What is Chicago’s Vacant Building Ordinance?

One of the weapons in the city’s arsenal to fight foreclosure is the Vacant Building Ordinance.  The ordinance aims to keep ownership accountable for the condition of any vacant buildings in the city. 

What’s a vacant building?  Well, according to the ordinance, for a building to be vacant, it has to lack the “habitual presence of human beings who have a right to be on the premises.”  In English, that means it has to be vacant of people who are actually supposed to be or allowed to be there.  Another way to define vacancy is that a property is vacant if there is no legal business or legal construction activity at the premises.  Residential apartment buildings are not vacant unless they are at least 90% unoccupied.  For an individual residence to be considered occupied, someone must have actually lived there for at least three months out of the last nine months, and intend to return and live there.  Otherwise, it shall be deemed vacant.

So let’s say the house or building is deemed vacant.  Then what?  If it is vacant for more than 30 days, the owners must do all of the following:

1)   Register the building with the Department of Buildings as vacant property.  The registration is for 6 months only, and costs $250.  It must be updated every 6 months as necessary.  If the building has any code violation at the time of renewal, the renewal fee is $500 instead of $250.  And if the building still has violations at the second renewal, the renewal fee is then $750.  If the building has violations at the time of the third renewal, the registration fee shall be $1,000.

2)  Procure liability insurance and provide proof of the same to the Department of Buildings.  For residential property, the minimum insurance is $300,000.  For commercial property, the minimum insurance is $1,000,000.

3)  Maintain the property all year long.  The owner must take care of the roof, the foundation, the stairs, decks,  fences, floors, balconies, chimneys, gutters, etc.  The owner must also do seasonal work — weeding and cutting grass in the summer, and snow plowing and winterizing plumbing in the winter.  The owner must also keep the property rodent and pest-free.

4)  For the first six months, the owner must cover all openings into the property with plywood.  For the next six months and thereafter, the openings must be covered with steel, commercial-grade security paneling.  If the owner wishes, in lieu of the steel paneling, he may install a burglar alarm, standard security door, and glazed windows.

Fines are steep, so compliance is important!