Brian Fabry Dorsam, for BGA

‘Get us out of here!’

— 911 call A BGA/WBEZ investigation exposes unsafe elevators, shoddy record keeping, and failed oversight at the CHA — where many elderly tenants live in fear of their own buildings.

This story is a joint project of the Better Government Association and WBEZ.

The first time Kim Campos-Lucas was trapped inside an elevator at the government-owned Chicago senior high-rise where her mother lives, she was agitated. By the third time, she knew the drill: Press the emergency call button, hope for an answer and wait for firefighters to come pry her loose.

By the spring of 2017, however, her annoyance with chronically failing elevators became infuriating. Campos-Lucas needed to wheel her 82-year-old mother to the doctor, but couldn’t because two of the three elevators in the 449-apartment building in Rogers Park were out of order at the same time. Every time the only functioning elevator landed on the 23rd floor, where her mother lives, it was so crammed there was no room to get in, she said. After an hour of waiting, they gave up and decided to stay home.

“It’s not like I can get her down the stairs,” said Campos-Lucas. “It was awful.”

Campos-Lucas and her mother are among hundreds of Chicago Housing Authority residents trapped in recent years inside failing and unsafe elevators at high-rises owned and operated by the agency, according to a Better Government Association/WBEZ investigation. And that doesn’t even count the many routinely trapped in lobbies or in their apartments waiting for broken elevators to be repaired.

Most of the CHA’s residents are elderly — often frail. For them, stairs are rarely an option.

The CHA’s failed elevator oversight is documented in elevators that remained in disrepair despite repeated citations for safety violations, flunked safety inspections, and hundreds of panicked calls to 911, the investigation found. The probe also found numerous instances where required maintenance and safety test records are missing altogether or often not legible.

“Get us out of here!” one trapped woman screamed to 911 dispatchers on March 5 at Zelda Ormes Apartments on the city’s North Side. “I can’t take it!”

Listen to a recent 911 call from inside a malfunctioning elevator at CHA’s Zelda Ormes Apartments on the Near North Side. Produced by Mia Sato and Abby Blachman/BGA

An analysis of 911 calls throughout the city reveals firefighters in 2015 were dispatched to pry open elevator doors to rescue trapped passengers at a rate more than four times higher at CHA buildings than other elevator-equipped buildings throughout the city.

The CHA in recent years has owned as many as 88 buildings, most occupied by seniors, equipped with 153 elevators. That count fluctuates slightly from year to year, but clearly comprises just a tiny subset of elevator equipped buildings across Chicago. In 2015, records show, there were a total of 10,296 buildings with elevators elsewhere in the city.

That year, records show firefighters were dispatched for elevator rescues at least once at 54 different CHA buildings with elevators, almost two-thirds of the total. Citywide, rescuers were sent at least once to 1,529 buildings with elevators, 15 percent of the total.

Those statistics — while striking — aren’t the only measure of an elevator-oversight program in disarray.

CHA officials declined repeated interview requests for this report, but in a written response defended the safety record of the agency’s elevators.

“While it is true that elevators are aging and require frequent maintenance and repair, at no time has a resident been injured by a CHA elevator,” the agency said in a written statement in response to questions. “CHA is fully aware that access to working elevators is an important quality-of-life issue … this is the reason that elevator repairs are a priority.”

In May, the CHA unveiled a $25 million elevator modernization initiative, an announcement made as reporters for the BGA and WBEZ were wrapping up a months-long investigation into the agency’s elevators and seeking answers from officials.

Chicago Building Commissioner Judy Frydland, who is responsible for overseeing elevator safety throughout the city, acknowledged after being presented with the WBEZ/BGA findings that the CHA has a problem.

“The CHA needs to work on it,” Frydland said. “They have had issues. We keep a close eye on them, the fire department goes out. But the good news is they have to modernize all elevators … You’re right. They need to modernize elevators. We’ll be partners and elevators will be replaced.”

Frydland said CHA residents should feel safe to ride their elevators regardless of the problems.

“I think we do an excellent job,” Frydland said. “We take elevator safety very seriously … I think we run a very good program and our elevators are safe.”

‘That is not OK’

Though the CHA is a government body, it is also a landlord bound by the same rules as any other property owner. As such, it is required by city ordinance to retain elevator maintenance records, documentation showing the results of safety tests and private inspection reports so city inspectors have ready access. But the investigation found the CHA routinely ignores such requirements and is often unable to document when and how many of its elevators are maintained, tested and inspected.

The agency’s new elevator initiative comes after residents said frequent complaints about elevators were largely ignored, the investigation found. Such complaints mounted even as the agency spent $480 million in recent years to modernize its buildings. It is on-track to complete another $152 million in upgrades this year.

A slice of those payments went to improve the appearance of high-rise elevators, records show, but balky mechanical systems were not addressed.

“They are putting the residents at harm,” said Kelly Viselman, an organizer with Jane Addams Senior Caucus, a grassroots organization that advocates for seniors living in public housing. “That is not OK.

“CHA and the city need to address that problem immediately and there needs to be oversight to ensure that any public dollars spent to fix this problem actually prevent residents from living in danger,” she said.

Three residents share their experiences with elevators that routinely break down, at best interrupting their day, and at worst putting their lives at risk. Photos by Madison Hopkins/BGA; Video by Mia Sato/BGA

Records indicate taxpayers shell out nearly $1 million a year on maintenance and inspection contracts for CHA elevators, in what has become a disjointed system that offers little assurance elevators are safe and reliable.

“The elevators have been subject to monthly maintenance contracts, different contractors, without a systematic or network-wide program,” CHA’s Chief Construction Officer Diana Liu told her board members in September in seeking approval to hire a consultant to assess the condition of CHA elevators.

“And that’s why you see that even though buildings have undergone modernization, the elevators are still antiquated and often break down, which is very frustrating when I go to the sites and see our seniors have to wait a long time,” Liu said in the open meeting. “Or having elevators just not functional, and I see that every week.”

The board approved the contract and the agency signed a deal that sent more than $3.5 million to Globetrotters Engineering, a Chicago architectural engineering firm owned by a prominent Democratic fundraiser, to assess the scope of elevator problems and prepare a comprehensive plan for repairs. The company’s president declined to be interviewed.

In a 2 ½-page written response to the BGA/WBEZ questions, the CHA did not address why firefighters are called to its buildings so often, and acknowledged inspection “delays associated with procuring a new vendor” in 2016. But the agency insisted that “CHA elevators are safe.”

The CHA said its aging elevators have not been overhauled since buildings opened, some as far back as 1956.

“Most of the elevators date back to the original construction of the buildings,” the CHA wrote in its statement, which was provided by a CHA spokeswoman. “They are used 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by thousands of residents and their guests.

“Prior to 2017, CHA last undertook an elevator improvement program in 2000, which included general repairs and cosmetic improvements,” the statement said. “It did not include a complete overhaul of the elevator system.”

Chief Executive Officer Eugene Jones, in a separate statement announcing the agency’s new elevator modernization program, acknowledged problems.

“We are just like all other responsible owners of high and mid-rise properties throughout the city,” Jones said. “Our properties are aging, and while our systems are safe and sound and have served us well for the past 50 years, it’s time to employ the new technologies and materials of today so that we can ensure the continued safety and well-being of our residents.”

That does little to console Campos-Lucas and angry CHA residents who have spent years coping with — and complaining about — problems they say bureaucrats have been slow to acknowledge.

Jacqueline Cobbins, a tenant on the 20th floor of Patrick Sullivan Apartments on the Near West Side, said she complains weekly about elevators in her building being broken.
Jacqueline Cobbins, a tenant on the 20th floor of Patrick Sullivan Apartments on the Near West Side, said she complains weekly about elevators in her building being broken. Odette Yousef/WBEZ

“It’s becoming worse,” said Jacqueline Cobbins, 64, who lives on the 20th floor of the Patrick Sullivan Apartments on the Near West Side. Cobbins said she suffers from chronic lung disease so carries two inhalers as insurance whenever she gets on an elevator.

“At least I’ll be able catch my breath,” said Cobbins. She said she was recently trapped in an elevator known to break down so often that the building manager takes it offline on weekends whether it’s working or not.

“I know it’s been going on for two years and I complain weekly,” she said.

Her 482-unit building — with three elevators in total — has been repeatedly cited for failing elevator alarm systems and non-working emergency phones and emergency lights, records show.

The same scenario plays out in building after building throughout the agency’s vast real estate portfolio, records show, with fearful residents complaining and the CHA making promises residents say are rarely kept.

WBEZ reporter Odette Yousef on seniors living in fear of risky elevators inside Chicago's public housing.

In addition to dozens of interviews, WBEZ and the BGA examined thousands of pages of records dating to 2010 obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. They include contracts with property management firms hired to take care of buildings, maintenance contracts and logs, and inspection records required under city rules to be kept by building owners.

That examination revealed an elevator safety system compromised by hundreds of cases of missing documents and logs. Most glaringly, the CHA could not provide documents that demonstrate safety inspections were performed on any of its elevators for the entire year of 2016.

Likewise, the agency could provide no maintenance records for elevators in 10 of its 88 total buildings that have elevators.

The city requires safety test records for elevators be kept on site for six years. But only a handful of CHA buildings had the required archive, and none had all six years.

Records, or lack of them, tell the story

Elevator experts say any system with so many missing records suggests lax enforcement at best, and, at worst, raises questions about whether maintenance and the required safety checks are actually being done.

“Elevators don’t run if you don’t do maintenance,” said Dick Gregory, a Chicago-based elevator consultant who has testified as an expert witness in lawsuits involving elevator injuries throughout the country. “And they’re not safe if you don’t do maintenance.

“Records are crucial.”

In its written statement, the CHA did not address the missing maintenance and inspection reports it is required to keep on hand, only referring to “654 inspection reports and more than 5,000 maintenance records” it did provide pursuant to public records requests.

“Assertions that CHA has failed to provide you with broad categories of records are without merit,” the statement reads.

Elevator scrutiny in Chicago relies on an army of licensed private inspectors hired by landlords to conduct annual inspections. They follow a city-prescribed checklist of dozens of potential problems ranging from faulty stop switches to worn-out cables. Inspectors also check for a required annual safety test, in which hired mechanics are supposed to put elevators through their paces to ensure safety mechanisms function properly.

The results of each inspection are then recorded by inspectors on a special Annual Inspection Certification website maintained by the city building department. Elevators deemed in safe operating condition get a certificate of compliance, while repairs are required within 60 days for those that fail inspections.

Those annual compliance certificates, when issued, are required to be displayed inside the cabin of elevators to assure riders that they have been deemed safe — a requirement that the CHA sometimes ignores.

Elevator owners who do not comply face administrative hearings and fines, according to the city’s code. According to data on the city’s website, officials have filed administrative charges for elevator problems at the CHA a total of 27 times in the past decade, including 15 at seniors-only buildings. Two ended in fines for a total of $700, including for failing to display a certificate at a senior building in the Near North Side.

All this regulatory regimen runs on an honor system. Building owners and the inspectors they hire are required to retain all maintenance logs, reports and inspection records to provide for city inspectors if they follow-up on the work with an audit or respond to resident complaints.

The BGA/WBEZ investigation reveals a system that rarely checks whether inspections are conducted or required paperwork kept. At the CHA, for instance, such records frequently go missing — even for elevators that have been certified safe, the investigation found.

Image Image
CHA released no records of maintenance being performed in 2016 on the two elevators that were previously found to be in “very poor condition” at Vivian Gordon Harsh Apartments in the city’s Oakland neighborhood. Resident Carolyn Crane, 66, said she once had to wait six hours for a working elevator. Left: Alejandra Cancino/BGA; Right: Madison Hopkins/BGA

Consider Vivian Gordon Harsh Apartments in the city’s South Side Oakland neighborhood. When asked by reporters, the CHA could not locate any records of maintenance performed on the buildings’ two elevators for 2016, even though the agency pays a private contractor roughly $1,300 every month to do just that. The previous year, records show, an elevator consultant found the building’s two elevators in “very poor condition.”

Residents in the 124-unit high rise have long complained about near daily elevator problems that disrupt their routines.

Carolyn Crane, 66, said she waited six hours in the building’s ground-floor social room one day last year because both elevators were down when she returned from shopping.

“At the time I was having problems with this hip and I could not walk up,” said the retired paralegal, adding the building is full of seniors in their 80s and 90s who are completely dependent on the elevators. “I’m one of the younger ones here.”

Kevin Brinkman, vice president of codes and safety for the industry trade group National Elevator Industry Inc., said regular maintenance is key to ensuring elevator safety and performance.

“The less it’s maintained, the less it’s looked at, the less it’s inspected — is it going to increase the likelihood something happens? Yes,” he said. “The requirement for periodic tests and inspections are there for a reason, and that’s to make sure that the elevators are operating the way they’re intended to operate.”

Chicago-based Mid-American Elevator Company, Inc. is the company hired to perform maintenance on more than half of CHA elevators, records show. M. Cullen Bailey, the company’s vice president, said its technicians are required to conduct monthly maintenance on all those elevators, although a review of the company’s contract with the CHA revealed no such stipulation.

Bailey said there has been a recent spike in maintenance calls to CHA buildings, but attributed that to construction work.

“You got a lot of construction workers in there running in and out. You tend to get more shutdowns in those situations,” he said. “But we are not talking about dramatic spikes, we are talking about a little bit of a spike. And a little bit of a spike tenants notice.”

Moe Shanfield, 85, lives in Caroline Hedger Apartments in Rogers Park. The CHA building has had numerous problems with its elevators despite the building going through a $45 million overhaul.
Moe Shanfield, 85, lives in Caroline Hedger Apartments in Rogers Park. The CHA building has had numerous problems with its elevators despite the building going through a $45 million overhaul. Madison Hopkins/BGA

At the Caroline Hedger Apartments, one of those tenants is 85-year-old Moe Shanfield, who lives on the 11th floor. Over the last five years, his building went through a sweeping $45 million overhaul. Records show none of that money was used to upgrade elevator mechanics, but $162,354 was spent to spruce up trash chutes and improve the look of elevators with new stainless steel walls and flooring.

“If you look at the interior of the elevators, it’s glitzy,” said Shanfield, a retired writer. “So they spent that money and they couldn’t find enough money to install reliable elevators.”

WBEZ’s 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.