Your NPR news source

Hell Hath No Fury Like the Chicago Building Permit

SHARE Hell Hath No Fury Like the Chicago Building Permit

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley wants to regulate the expediters who help cut through red tape to get city permits. The move comes after 15 people associated with the city's zoning and building departments were charged with bribery. Some aldermen have complained that Daley's changes would make the process even more byzantine and bureaucratic for average citizens. Thinking back to his experience, Chicagoan Ron Litke wonders how that could even be possible.

If you've ever tried getting a building permit in Chicago, you know that it's like real-life experience of Dante's Inferno. I think that when the great Italian poet approaches the gate to Hell and sees the famous warning to “abandon all hope,” he was actually visiting Florence's city hall to get a building permit for an addition to his villa.

It took five months for me to get a permit to build a small addition to a small house, which is now underway. It started last November at a satellite office of the Department of Buildings, away from City Hall; these offices were created to expedite the permit process for small projects like mine. Really.

Now, it's not as though I'm unfamiliar with the machinations of Chicago government. I was a press secretary for the corporation counsel of the city's Law Department during a previous administration, so I know my way around our government – or at least thought I did.

The overall plan, designed by a reputable and quite notable architect, appeared solid and legal. But one also needs a curiously peculiar letter of awareness of the project from one's alderman among all the insurance and licensing documents. These latter concerns are, of course, perfectly understandable and necessary. But over the next few months, my permit request was turned back for scary details: the telephone number of the electrician, or the type of plumbing fixtures I would be using, such as the model of the toilet in a bathroom.

And then, on what I thought would be my last visit, I was told that a two-foot section of my addition was deemed six inches too close to my neighbor – even though it was two feet within my property line.

There was no choice but to go insane. I raised my voice and clamored for a phone call to a supervisor and got a reasonable voice from City Hall who gave me an appointment at 9 a.m. the next day.

In the Inferno, Dante articulates Hell into nine circles, with the ninth being the circle of treachery. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but the Chicago Department of Buildings is on the ninth floor of City Hall.

It's a place of lost souls, mostly folks wandering about who are equally or even more frustrated than me. Then there are others – they are known as “expediters” – whose sole job is to get in line to present large or expensive projects for developers and architects who are simply to busy and important to wait for the approval of their plans. These are the folks connected to the federal indictments.

My contact with the calm voice assures me that, with a few strokes and initials – in black ink only -- by my architect, I will get a permit. The contractor has told me that morning, a Friday, that he must begin work the following Monday. The calm voice is unmoved by my urgency. I follow him to a seating area where he leaves me and goes into the office of a manager of the zoning department.

Moments later they emerge, I get a nod from the voice, and in twenty minutes a graduate student in public policy is reviewing my drawings for compatibility with the zoning code. And, in a moment of triumph for us both, smacks them with his stamp of approval.

Back to the desk for the imprimatur of the building department. The voice passes the architect and me to a gentle woman who treats the drawings like a ouiga board. The stamper comes out, and for a considerable amount of money, I have a permit to build the Taj Mahal in my backyard.

The architect and I take the elevator down and leave City Hall. It's cold outside. The architect looks at me, smiles, and says, “That wasn't so bad. The construction will be hell.”

More From This Show