Clear the Decks, Please

City leaves it up to homeowners to determine if their porches are safe

It's been six years since the horrible porch collapse in Lincoln Park that killed 13 people, and some Chicagoans are still wary of wooden porches. And perhaps with good reason.

After that travesty, the city went on an aggressive hunt for dangerous porches and their negligent owners. A special task force of inspectors swept through the city and found 500 hazardous structures.

But, according to the Tribune, that task force was disbanded in 2006. Since then, porch inspections are lumped in with checks for rats and structural damage, all of which are examined annually on apartment buildings taller than three stories.

That means only about 5,000 porches of Chicago's 680,000 residential properties get inspected with any regularity.

As far as everyone else, it's every man for himself.

Building department spokesperson Bill McCaffrey said that if an apartment tenant or homeowner notices a problem, he or she should call 311.

"If you call me today with a porch complaint, it's on the inspectors' list tomorrow," McCaffrey said.

But there are two problems with this.

For one, the average Chicagoan doesn't always know what to look for. A loose railing is obvious, but rotting wood may not always be visible to the untrained eye. A wobbly stair? A creaky board? What's dangerous, and what's normal? Most tenants aren't trained in porch inspection and may not notice the danger until it's too late.

Secondly, McCaffrey admits that just because your porch complaint is "on the inspectors' list," that doesn't mean it will be examined any time soon. It can take several weeks for someone to come out and perform an official inspection.

And that's several weeks in which a horrible accident can occur.

"We just don't have the resources to annually inspect every porch in the city. Nor do I think we want to get into that business [of over-policing owners]. As it is, the inspectors have a lot of work," McCaffrey said.

Attorney Patrick Murphy, who has taken on multiple cases of people injured from porch collapses, wants citizens to pick up the aggressive approach that the city dropped.

"If I lived in the city of Chicago and I had a wooden porch, regardless of age... on a yearly basis I'd call up the city and say, 'Come out and inspect my porch.'"

Matt Bartosik is the editor of Off the Rocks' next issue and a "between blogs" blogger.

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