Cook County Updates Building Codes in Unincorporated Areas

January 21, 2015

The Civic Federation’s recent report profiling six townships in Cook County with the largest unincorporated population examined issues related to annexing unincorporated areas. The report described the unincorporated areas and identified many of the barriers that municipalities might face if they were to annex the unincorporated areas adjacent to their borders. Based on interviews conducted with suburban municipal officials and other stakeholders, inadequate Cook County building code regulations and lack of code enforcement in the unincorporated areas were identified as one of the barriers to annexation.

On November 19, 2014, the Cook County Board of Commissioners took a step toward reducing barriers to incorporation when they adopted Ordinance 14-5599. The ordinance enacts comprehensive amendments to the Cook County Building and Environmental Ordinance of 1997. The ordinance governs building, electrical, mechanical and plumbing regulations regarding the construction and renovation of buildings in the unincorporated areas of Cook County.

The revisions to the building code incorporate international standards and best practices as adopted in the following codes:

  • 2009 International Building Code;
  • 2009 International Residential Code;
  • 2012 International Energy Conservation Code;
  • 2012 International Mechanical Code;
  • 2014 Cook County Electrical Code; and
  • 2014 State of Illinois Plumbing Code.

By making revisions to the Cook County Building and Environmental Ordinance of 1997 to incorporate these best practices, the County is making an effort to better align the building regulations enforced in the unincorporated areas by Cook County with the regulations enforced by the suburban municipalities that are adjacent to the unincorporated areas.

In addition to the adoption of international building code regulations, the Civic Federation made the following additional preliminary recommendations based on our research to date that include:

Establish a Goal of Eliminating Building and Zoning, Police and Liquor Control Services

Cook County should adopt a formal policy goal of moving toward the elimination of building and zoning, police and liquor control services for unincorporated areas. It is inefficient to provide these municipal-type services to thousands of non-contiguous parcels scattered across the County’s hundreds of square miles. Shifting animal and rabies control to hundreds of municipalities is impractical and would not be cost effective.

Prepare an Annual Report on Cost of Services to Unincorporated Areas

  • Cook County should annually prepare a report on the cost of providing municipal-type services to its unincorporated areas. This report should:
  • Detail the cost of providing municipal-type services to the residents in those areas;
  • Calculate the cost of the County’s annual subsidy to unincorporated areas;
  • Provide information on police incident reports; and
  • Report building code inspection data by township, not just in the aggregate (i.e.: permits, citations, door tags issued, number of follow-up inspections, number of vacant properties, etc.).

Impose a Fee for Police Services in Unincorporated Areas

The Civic Federation recommends that a fee be imposed on all unincorporated areas to pay for Sheriff’s Police expenses. Alternatively, special service areas (SSAs) could be established to provide funding from property taxes. The taxes would only apply to unincorporated property owners. The amount of the fee should be fixed at an amount that would compensate Cook County for the full cost of the salary, benefits, patrol cars and other relevant expenses required for all police officers utilized in this program.

Cook County Should Develop a Comprehensive Land Use Plan for the Unincorporated Areas

Cook County should work with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) to develop a comprehensive land use and development plan for the unincorporated areas. The County should earmark funds to pay for a comprehensive plan, including the use of funds from the $5 million grant fund the County has established or the issuance of bonds.

Annually Renew Cook County’s $5 Million Matching Infrastructure Grant

The County’s $5 million matching fund that is available to municipalities developing incorporation plans should be annually authorized.

Allow Inspection of Individual Units in Multi-Family Complexes

The County should approve an ordinance which would allow the Building and Zoning Department to inspect individual units in multi-family rental complexes and to regulate the ongoing rental of units.

Charge Fees for Follow-up Building Inspections

Currently, there is no fee for follow-up building inspections that had building code violations that were not remedied before the first building inspection. Cook County should charge a fee for each follow-up inspection in an amount sufficient to cover the cost of the follow-up inspection. Property owners should not receive a free ride for violations.

Consider Adoption of a Cook County Landlord Responsibility Ordinance

Cook County should consider adopting a property owner responsibility ordinance that requires property owners to obtain an annual license, attend mandatory training seminars conducted by public safety personnel and certify that rental properties have met security requirements for resident safety. Such an ordinance must ensure that discrimination is not allowed for Housing Choice Voucher (formerly known as Section 8) recipients. Landlords should be assessed a fee to recoup the cost of the program.

The Civic Federation is encouraged by the actions of the Cook County Board of Commissioners by adopting comprehensive amendments to the Building and Environmental Ordinance of 1997. These building code amendments will improve the safety and quality of life for residents residing in the unincorporated areas of Cook County and address one of the barriers to incorporation that adjacent municipalities identified.