ALBANY PARK — Two Northwest Side alderpeople began pushing the city to crack down on a problem landlord years before a fire destroyed two businesses and displaced dozens of residents at one of the landlord’s Albany Park buildings Monday.
The fire broke out about 3:30 a.m. at a multi-unit residential building in the 4300 block of North Richmond Street, according to the Fire Department. The fire started near a three-story building on the corner and spread to the Twisted Hippo brewpub, 2925 W. Montrose Ave., and the Ultimate Ninjas Gym next door.
Neighbors reported hearing explosions in the brewery as the fire raged inside. One side of the building collapsed, dropping bricks atop parked cars and crushing them.
Fire Department investigators are still trying to determine the cause and exact source of the fire but said Monday night it likely started under a stair set in the gangway between the apartments and Twisted Hippo.
The 4335-39 N. Richmond St. apartment that caught fire is owned by Gary Carlson, a former auto mechanic who started buying apartment buildings in the early ’80s.
The city does not track landlords in any centralized way, but the Sun-Times and Better Government Association revealed in 2016 that Carlson owned at least 60 buildings with more than 500 apartments in and around Albany Park and Irving Park.
Most violations at Carlson’s buildings had been quickly resolved, according to the Sun-Times and BGA. But Carlson more recently has faced criticism for lax security of his properties: A firefighter was shot near one of his buildings in 2020, a 27-year-old woman was fatally shot inside another one of Carlson’s buildings that same month and the police raided a third building in June in a drug investigation.
The city sued Carlson over building conditions in 2021, according to the Tribune. Records from a July inspection show investigators could not get inside the building.
On orders from a Cook County judge, inspectors returned to the building in November and found no smoke detectors in a common stairwell, defective light fixtures and no emergency lighting throughout the building, the Tribune reported.
The judge ordered Carlson to install working smoke detectors immediately, and fix the electrical issues by the next court date, which was scheduled four days before the fire, according to the Tribune.
Representatives for the city’s buildings or law departments did not provide more information Monday.
Ald Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd) said she and Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) have tried for years to hold Carlson accountable for the conditions of his buildings. Carlson has buildings in both wards, and their offices have coordinated efforts to get Carlson to fix a “long list of violations” at his properties, Rodriguez-Sanchez said.
“And the 35th Ward office and our office have both been on his case for a very long time, at this point getting the city departments together to inspect his buildings and give him an ultimatum on what needs to happen,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said. “Because there were so many violations in different buildings the law department took over.”
Rosa could not be reached for comment Monday. Jessica Vásquez, Rosa’s chief of staff, said the two ward offices planned to meet with the city law department Tuesday for an update on the ongoing court case.
After a 35th Ward neighbor complained about one of Carlson’s buildings, Rosa’s office responded one of the city’s demands if the situation didn’t improve would be a conservatorship, or turning the building over to a court-appointed agency to resolve substandard conditions, according to emails provided to Block Club.
“We are mediating additional grievances with Gary. Among some of our demands are adding cameras, lighting, screening for tenants, security, additional staffing, and/or conservatorship if things fail to improve,” Vásquez wrote in the email.
Rodriguez-Sanchez said she wants the city to consider revoking Carlson’s access to low-income housing funds.
“It should be clear that anything that happens as a result of Gary not complying has to be after the process currently with the law department, and he’s being taken to court consistently to ensure he’s complying with the things he’s been asked to do,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said. “If he doesn’t comply, then there are different options.”
Though the fire’s cause has not been determined, neighbors at the scene said there have been issues with smoking, partying and trash on the back stairs of the property where the blaze may have started.
State Rep. Jaime Andrade also said Carlson’s properties have long been an issue in the neighborhood.
“You had a bad feeling that something was going to happen with that building … and it did,” he said following Monday’s fire.
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The city visited 4335-39 N. Richmond St. and noted the following violations, in addition to not being able to access the inside of the building:
• Failure to maintain the exterior walls of a building or structure free from holes, breaks, loose or rotting boards or timbers and any other conditions which might admit rain or dampness to the walls due to loose and missing mortar.
• Failure to repair or replace defective or missing members of porch system.
• Failure to maintain exterior door hardware in good condition and repair because the entry doors did not latch closed.
• Failure to maintain exterior service walks, passage and areaways in clean, sanitary and safe condition because of broken concrete.
• Failure to screen outer doors, windows, and other outer openings adequately April 15-Nov. 15.
• Failure to remove gang graffiti.
City inspectors said the property “partially passed” an electrical inspection. The city database does not detail violations from that, but in January, the buildings department approved a permit for Carlson to “correct electrical violations indicated in report after inspection on Nov. 2, 2021,” according to city documents.
“I have an electrician working for me full time. I have no idea what he pulled as far as the permit. I have no firsthand knowledge. I’ve got so many violations,” Carlson told Block Club Monday. “I think that I may set the Chicago, maybe the world record for the number of violations that I have. I think it’s a direct result of a mandate from [Mayor] Lori Lightfoot to ream me, steam me and dry clean me as a result of that firefighter getting shot.”
Building records show Carlson also received a permit Jan. 31 to repair a “northwest porch” and fix stairs with uneven risers.
Carlson previously told Block Club he’s owned the building on Richmond since 2006 and it included 21 apartments.
Red Cross volunteers were helping at least nine displaced households as of Monday afternoon, Red Cross spokesman Holly Baker said.
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