Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on August 16, 2022.

Top photograph: Mourners built an impromptu memorial in front of the house in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago where 10 children died in a 2018 fire. The fire was one of the catalysts that drove journalists Hopkins and Reyes to begin investigating Chicago’s building enforcement practices. (GETTY)

‘Breakdowns at Every Point’
Journalists Madison Hopkins and Cecilia Reyes were recently awarded a Pulitzer Prize for their investigative series that revealed dangerous systematic flaws in how Chicago handles building code enforcement. Now they want to see changes made to protect residents. 


A few hours before dawn on September 8, 2014, Shamaya Coleman faced an unimaginable situation. Thick, black smoke from a fire in the vacant apartment below had blocked both exits in the third-floor apartment that Coleman shared with her boyfriend and four young children on Chicago’s South Side. The desperate family huddled in a back bedroom, gasping for air as conditions rapidly deteriorated around them. The only way out was through the window, three stories above the street.

RELATED PODCAST  Journalists Madison Hopkins and Cecilia Reyes joined The NFPA Podcast to discuss their award-winning investigation.

“As she climbed out on the window sill screaming for help, she told us that she just lost it and jumped,” said Cecilia Reyes, a former reporter with the Chicago Tribune who has interviewed Coleman multiple times since the fire. Coleman broke all four limbs in the fall. When firefighters arrived soon after, she yelled to them that her kids were inside, but it was too late. All four children, ages 7 to 15, were later found dead. Coleman’s boyfriend, who also jumped, survived.

Years later, the reporting of Reyes and fellow journalist Madison Hopkins revealed that the fire that killed Coleman’s children is part of a troubling pattern in Chicago, one where city officials are aware of significant building code violations yet fail to force landlords to act in time to prevent deadly fires.


"THE FAILURES BEFORE THE FIRES": Read the Pulitzer Prize winning collaborative investigation between the Chicago Tribune and the Better Government Association that exposed systemic flaws in Chicago's building enforcement practices


At the 18-unit apartment building where Coleman lived, for instance, Reyes and Hopkins found that city building inspectors had made dozens of visits in response to complaints and doled out more than 150 code violations in the five years prior to the fire. New violations for broken doors and missing smoke detectors were issued just months before the blaze. Yet documents and interviews reveal that these unsafe conditions were never fixed and that no smoke alarms sounded the morning of the fire. Instead, the landlord was granted multiple extensions to fix the issues, with no follow-up.

Through a painstaking examination of public documents, Reyes and Hopkins identified 42 fatal fires in Chicago buildings between 2014 and 2019 where city officials had a well-documented history of code violations yet didn’t move swiftly—or at all—to compel landlords to fix safety issues. A total of 61 people, 23 of them under age 17, died in those fires.

The investigation, a collaboration between the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago-based nonprofit Better Government Association, was published in April 2021 as a multi-part series called “The Failures Before the Fires.” Reyes and Hopkins were recently awarded the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Journalism in the local news story category for their work on the series.

NFPA Journal spoke recently with Reyes and Hopkins to discuss the details of their award-winning series, what it reveals about building enforcement practices in cities, and the lessons that may come from it to improve safety for residents. Hopkins, formerly with the Better Government Association, is now a reporter with the Kansas City Beacon. Reyes, who has since left the Tribune, now works as an investigative reporter for Insider, Inc.

What led you to investigate fire deaths in Chicago?

MADISON HOPKINS: The idea came in August 2018. There was a horrific house fire where 10 children—nine from the same family—died in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago. It was big national news when it happened, and in the aftermath, a lot came out in the media about code violations at the building in the years leading up to the fire. But after a few weeks, news from it kind of faded and we never found out the results of those promised investigations. I started noticing more fires in the news that were similar, and it was always the same story: somebody died, it was horrible, it seemed preventable, and we knew there were early warning signs. But a lot of times the media coverage would end before we really understood what happened. So I told my editors that I wanted to look into this.

According to data you collected, between 2014 and 2019, 42 fires occurred in Chicago buildings where city officials, as you wrote, “knew of fire safety problems, and yet failed to crack down on property owners in time.” What parameters did you use to determine that the city knew about the fire safety problems in buildings before a fire occurred?

MH: At a very high level, to be included in these 42 fires, we had to know from public documents that the city was aware of a fire safety issue before the fatal fire—either through a resident complaint or a violation found by an inspector or both. Then we had to have documented evidence that the problem was not fixed or that there was no documented evidence to show that it was fixed.

Additionally, we had to know that the issue existed at the time of the fire and was a factor in causing the fire or in hindering the victims’ escape. For example, say a resident called to report that there was no heat in their unit. Even if the city went and found that there was no heat and then never actually got it fixed, if that fire had nothing to do with there being no heat, it would not be considered one of these 42 fires. There had to be that level of correlation.

When a citizen in Chicago makes a report to the city about a building problem—such as no heat or working smoke alarms—what processes are city officials supposed to follow to address the issue?

MH: When a resident calls into 311 and says ‘Hey, I’m having X, Y, Z problem,’ somebody from the city is supposed to go and check that out and then triage the complaints depending on how serious they are. If they do find a violation, the inspector uses their judgment to decide how to route that through three different enforcement options. For minor things, they're allowed to just issue a warning letter telling the landlord to fix it, and there's no additional follow-up. There's a medium level, which is a city administrative hearing, similar to traffic court. In that case, most of the penalties are fines, but technically they are not supposed to close the case until the inspector has gone back to verify that the actual violations have been fixed. At the most extreme level for eminent safety hazards, inspectors can recommend that the city sue the landlord in circuit court. And that, too, is not supposed to end until an inspector has gone out and verified that the problem was fixed. Of course, we found lots of different issues along that process, but in an ideal world, that is how it would work.

According to your investigation, where in the process did things tend to break down?

CECILIA REYES: We found that there were breakdowns at basically every point in the process that Madison just laid out. That includes the city taking six months or more to investigate an issue after somebody reports it, and even examples of completely unanswered complaints.

Inspectors have leeway to basically decide what to do with each given violation. We found that there were times when a smoke detector was missing—which is something that is life-threatening and is supposed to be handled with the utmost care—but that would end with a warning notice and no follow-up. We also found cases of city hearings or even lawsuits that would get dismissed or would essentially end without those repairs either being done or being verified by inspectors. Sometimes if the city was able to get a fine and compliance on some of the found violations, they would call it good.

There were also administrative issues. For example, in the violation routing process, we noticed that certain violations would be in a city hearing when they were supposed to be filed in a lawsuit. But during the process, they somehow got dropped and didn't actually make it to the right court. We found that these administrative issues can be a problem because the city departments often don't talk to each other and have different ways of managing their data and information.

Journalists Madison Hopkins (left) and Cecilia Reyes. (Courtesy of Cecilia Reyes)

Can you give us an example of a particularly egregious instance where known violations were either disregarded by the city or went unresolved?

CR: One that comes to mind involves two little girls who died in a fire. The family was trying to keep warm by boiling a pot of water, but the pot melted and ignited nearby items. The city had received complaints about a lack of heat in the building at least five times. They also received complaints from residents saying they didn’t have an adequate exit. All of those conditions were present at the time of the fire. The complaints were made over the course of four years, and one was made just a month before the fire. Only one of those complaints actually led to any enforcement action.

In your report, you said that building officials told you that there are no systemic problems with the code enforcement process and the city bears no responsibility for the 61 deaths. What arguments did city officials make to support that claim?

MH: We found the city's response to this pretty shocking, to be honest. And also, to be clear, good chunks of the city government that deal with this process refused to speak with us for this investigation.

We did speak with the building department about this, and they're the ones who are saying there are no systematic issues here. Their main pushback on that was to say that their record system is outdated, so what we are seeing in the records as reporters is not going to show every step of the process. For example, after a building inspector finds an issue and they kick it over to an enforcement route, it's the city's Department of Law, which is the city lawyers, that handle it from there. And they're saying that their records wouldn't necessarily show that. Of course, our pushback would be that if we can't see that it's fixed, how do the building inspectors know it's fixed? So one way or another, no one's verifying it.

What was it about the city’s response that shocked you?

MH: In a number of cases, the building officials blame the victims themselves. For example, in fires in vacant buildings where homeless people had stayed, officials said it was the people’s own fault for going in there and in some cases doing drugs. And in some cases, particularly where small children died and their parents did not, they blamed the parents for not going in and getting the children.

I would imagine a lot of people in the fire safety industry understand how harsh and unfair that type of statement is and how unrealistic it is in a lot of ways. Something that shocked both Cecilia and I during this investigation was learning how quickly a fire can get out of hand and completely prevent anybody from being able to do anything to save people inside. And so that was hard to hear. But some of their pushback to our findings of these systematic building code enforcement failures was to pass the buck to other areas.

Did you work with the city to verify that the information you had was correct?

MH: We went through and discussed with the city every single fire that we included in the report. That was to give them plenty of time to make sure that we fully understood what the situation was, that we weren't missing anything, that it really wasn’t just a one-off issue. And when we found these 42 fires, it's hard to argue that 42 fires out of the 140 in our analysis are just a bunch of one-offs. Regardless, we went through every single one with them.

In the report, you write that “city officials routinely put the interests of landlords above the safety of residents.” How does the city prioritize landlords?

CR: It really boils down to the word of a landlord about something being fixed being taken way more seriously and given a lot more weight than a tenant reporting a dangerous situation. We saw this again and again. We looked at, for example, dozens of those city hearings that we mentioned where city lawyers plainly dismissed proceedings even though they knew—because their own city inspectors were telling them—that there were outstanding issues at the properties, even life safety issues. There were cases in that review where landlords would submit a grainy photograph of a smoke detector as proof that they had installed it without a city inspector actually setting foot in that property.

Speaking broadly about complaints, we looked at hundreds and hundreds of 311 complaints, and we found that the city couldn't come up with an inspection for nearly half of them. So that, to me, points to a systematic issue—something that isn't just one building, one house, or one screw up.

MH: There are other things I think are interesting in terms of how the city shows its preference to trust landlords over tenants. One of the things city officials told us is that they can't necessarily take every 311 complaint seriously because somebody might be calling just to retaliate against their landlord.

For the record, we found zero evidence of anything like that happening. To the contrary, whenever we spoke with experts and tenants in these buildings, we found an overwhelming reluctance for people to call the city for fear that their landlords would retaliate against them. They cited many different reasons—people might be undocumented, they might just be worried about a rent increase, or about getting evicted.

How much do these issues have to do with a lack of city resources? Would more inspectors solve the problem?

MH: You know, that's something that we naturally assumed must have been an issue. But when we asked the city if it was a lack of resources or if it needed more inspectors or more funding, they would always tell us no. They would say they just need to better prioritize the resources they had. And when we looked at other cities, we didn't really see any significant differences between the amount of resources being used in building enforcement in Chicago compared to other cities.

What is the root cause of these building enforcement issues, in your opinion?

MH: The problem that seemed to permeate every level of this process was the lack of clear-cut rules and procedures about how to handle different situations and violations. We found that missing smoke detectors might be handled, in some cases, with a warning letter to the landlord. Other times they were taken to court, and there wasn't really any rhyme or reason as to why that would happen. There were so many different examples of how that type of subjectivity played out badly. The idea behind it is that inspectors are supposed to be the experts, so they are given leeway to make an appropriate decision. The downside is that there's no accountability when somebody doesn't make the right call.

You wrote in your stories that the city has tried to make several reforms over the years, but that “strict enforcement repeatedly gave way to broken promises, watered-down regulations, and abandoned reforms.” Can you give us an example of one of those failures?

MH: There are examples where the city actually does pass measures which, at face value, seem like something that would help enforcement or help make buildings safer, and then they just don't enforce them.

One of those reforms came out of the fire with Shamaya Coleman's children, which was championed by the father of the youngest child who died. He was pushing for a reform that would better enforce the building code against landlords who have a long history of serious building code violations. We found that as that proposal moved its way through the city government, it was weakened quite a bit, but then even after it was passed, they only really enforced it for about a year. And then they just kind of quietly abandoned it. It's still on the books today in Chicago, it's just not enforced.

What changes, if any, have occurred in Chicago's building enforcement efforts since your stories were published a little more than a year ago?

CR: There are a couple of changes, but they don't really address those systematic problems that we discussed. Nothing touching on how complaints are handled or that better define the criteria for a proper response to a dangerous violation. There aren’t even any proposals currently that address problems with the city's technology or outdated records. What has happened is the city of Chicago fell in line with the rest of Illinois in terms of requiring a phase-in of long-lasting, tamper-proof smoke detectors. Before we published our stories, the city announced it was passing an ordinance that required this to be phased in over the next 10 years or so.

And then the list that Madison mentioned regarding problem landlords was revived with a promise that there is going to be new scrutiny of landlords. But when we examined the criteria for that list, we found that it misses a lot of buildings that have issues. The city itself has lawsuits against properties that wouldn't qualify for inclusion on this new version of the scofflaw list.

Do you have a sense of whether these enforcement problems are unique to Chicago, or are they indicators of a larger problem in cities across the US?

CR: We didn't go over the code enforcement process in other major cities to the same extent, so I hesitate to say anything specific. But I do think it's fair to say that this imbalance between tenants and their landlords exists everywhere.

Since we published the series, we noticed that there were big fires elsewhere, including one in the Bronx involving a space heater [where 17 people were killed] in a building with known issues and a landlord that was well known to tenants and to the city itself for not keeping up their properties. There was also a similar fire where four children died in the St. Louis area. In many of these fires, the media seems to focus more on the actions of the tenants than on whether the city ensured that a building was safe. I think that many people tend to view these fatal fires as contained tragedies rather than looking at whether there was something about the building or about the owner that the city knew already or could have handled better. That is a blind spot that exists throughout the country.

In interviews, you've both described winning the Pulitzer Prize as bittersweet. What do you mean by that?

MH: When we found out, it just felt very unreal. It still feels very unreal. But there's also a sad aspect to it. Cecilia and I are both really proud of this work, but any journalist that puts in this amount of time and asks their sources to do the same for a project like this, they're doing it because they want to see some kind of change come out of it. And we just haven't seen that yet on this. It's still such a pervasive issue. So while it's very exciting and we're proud of it, there's definitely an element of disappointment.

CR: The weekend we found out we had won the award was Mother's Day weekend, and I had actually just called Shamaya to check in and wish her a happy Mother's Day. So when the Pulitzer happened, I was also thinking about her, about the people that spoke with us, the mothers that spoke with us, the family members, and just about the sheer amount of pain and loss that could have gone differently had the city done its job. So there was that bittersweetness to it. But even though there is more work to be done, winning the award is still an incredible honor. 

JESSE ROMAN is the senior editor of NFPA Journal.