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Brian Fabry Dorsam, for BGA

‘Just because an elevator fails an inspection doesn’t mean it is dangerous’

—City Hall
A BGA/WBEZ investigation reveals a citywide program to keep elevators safe is broken when it comes to public housing for the city’s poor.

Two dozen elevators in Chicago’s publicly funded high-rise apartments have not passed a safety inspection in years, part of a striking failure of oversight directly related to hundreds of frantic 911 calls placed by elderly residents trapped inside.

In fact, an analysis of thousands of public records reveals none of the 150 elevators then in the Chicago Housing Authority’s fleet was inspected for the entire year of 2016. The previous year, records indicate 136 flunked an inspection yet still were issued certificates by the city, permitting their operation and attesting to their safety.

In 2017, all but one of CHA’s elevators that records show were inspected that year failed at least once, according to CHA inspections records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Those are among findings of a seven-month joint investigation by the Better Government Association and WBEZ following repeated complaints about elevators from elderly, often frail, CHA residents. They see a disconnect between assurances of safety from bureaucrats and the fearful day-to-day reality of getting stuck in an elevator or becoming prisoners in their high-rise apartments with no realistic means to get out.

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Linda Abraham-Buie, 64, said she she has been trapped inside her own home at Zelda Ormes Apartments because the elevators weren’t working. Madison Hopkins/BGA

“There is no way people in walkers or wheelchairs can get down the stairs so we have to just wait or get back in our apartments and see when the elevator comes back up,” said Linda Abraham-Buie, 64, of Zelda Ormes Apartments in the Near North Side.

“I’m in a wheelchair. And there’s other people in wheelchairs, walkers, and on canes and we all need the elevator no matter what floor you live on.”

WBEZ reporter Odette Yousef on why elevators are risky inside Chicago's public housing.

Eugene Jones, chief executive of the CHA, declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this report. But his agency released a 2 ½-page statement through a spokeswoman that acknowledged the failed inspections and what it described as an unacceptable lack of any inspections in 2016.

“Due to a departmental reorganization in 2016 and delays associated with procuring a vendor, annual elevator inspections for 2016 were delayed and completed in 2017,” the statement reads. “This delay was not acceptable.”

Since then, the statement says the CHA has worked to ensure that all inspections are completed as required.

“Elevators can fail inspections for a variety of reasons unrelated to the underlying safety,” the statement continued. “When an elevator fails an inspection, CHA works to address the violation and to ensure compliance.”

“Further, the maintenance records that we have provided to you demonstrate that CHA elevators undergo maintenance and repairs by qualified vendors on a regular basis.”

Despite the repeated complaints from elderly residents and dozens of failed inspections, Chicago Building Commissioner Judy Frydland — who has responsibility for elevator oversight across the city — declared in an interview that CHA elevators are safe to ride.

“Just because an elevator fails an inspection doesn’t mean it is dangerous,” Frydland said. “If an elevator is dangerous, we shut it down.”

Chicago Building Commissioner Judy Frydland, who took over in 2015, said her office has made improvements to elevator oversight throughout the city.
Chicago Building Commissioner Judy Frydland, who took over in 2015, said her office has made improvements to elevator oversight throughout the city. Madison Hopkins/BGA

Asked later to clarify what conditions must exist before an elevator is deemed dangerous, Frydland, through a spokesman, declined to specify and said inspectors are qualified to make such determinations on their own.

Frydland’s spokesman did, however, provide a short list of issues that might prompt inspectors to shut down elevators — including problems with failing emergency communications systems, alarm bells and malfunctioning door locks.

CHA elevators have failed inspections for these types of issues dozens of times, records show.

Despite all the recorded deficiencies on record, the BGA/WBEZ investigation could find no record that the city has ordered the CHA to shut down an elevator. Asked whether the city had ordered shutdowns of any CHA elevators, Frydland’s spokesman did not say.

Frydland, in the interview, said it is the responsibility of every landlord in the city, the CHA included, to ensure elevators in their buildings meet city codes and are in sufficiently good repair to pass required annual inspections. The building department is charged with monitoring compliance and does “an excellent job,” Frydland said.

Frydland said that prior to 2016 elevators throughout Chicago were not required to pass safety inspections to keep operating — a practice that appears at odds with the stated purpose of an elaborate regulatory regimen the city put in place in 2010 to reassure elevator riders.

Frydland said she changed that practice after she took over as building commissioner in mid-2015. She offered no explanation for why her office did not enforce the lack of inspections at CHA elevators throughout 2016.

Numerous elderly and sick CHA tenants interviewed had a very different take from Frydland on what constitutes dangerous when it comes to the elevators they depend on for mobility. They say being trapped inside an elevator for any amount of time poses dangers for them, even if the car they are in doesn’t plunge down a shaft or pinch them in the door.

They also argue the stress of constantly worrying about whether they can get out of their building for a doctor’s appointment, make it to the grocery, or just get some fresh air — things most people can take for granted — poses even more health dangers.

“I am afraid to get in them to tell you the truth,” said Susan Hoffman, 66, who lives on the third floor of the Caroline Hedger Apartments in Rogers Park. Hoffman said she has bad knees and cataracts in both eyes that blur her vision, yet she prefers a wobbly three flight walk down to the lobby rather than risk the elevator.

“I hold on to the rail as best as I can,” said Hoffman, a retired secretary.

A review of city elevator inspection data for the CHA since 2015, obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, reveals the haphazard nature of elevator inspections in public housing high-rises.

Those records show that 24 elevators spread across 17 CHA buildings have not passed a safety inspection in at least three years. Some failing grades were for minor problems like the machine room being dirty. Records show that others, however, involved serious transgressions such as a failure to conduct city required safety tests.

“They are mandated for a reason. We want to make sure they are operating properly before anybody gets into them,” said Kevin Brinkman, vice president of codes and safety for the industry group National Elevator Industry, Inc. “I think it should be a concern.”

Records show firefighters have been dispatched 167 times since 2015 to perform elevator rescues in those 17 buildings, with well over half the calls coming in 2017 alone. As a group, those elevators were by far more likely to prompt rescue calls than all other CHA elevators, yet records show the rest of the fleet has become a headache as well.

Firefighters are summoned to perform elevator rescues at CHA properties at a pace four times greater than at the thousands of elevator equipped buildings across the rest of the city, records show.

Last year, the number of 911 calls to release elevator doors at CHA buildings rose by 79 percent to 249. Elevator emergency calls were on the rise only slightly citywide in 2017, up 2 percent to 3,169.

Making a thorough comparison between the performance of CHA elevators and those throughout the rest of the city is rendered more difficult because of a critical gap in city record-keeping. Top city officials in charge of elevator regulation don’t appear to have a handle on how many elevators they are supposed to oversee.

Those officials have repeatedly deflected requests from reporters to detail the count of elevators in Chicago requiring inspection.

Frydland, during her interview, said she doesn’t know how many elevators her office is responsible for inspecting because city records lump elevators into the same class of devices as escalators, wheelchair lifts and dumbwaiters.

“I’ll have to get that for you. I don’t know if I have that,” she said.

In a follow-up interview in late May, however, Frydland still could not say how many elevators fall under her office’s purview. However, she did count the total number of citywide devices, including elevators: 25,733.

The notion that City Hall cannot provide a count of Chicago’s elevators seems at odds with a key purpose of its own computer tracking system for inspection of those devices.

Landlords across the city, including the CHA, are required to hire private, state-licensed inspectors to annually assess the safety of every elevator in Chicago. The inspectors are then required to enter the results of those tests into an online city database that goes back to 2010.

The city has repeatedly denied BGA requests for its citywide, computerized inspection data, making it impossible to compare the oversight and performance of CHA elevators to others throughout the city. The BGA has filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court to compel the city to release the citywide inspection data.

The city did, however, provide inspection records for CHA elevators — a tiny slice of the total. Those records revealed the total gap in inspections during 2016, a problem the city says was rectified by early the next year.

In that 2017 round, all but one of the inspected elevators flunked, according to CHA’s inspection reports. City records show that 42 never passed an inspection that year at all.

And in yet another round of inspections earlier this year, 96 CHA elevators — nearly two thirds — failed again, records show.

Frydland said elevators that fail inspections are often allowed to continue to operate depending on the severity of problems flagged.

“Elevators that need work can continue to operate as long as maintenance continues,” she said.

But the BGA/WBEZ investigation found that some of those failed inspections were for issues like inoperative emergency equipment, phones that don’t work, and broken safety mechanisms on the elevator doors.

In some instances, the inspections highlighted the CHA’s failure to perform yet a different required annual safety test to check, for example, if an elevator moves too fast.

Although the CHA is responsible for the oversight of its elevators, the agency hires an array of private contractors to handle property management, maintenance and inspections.

“You pray every day that nothing ever happens where we lose anybody because we couldn’t get them out fast enough,” said Wayne Sivels, 68, another Zelda Ormes resident. “You pray every day that nothing happens to that elevator with tenants on there, and it drops several floors and they end up injuring themselves.”

WBEZ’s reporters Odette Yousef and Elliott Ramos contributed to this report. The BGA’s Gabrielle Saul and Patrick Judge also contributed.

About these stories

To compile this report, reporters from the Better Government Association and WBEZ spent seven months collecting and analyzing thousands of available public records and databases from the city’s building and fire departments, the Illinois Fire Marshal, the city Office of Emergency Management and Communications, and the Chicago Housing Authority.

In addition, they conducted dozens of interviews with industry experts, government officials, contractors and residents of CHA buildings.

The analysis compared maintenance records and inspection reports available at the CHA to data available at City Hall, which has ultimate responsibility for ensuring elevators throughout the city are safe and reliable. Also analyzed were emergency calls to 911 from people across the city who needed the doors of stuck elevators pried open.

The examination accounted for those incidents in which more than one person called 911 to be rescued from an elevator, making sure that each incident was only counted once.

From the thousands of documents and data points collected, reporters built databases to document whether each elevator in CHA’s fleet was inspected annually as required as well as whether those inspected failed or passed and the reasons why. The examination also correlated that data with maintenance reports for each of those elevators. Maintenance records were analyzed dating back to 2010 and inspection records to 2015, as the CHA said it didn’t retain inspection reports prior to that year.

In many cases, the examination found, inspection records and maintenance records were missing or illegible. In some cases, the agencies denied access to public records. For instance, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration denied as “unduly burdensome” the BGA’s request for computerized elevator inspections data for the entire city. The BGA has filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court to challenge that denial.