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Albany Park

As Investigators Probe Albany Park Fire, City Says It Has 72 Court Cases With Troubled Northwest Side Landlord

City officials say they've examined conditions at 77 properties owned by landlord Gary Carlson. Carlson said the city has active court cases "against every building I own except for one."

Damage is seen on Feb. 22, 2022 after the massive three-alarm fire that destroyed an apartment building and two businesses the day before in Albany Park.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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ALBANY PARK — A landlord said he is facing court cases involving nearly all his properties while the Fire Department investigates a fire that gutted one of his apartments, a neighboring brewery and a gym.

Dozens of residents were displaced Monday morning after a fire broke out at a multi-unit residential building in the 4300 block of North Richmond Street, according to the Fire Department. The fire started outside the three-story building on the corner and spread to the Twisted Hippo brewpub, 2925 W. Montrose Ave., and the Ultimate Ninjas Gym next door, officials said.

The roof and one side of the building housing the brewery and the gym collapsed, and the structure likely will have to be demolished because of the damage, city officials said Tuesday. The apartment building had extensive fire damage, but it could be salvaged depending on an investigation from a structural engineer, city officials said.

Fire Department investigators are trying to determine the cause and source of the fire but said Monday night it likely started under a stair set in the gangway between the apartments and Twisted Hippo. Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said the building is too unstable for investigators to examine the building further to pinpoint the cause.

The apartments are owned by Gary Carlson, who owns at least 60 buildings with more than 500 units in and around Albany Park and Irving Park, according to a 2016 investigation by the Sun-Times and the Better Government Association.

Mayoral spokesperson Cesar Rodriguez said in a statement about 72 cases involving Carlson’s building are “in various stages of the court process.” He did not provide more specifics.

“The Department of Buildings has conducted inspections at approximately 77 properties owned by Mr. Gary Carlson, and the Department of Law has filed approximately 72 active housing court cases with the Circuit Court of Cook County,” Rodriguez said in a statement. “The city will continue to hold landlords accountable for non-compliance with the public safety and quality of life provisions of Municipal Code.”

Carlson said Tuesday he has a “file cabinet” full of documents from the cases.

“There’s an active court case against every building I own except for one,” Carlson said.

Carlson said the violations often focus on missing masonry permits, fences over 5 feet high, porches not up to code, a lack of emergency lighting and inconsistent risers in between steps. 

“Some of the things they got me with, I have no problem doing. But I really have a problem with money wasting,” Carlson said. “If I had something serious, I would be nervous because I’d be looking at exposure for my insurance company, possibly me. I got nothing that I’m nervous about.” 

Carlson said he does not think anything at the Richmond Street building is to blame for the fire.

“Because there was no complaint, my tenants aren’t complaining, my maintenance man isn’t telling me there is anything dangerous, hazardous, this, that or the other,” Carlson said. “If you walk through that building, you’re not going to find anything. You’re going to see an older, vintage Chicago apartment building.”

City building records show there is a pending Cook County court case about the Richmond Street building, but city officials did not answer questions about the litigation. The Tribune reported the city sued Carlson over building conditions in 2021. Inspectors later found no smoke detectors in a common stairwell, defective light fixtures and no emergency lighting in the building, according to the Tribune.

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.

The next court date in the case is March 31, city officials said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Damage is seen on Feb. 22, 2022 after the massive three-alarm fire that destroyed an apartment building and two businesses the day before in Albany Park.

Carlson’s buildings have logged hundreds of code violations over the years, though most have been quickly resolved, according to the Sun-Times and BGA.

But more recently Carlson 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.

A 2021 investigation from the Tribune and the BGA detailed broad failures from city leaders to crack down on landlords overseeing residential buildings with known fire safety hazards. Following that report, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office compiled a citywide scofflaw list including 98 unsafe buildings.

The BGA and Tribune found the list did not include hundreds of properties with unsafe conditions, including 40 reporters previously identified as the sites of fatal fires.

City officials said Carlson nor his properties were on the scofflaw list because they didn’t meet the requirements when the list was compiled in September.

Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd) said this week she and Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), whose wards are home to many of Carlson’s buildings, have been pressuring the landlord to fix a “long list of violations” for years.

“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 previously said. “Because there were so many violations in different buildings the law department took over.”

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