally unaware of this requirement, which is why our first notice to them is just a warning,” Duplechian said. “The second category is the people who are aware of the [licensing rules] but they’re just waiting it out until they get found. And the most egregious ones who don’t want to make repairs are going to face escalating fines.”

As of Aug. 31, the city had issued 1,578 notices of violations, 154 first-time citations of $150 each and 12 follow-up citations worth $500 each. The fines continue to climb periodically if landlords don’t take action; last week, the city issued its first $999 fine for a scofflaw property owner, Escudero said. The money goes to the city’s general fund.

‘We’re going to need more time’

Duplechian predicted it will take “years” to reach 90% compliance, the standard modeled by nearby Boulder. But she says Denver is on its way.

“This program is still in its infancy,” Duplechian said, noting that single-family rentals still have until January to get licensed. “We’ve put in place some of the tools, and we have some new data that’s become available to us. But some [landlords] are just harder to find … so we’re going to need more time.”

A slow rollout doesn’t indicate failure, said Greg Miao, a senior attorney with ChangeLab Solutions, a national research firm that works with local governments and community groups to improve public health systems.

“We’re probably looking at a five-to-10-year time horizon to see if these kinds of policy interventions begin really filtering into public health outcomes,” said Miao, who lives in Denver but was not involved in the city’s rental licensing program. “But effective [proactive inspection] programs have been able to demonstrate dramatic reductions in volume and type of complaint after they’re implemented.”

Miao studies the effects of proactive building inspection systems across the U.S. He pointed to a 2021 study of building conditions in Rochester, New York, that found fewer code violations in buildings that were subject to regular inspections. A study in nearby Syracuse found code violations dropped by almost 20% as the city implemented a proactive code enforcement program that included community engagement efforts, data collection and comprehensive inspections.

Miao noted that cities usually register apartment buildings before they try to implement proactive inspection systems like Denver’s. By tying building registrations to the new licensing and inspection requirements, Denver will face a longer road to a full understanding of its rental landscape.

Any city that tries to overhaul its building regulations will face major challenges, Miao said. But he argues it’s worth the agitation.

“Ensuring that everyone has healthy housing is a foundational public health service that we should all be providing,” Miao said. “Cities know where their crappy housing is. They have the data to know where they need to target their efforts. They know what the most harmful violations are.”

“So, start there,” he said. “You can build the evaluation as you go.”

Lewis, the independent inspector, agreed. He called Denver’s licensing system “a good program,” despite the hiccups and slow rollout.

“Some don’t like it, but most of the landlords I work with are interested in having a safe property,” Lewis said. “They don’t want a dead tenant.”

This article first appeared on Illinois Answers Project.

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Alex Nitkin is a solutions reporter conducting investigations on efforts to fix broken systems in Chicago, Cook County and Illinois government. Before joining Illinois Answers, he worked as a reporter and editor for The Daily Line covering Cook County and Chicago government. He previously worked at The Real Deal Chicago, where he covered local real estate news, and DNAinfo Chicago, where he worked as a breaking news reporter and then as a neighborhood reporter covering the city's Northwest Side. A New York City native who grew up in Connecticut, Alex graduated Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism with a bachelor’s degree.

Tags: chicagodenversafe housing

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