Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mercy Lakefront Housing and the Story That Refuses to Happen

A funny thing happened on the way to this story. My primary source proved late this morning that she is unreliable. Will that stop me? No, it just adds another dimension to the story. The main thrust of this story was going to be the allegedly horrible conditions at the Miriam Apartments, a taxpayer funded SRO at 4707 N. Malden Avenue on the north side of Chicago. It sits in Alderman Helen Shiller’s 46th Ward, in a neighborhood that has more than its share of public housing buildings, gang problems, prostitution and violence. The Miriam is owned by Mercy Housing Lakefront (“Mercy Lakefront”), which also has the Malden Arms Apartments at 4727 N. Malden. Instead, it’s more about the process of trying to write a story and how a story can get screwed up, delayed and messed around. It’s about a source who hasn't come through and has made false promises. It’s about the Chicago Department of Buildings, which doesn’t seem to know its assessments from its elbow joints. I was first told of the allegations about the Miriam Apartments in May, 2009 by a woman who lives in that building. Latoya (not her real name) alleged that water leaks through the exterior brick walls and that, as a result, interior walls were bulging in some of the residential units. A look at the building will tell you that it is in need of tuck pointing, and that at least one drain pipe is detached from the rain gutter. Latoya added that “interior plumbing leakage” is another contributing factor to the moisture problem within the building’s walls. Latoya also claims that mold and mildew are problems in the building, partly as a result of the moisture in the walls. The Chicago Department of Buildings seems to confirm that allegation (see below). On Friday, June 19, says Latoya, there were partial ceiling collapses in three areas of the Miriam Apartments. Two, she says, were in residential units. The third was in a common “kitchen area,” and I let her take a photo of it with my camera. It is clearly a hole, and the garbage cans placed underneath it would seem to be there to catch any more water that drips through. It should be added that I did not personally see this, just the photo she snapped. A laundry list of the other allegations made to me by Latoya: - Bedbug infestation. - Roaches, mice and other vermin. - A back door that was left unlocked, allowing non-residents to enter freely (that problem, I’ve learned, was corrected in late May). - Staff who are allegedly “frequently absent” or “asleep” at the high-security front desk. To enter you must be buzzed through a locked door, then enter a lobby and speak to the desk attendant through glass bank teller-style. Latoya claims that a neighbor on the street has video of non-residents crawling through the front windows during desk staff absences or naps. - Latoya says there is only one emergency light in each hallway, on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th floors, and one in the common kitchen area. - Bricks, says Latoya, fall from the exterior walls now and then. (I must add that I saw no holes where a brick might have once been, but that tuck pointing is in need of attention and there are cracks in the exterior walls.) - Criminal activity in the building, says Latoya, is common and frequent. From violence to drug sales, prostitution to theft, the activity is allegedly not reported by Mercy Lakefront as required to Chicago Housing Choice Voucher Program (CHAC), the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or to the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). On Monday, June 22 I met with Latoya in Uptown. I took careful notes as she answered questions. Mostly, I reviewed with she had told me in the past. The only news she had was the ceiling collapse. She said she had more photos, but they were on film in a disposable camera. She needed to get them developed, but would get copies to me. I came to realize only this morning that Latoya is not reliable. I’m not saying she’s lying; I can’t know that, and I can’t know if she’s telling the truth either. I do know that she has told me untruths. I have a gut feeling that most of what she has told me is true, but she has worked against herself by not providing substantiation to me. Lying means telling an untruth intentionally. An untruth can be told innocently if the teller honestly believes the untruth or did not intend to mislead. While a writer or reporter has certain ethical obligations that they should follow in dealing with a source, a source should have enough common sense to follow a few simple, unwritten rules too. Those rules would be, simply enough, to provide as much pertinent information as possible to the reporter as possible; if you tell a reporter that you're in a hurry to get the story out do yourself a favor and get documents and photos to the reporter. After asking Latoya repeatedly for copies of documents, complaints and photographs, she has not come through. Last Monday, June 22, Latoya told me she had photos on a disposable film camera and would get them developed and prints to me quickly. But this morning, by phone, she told me that the photos she has are now on a CD and in the hands of Unique So Chic, a local chocolate boutique. “You said you were going to give them to me after you had the film developed,” I said to her on the phone. “I promised them to Unique So Chic a long time ago,” she replied. “Then why did you tell me on Monday that you’d get them to me as soon as possible?” I asked. “My phone minutes are running short,” she said. “Fine,” I said, “then let Unique So Chic write the story.” Huh? Why she chose to give those photos to a chocolate shop rather than to me or any other writer is a mystery. I mean, I love chocolate, and Unique So Chic is a nice place, but what are they going to do with those photos? I’m writing it now, or part of it anyway. Admittedly, the story is not the story I was hoping to write, but at least it’s out there now. A source who has not been able to substantiate anything she’s told me, except for a small portion of a ceiling that appears to have collapsed, has shown that she is quite capable of misrepresenting herself. Latoya and I have communicated by e-mail, phone and in person. Despite my asking her several times for copies of her correspondence with HUD, CHA and other agencies, she never sent anything to me. Latoya emphasized nearly two weeks ago (on Monday, June 15) that she wanted the story to get out “quickly.” Her desire to was heightened after the ceiling collapse on June 19. Latoya had already been talking to another reporter for a couple of weeks about the Miriam Apartments. On Monday, June 14, I ran into Latoya in Uptown and asked how the story was going. She told me that the other reporter was not moving quickly enough for her. I knew about the story, but gave that other reporter “dibs” on it as a “professional courtesy,” since Latoya and she already seemed to have a working relationship. That broke down, however, and Latoya “gave” me the story a week later. Lenora, the other reporter (not her real name), assured me that she would get the story up by 6:00 p.m. on Monday, June 22. She still has not posted that story (as of 6 :20 p.m., June 25). Lenora had her chance at the story, and the dibs came off at 6:00 p.m. on Monday. In fact, Lenora actually informed me this morning that she no longer cares about the story. “You can have the damned story,” she yelled at me. I mean, she really yelled at me, in a bizarre and frightening way. (Don’t ask, you don't want to know.) It seems that the few people who want this story out have either screwed around on it, given up on, underreported it, or are simply unreliable. Sadly, I include the Chicago Department of Buildings (DOB) in that group. On Wednesday, June 24, I spoke to Bill McCaffery, a DOB spokesman. In the course of asking him about violations and citations and warnings and all the rest related to Mercy Lakefront’s Miriam Apartments, McCaffery told me how violation notices are handled. In a nutshell, McCaffery let it be known that the Department of Buildings official policy is “not written down anywhere.” I was shocked. How can it be “official” if it’s never even been written down? That’s just how it’s always been, he said. Whatever, I moved on. If a problem is "persistent" the building owner “will get another notice.” After how long? I asked. Notices, McCaffery said, have no deadlines for action. There is no requirement for a building owner to fix a problem within any period of time, he said. “But,” I said to him, “a simple parking ticket has a deadline for payment. Why doesn’t a citation for quality-of-life building violations have a deadline?” No answer to that. He plowed on to say that follow-up by DOB is often not made or made after a long time because "we're stretched pretty thin." Here’s how thin, in the case of the Miriam Apartments: McCaffery was generous with his time and reviewed the recent inspection history of the building for me. June, 2006 - An inspection found “rotted window frames” on the 2nd and 3rd floors. “A notice was sent to them,” he said. (My photos of June 22 clearly show rotting, misshapen window frames with flaking paint on all floors, including those on the ground floor.) October 2008 - A DOB inspection found "flaking paint" on "rotted window frames." But, McCaffery said, "they may have fixed the problem." There was no deadline to fix this, of course, and as noted above, it has not been fixed. February 2009 - Another DOB inspection found leaks "throughout" the building and mold in interior walls. While telling me this, McCaffery told me that DOB "has had no complaints of mold." June 7, 2009 - A complaint was made to the DOB of open garbage in the boiler room. "Wait," McCaffery told me near end of phone interview, "I do have a complaint of mold here. I wonder why it's not in the record." He said he would look into that, then mentioned that Mercy has a date in Housing Court coming up soon. I asked him to call me back with details about the mold complaint and the court date. He said he'd get back me in the afternoon. He has not called back. On the morning of Thursday, June 25, his office voicemail said he would be out of the office all day, returning on Friday, June 26. Heck, that’s way past my deadline. I wouldn’t want to keep Latoya waiting. Should we watch for a full, in-depth report about The Miriam Apartments and Mercy Housing Lakefront from the chocolate boutique? Latoya seems to think so. RELATED: Take It To The Park - Uptown Update Gang Fight At Leland And Malden Tonight - Uptown Update 'Malden Arms' SRO To Appeal Zoning Decision - Uptown Update Mayor Daley and the rehabilitation of Malden Arms Mercy Housing Lakefront press release, Sept 8, 2008 Chicago ordinance, 2008; loans to Malden Arms Limited Partnership (PDF) Leave a Comment... See Our Online Store Chicago News Bench RSS Feed We're on Twitter...