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Chicago code related to keeping hallways, stairs and exit pathways free of items

What can be stored in the common hallways, stairways and other means of egress?

According to the law, nothing. Interior landings, hallways and stairs must be completely clear of all items. This includes shoes, shoe racks, planters, pots or other items.

The relevant section of the Chicago Municipal Code below relates to new construction:

13-160-070 Obstructions prohibited.
For purposes of this section and Section 13-96-135 only: the term “small building” shall mean a residential building that is both less than four stories high and contains fewer than four residential units; and the term “large building” shall mean a residential building that is four or more stories high, or contains four or more residential units, or both.

There shall be no obstruction in any exitway that may hamper travel and evacuation. This section does not prohibit the locking of a gate in a fence that secures a residential building:
(a) from either or both faces of the gate in the case of a small building, or
(b) from the exterior face of the gate in the case of a large building
so long as the locked gate does not prevent egress from the building to the exterior.

The relevant section of the Chicago Municipal Code below relates to existing buildings:

13-196-080 Passageways and exits to be unobstructed.
Every hallway, corridor, stairway, exit, fire escape door, and other means of egress, shall be kept clear and unencumbered at all times; and every exit area shall be adequately lighted by electricity, in accordance with Sections 13-160-660 and 13-160-670 of this Code.

As an additional data point we had a fire safety specialist perform an onsite analysis of one of our properties located in downtown Chicago. He reported that absolutely nothing could be in these areas. Anything on the wall, such as a bookshelf or cabinet must be bolted and secured to the wall. This assumes that any such item does not block the thorough-way in any fashion.

The reason that items must be bolted to the wall is so that they cannot fall or be knocked off in the case of an emergency. (Imagine a smoke-filled hallway and a resident trying to make their way to the exit)

What about exterior landings and stairs?

The codes above do not distinguish between interior and exterior stairs. The stairs themselves must be completely clear of all items and the exit path from the property must likewise be clear.

Many buildings have a rear desk system with an open porch area for each floor and stairs connecting the levels. In such cases the stairs and the main path of egress must be kept completely free of all items.

Will a Fire Inspector cite the building if these areas are not clear?

A fire inspector may choose not to write a citation if he or she finds a pair of shoes in a common hallway. That stated, according to the letter of the law, nothing can be stored in these areas. Many Boards allow unit owners to store minor items in these areas, or choose to "look the other way". It ultimately is a Board decision whether or not to enforce these laws.

What Boards should consider, however, is that the real risk of allowing items to be stored in these common areas is not a citation from a fire inspector. The real risk is a resident or other party getting injured or killed due to being unable to exit the building in the case of a fire or other emergency. Similar to a Board failing to equip the building with the legally required levels of fire extinguishers and emergency lighting, the potential liability exposure related to these issues is severe.

To protect the Board and Association from potential lawsuits and/or denial of insurance claims, our recommendation is that the Board enforce policies that require all areas to remain completely free of all items.

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