City of Chicago’s Problem Landlord List is Best

sprentstrike_DSC_0411 via photopin (license)
photo credit: sprentstrike_DSC_0411 via photopin (license)

by Jeremy Loudenback

Best in Governance

Government hasn’t always had a model relationship with technology, but the use of open data and other forward-thinking initiatives are helping to make governments more transparent than ever before. Across the country, cities are using new website interfaces to help constituents gain easier access to services and encouraging residents to use tools that help them better understand their city’s expenditures and revenues. But with the increasing availability of public data, transparency can be more than just promoting accountability and civic engagement. With open data, cities can do a better job of identifying bad actors and making sure they don’t slip through the cracks.

Chicago’s problem landlord list is just one example of how cities can use open data to provide the transparency that can improve the lives of their constituents.  After fire claimed the lives of four children trapped in an apartment building on the city’s South Side last September, Chicago decided to focus on how to draw attention to landlords who neglect buildings. Two months before the fire, the South Side apartment had registered more than 17 code violations, part of a long and shameful record of citations for building code violations over the past decade at the same apartment building.

As a result, Chicago released a list and map of problem landlords as a dataset through its data portal—owners of residential properties who have collected more than two violations for failure to provide tenants with basic services and protections. Like the September tragedy, violations might include failing to install working smoke alarms in their buildings, but citations are also given to landlords who do not furnish renters with adequate heat, hot water, and other basic amenities.

Inclusion on the list comes with a punitive measure designed to encourage negligent landlords to ensure better conditions for renters: failure to obtain city business licenses or receive financial assistance via tax-increment financing programs, for example. And the most serious offenders could face forfeiture or receivership to third parties until the buildings are made livable.

Chicago officials hope the new list will force scofflaws to clean up their act and bring their buildings up to livable standards for residents. But most important, the process starts with ensuring that negligent landlords are no longer allowed to hide in the shadows. Thanks to the exciting potential applications of open data, more cities should follow Chicago’s example and look for ways transparency can benefit the lives of all constituents.