Rat holes in the backyard of a Chicago Housing Authority building in the Rogers Park neighborhood. A city inspector found 20 rat holes at the site. Credit: Casey Toner/Illinois Answers Project

This story was produced by the Illinois Answers Project, an investigations and solutions journalism news organization, and Block Club Chicago, a nonprofit newsroom focused on Chicago’s neighborhoods, in partnership with WGN Investigates.

CHICAGO — In its war against the rats, the City of Chicago has a long list of common foes: negligent landlords, restaurants with overflowing dumpsters, people who don’t clean up after their dogs.

But Chicago’s rat problem has an unexpected source of Chicago’s rodent woes: other governments. 

In the past four-and-a-half years, the City of Chicago has fined local agencies more than $750,000 for rat-related violations, building code violation and ticketing data shows.

Stemming from infractions such as rodent infestations, overflowing dumpsters or uncut weeds, the fines mainly targeted the Chicago Housing Authority and the Cook County Land Bank Authority, which together incurred $664,000 in fines. The Chicago Board of Education and the City Colleges of Chicago were also fined, records show.

These government tickets represent a small portion of the $153 million in fines the city has handed out since 2019 to clear weeds, reduce overflowing garbage and remove other junk left in lots that can facilitate rats.

Rat-related tickets totaling $400,000 have been issued to The Cook County Land Bank Authority. Established more than a decade ago to address the glut of abandoned buildings in Cook County, the county-funded organization acquires vacant land and abandoned buildings and then unloads them to private buyers after clearing liens and back taxes.

The Land Bank said in a statement that its average properties have been vacant or neglected for more than a decade, and that the city often fines the Land Bank in the 30 days it takes between obtaining properties and hiring contractors to clean them.

Land Bank properties are also “often victims of fly dumping, an illegal activity that we continuously work to stay ahead of,” according to the statement.

The Cook County Land Bank Authority owes the city $314,000, city data shows.

As the largest owner of rental housing in Chicago, the Chicago Housing Authority has been fined more than $260,000 for rat-related violations by the city.

The agency was in administrative court on June 30 after a building inspector found more than 20 rat holes outside a CHA building in the 7400 block of North Wolcott Avenue in the Rogers Park neighborhood. No fines have been assessed since the case is ongoing.

Garbage is strewn on the ground, and a dumpster overflows outside a Chicago Housing Authority building in the Rogers Park neighborhood. The agency was in court for a rat-related building code violation.
Garbage is strewn on the ground and a dumpster overflows outside a Chicago Housing Authority building in the Rogers Park neighborhood. The agency was in court for a rat-related building code violation (Credit: Casey Toner/Illinois Answers Project)

The judge in the case expressed frustration that the CHA had yet to address the rat problem more than 45 days after the violation was reported.

“This really is not rocket science,” Administrative Law Judge Yolaine M. Dauphin said.

Nicholas Robinson, who lives with his mother on the top floor of the three-story building, said that swarms of rats have been scurrying around the building for at least a year. The visible rat holes in the backyard were just several yards away from trash bags that were strewn on the ground outside the building’s dumpsters.

“At night it’s horrible, there’s rats literally everywhere you go,” Robinson said. “At this point there are so many of them and they’ve gotten so bold, they see you and they don’t even run.”

After being contacted by Illinois Answers, a CHA spokesperson said in a statement that a “pest control contractor serviced the location” on July 21 — nearly two-and-half-months after the rat holes were first reported.

“CHA understands its responsibility to maintain its property in compliance with city ordinances,” the statement said. “In instances where the city determines we have not met these requirements, we work to immediately cure the reported violation and pay the associated fine for each individual violation.”

The CHA owes the city $93,000 in ticket debt, city data shows.

According to the statement, most of the CHA’s fines were related to trash or weeds and not specifically rats, and that the CHA entered into a new garbage contract with Waste Management and “has been working to improve trash collection services at our properties.”