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For residents of CHA building in Heart of Chicago, persistent sewage, flooding problems stink

Mauricio Vasquez, 59, says he’s seen his building and backyard flood each spring for five years, leaving behind waste and an unbearable smell.

Mauricio Vasquez stands next to a pump where sewage water leaks out into in his basement on 2038 W 19th St in Heart of Chicago, Chicago, Wednesday June 17, 2020. Mauricio Vasquez has had persistent plumbing issues in a home under Chicago Housing Authority. Sewage problems in the building have resulted in waste and sewage water building up in their backyard and in the basement for the past five years. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Mauricio Vasquez stands next to a pump where sewage water leaks into in his basement in a CHA property in Heart of Chicago.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Each spring for the past five years, Mauricio Vasquez and others on his block say they’ve been asking the city to fix recurring flooding and sewage issues that have been plaguing his public housing building in the Heart of Chicago neighborhood.

For five years, it hasn’t happened.

“All the time they want to talk about moving me out,” Vasquez, 59, says of his rental building’s owner, the Chicago Housing Authority. “But I keep telling them I didn’t do anything. You guys are not fixing the problem.”

But now, after Vasquez invited the public to view — and smell — the problem, the CHA says it is working with the city’s Department of Water Management to assess the issue, which might stem from a possibly collapsed water pipe under a sidewalk.

The problem was reported on June 12, water department officials say, adding that the’ve previously made repairs to the property and relocated residents.

That’s been of little satisfaction to Vasquez, who has lived for about 20 years in the small building in the 2000 block of West 19th Street, just west of Harrison Park. It’s among more than 170 properties known as the “scattered sites southeast.”

“CHA is committed to ensuring that the property is clean and will continue to work with property managers and residents to address the matter until it is sufficiently resolved,” the housing agency said in a statement.

A recent video shows Vasquez using a shovel to remove what appears to be mud and feces from a drain in his concrete backyard; a small pile of stinky, rotting debris could still be seen near that backyard drain during a reporter’s visit on Wednesday.

The issues started around 2015 after the city did work on the street, residents say.

The flooding got so bad that Vasquez was temporarily moved to a different CHA property while repairs were made. When he moved back in, it appeared the flooding issue was resolved.

But soon, the flooding continued each spring, bringing the feces and other waste along with it.

Mauricio Vazquez explains the flooding of sewage in his basement on 2038 W 19th St in Heart of Chicago, Chicago, Wednesday June 17, 2020. Mauricio Vasquez has had persistent plumbing issues in a home under Chicago Housing Authority. Sewage problems in the building have resulted in waste and sewage water building up in their backyard and in the basement for the past five years. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Mauricio Vasquez explains flooding and sewage in his basement in Heart of Chicago on Wednesday, June 17, 2020.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The basement was converted into a storage space. Vasquez uses pallets to prop up his belongings, hoping to spare them from the dampness.

He sometimes gets headaches that he attributes to the stench.

“It’s a horrible smell, but I did what I could to minimize it by cleaning, disinfecting, doing what I had to do,” Vasquez says. “Every time I go out the back door to throw out my garbage, I literally had to have a mask because it was so nasty.”

Sewage waste is piled up outside of drain hole from a sewage back up at 2038 W 19th St in Heart of Chicago, Chicago, Wednesday June 17, 2020. Mauricio Vasquez has had persistent plumbing issues in a home under Chicago Housing Authority. Sewage problems in the building have resulted in waste and sewage water building up in their backyard and in the basement for the past five years. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Sewage waste is piled up outside of drain hole at a CHA site in Heart of Chicago on Wednesday, June 17, 2020.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Silas Short, who lives in a privately owned building next door to Vasquez’s, describes the stench at times as “completely unbearable.” He said he knows Vasquez likes to cook, but he can’t imagine how he’s able to do that with the lingering smell.

Alli Kunke, 25, lives in the same building as Short. Last year, the smell got so bad that she filed a complaint with 311. “Nobody deserves to live like this, especially his family,” Kunke said, pointing out the problem comes on top of a public health crisis with COVID-19.

Sarita Walker, a community activist with Lincoln United Methodist Church, has called for Mayor Lori Lightfoot to have a meeting with the CHA, streets and sanitation officials and Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) about the property.

Diego Morales, a staff assistant for Sigcho-Lopez, said the 25th Ward office has reached out to the CHA about Vasquez’s home and other public housing properties in the area.

“We need a little more urgency around these kinds of things,” Morales said.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.