Health-related complaints among residents of a 12-building, 66-unit affordable apartment development in North Lawndale called Liberty Square are mounting in the face of what tenants say is the property management company’s inability or unwillingness to address a range of maintenance issues.
Denise Mason was a tenant of one of the units at 705 S. Independence Blvd. from 2005 until 2016, when she was evicted by the management company, Bonheur Realty Services Corporation, after a drawn-out dispute over repeated maintenance requests that Mason says the company never honored. 
Mason — the recipient of a CHA project-based housing voucher — had stopped paying a portion her rent in 2014 out of frustration over the company’s refusal to change carpet that had been soiled after at least three major floods. 
Mason said she requested new carpet from around 2010 until 2016, during which time management kept telling her that her name was on top of the list to receive replacement carpet even though her requests were never honored. 
The first flood, Mason said, happened in 2006 after what she said was a botched maintenance job on the washing machine. The other two happened in January 2015 and January 2016 after the pipes burst in a third-floor showroom apartment above her, resulting in flooding throughout the entire apartment complex, Mason said. 
 “After the [2015] flood, the maintenance came into the apartment, mopped water up, and left,” Mason said. “They did nothing else but mop the water. A few days later, there was a water bubble formed in my kitchen. They had to come in and cut it, and a whole lot of nasty water drained into a pail.” 
In 2016, during the eviction process, Mason’s apartment tested positive for elevated mold conditions. An outside inspection found E. Coli and Enterococcus bacteria colonies growing in the unit. 
For Mason, the findings were an explanation for the multiple health symptoms she, her daughter and at least two other relatives who had been living at the apartment started experiencing after the first flood in 2006.
In 2008, Mason said, she started experiencing mysterious symptoms that lasted until she eventually left the apartment last year. She has since been diagnosed with lung and upper respiratory problems and chronic abdominal pain. She said she’s developed abscesses throughout her body, four of which were surgically removed in a span of two months.  
“I’ve had problems with my menstrual cycle and have been bleeding for months at a time,” said Mason’s daughter, Nekira Dockery, 21. “I’ve experienced numbness in my fingertips and toes. I’ve had chronic abdominal pain, bruises, bumps, headaches, sinus problems, rashes.” 
“My father had a heart attack in my apartment,” said Mason, adding that she and her relatives aren’t alone. 
During what was called a State of the Property meeting held in June in North Lawndale, Fred Bonner, owner of Bonheur Realty Services, addressed the concerns of tenants with complaints similar to Mason’s. 
The meeting, the second of its kind in two months, was called at the urging of 24th Ward Ald. Michael Scott’s office. Apparently, so many Liberty Square tenants had called with complaints that the alderman pushed Bonheur to address them.
Shaun Heath, Liberty Square’s property manager, laid out the company’s protocol for handling emergencies similar to the flooding that happened in Mason’s building.
“Emergencies are handled immediately as they should be and regular work orders should be handled within 48 hours — no more than 72 hours,” she said. “Over the last six to nine months, I’ve seen work order turnaround greatly improve. The guys are doing work orders on a consistent basis and at the end of [a two-week period], there are typically only two to three work orders outstanding.”
Heath said there may be work orders that the company doesn’t know about or that haven’t been reported correctly by residents. 
But at least three residents interviewed at the meeting disputed Heath’s observation, explaining that they have outstanding work order requests for wall painting and new carpet that are several years old. Mason said she had been requesting a change of carpet for at least six years. 
Victoria Muhammad, 60, who lives at 700 S. Central Ave., complained about unaddressed flooding problems similar to Mason’s. 
“When I wash, it bubbles up and has my house smelling like sewer,” she said. “It’s going on two years and nothing’s been done. They say they’re going to come in and tear the walls down but that hasn’t been done. The people next door knocked on my door the other day saying they have the same problems.”
Muhammad said she lives with her son, who has sickle cell anemia. 
“He had a stroke and he ain’t got but one hand,” she said. “I want that carpet up. It’s got dust mites in there and it ain’t been changed since the building been there. I got mold by my front and back doors.” 
Theresa Stowers, 65, said she’s lived in her apartment unit in Liberty Square for 12 years.  
“My house ain’t been painted in 12 years and I’ve been on the list for four years,” Stowers said. “They’ve sent people out for mold in my house. There’s mold between the sink and the tub, on the ceiling in my bedroom, in my dining room — there’s mold everywhere. I’ve had five heart attacks and nine strokes since I’ve been there.” 
During separate interviews conducted with other residents of Liberty Square in early August, the health-related complaints relating to mold mounted.
Deborah Snyder, a resident of a unit at 3656 W. Lexington St., said she lives in the building with her young daughter. The mold has affected them both, she said.
“We got fungus coming down our skin,” she said. “My baby’s skin’s been peeling. I lost like 20 pounds. I lost a lot of weight in one month.” 
Ruby Hodges, who is currently living with Snyder, said she’s seen black mold and fungus in the unit. She also said that every time she’s put something on the floor in the apartment, mold gets on it. 
“The people sent down here do nothing in our apartment,” Snyder said. “[The maintenance person] didn’t look under the sink; he didn’t look under anything. 
Another Liberty Square resident, who requested anonymity, said her apartment has also been affected by flooding and mold. She said maintenance has only marginally addressed the mold problem without getting to the source. 
When Bonner was confronted with mold-related complaints from residents at the June meeting, he said emergencies like floods are supposed to be addressed immediately. 
“Any time, day or night, they’re supposed to address that issue when there’s [water] backup,” he said. 
“They don’t,” said Stowers, before Mason asked Bonner if mopping up water is a sufficient response.
“No, they’re supposed to address the issue itself,” Bonner said. “They’re supposed to do anything it takes to correct that issue.” 
Before and after the meeting, however, Bonheur officials refused to comment on the residents’ concerns and declined repeated requests for an interview. 
The Chicago Department of Buildings records show that 705. S Independence Blvd. building failed its last inspection, which took place on Jan. 24. Unlike the others, the violation specifically mentions mold, with the report noting that, while the building management allowed the inspector to enter a “first floor unit,” Bonheur officials didn’t allow the inspector to enter any other units “to verify complaint of mold.” 
The inspector also cited the owner for failing to register with the building department between 2013 and 2017, failure to replace a defective screen on a front stairway and failure to address peeling paint in a kitchen. 
Meanwhile, 711 and 723 S. Independence Blvd. passed their most recent inspections, both of which took place on Jan. 7, 2011. 
A resident of one apartment owned by Bonheur said she’s experienced pain in her bones and spasms during the night. She also showed large black spots on her skin, similar to the spots that showed up on other tenants. The resident, who requested anonymity, said management has offered to move her into 705 S. Independence Blvd., unit 2A, which is Mason’s old apartment. 

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...