Asthma Program Targets Landlords | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Asthma Program Targets Landlords

Almost a quarter of children in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood have asthma. That's about twice the national average. A hospital in the neighborhood is taking a novel approach to the problem. It's pressuring some landlords to clean up conditions that can trigger asthma. We report from our West Side bureau.

Rhonda Ward and her 4-year-old grandson are struggling to get their asthma under control. She's convinced it has something to do with mice and rats in the family's four-bedroom apartment.

WARD: I know they're in the washroom in the wall. They're in my bedroom in the wall. At nighttime, you can hear them.

Ward's grandson ended up in Mount Sinai Hospital's emergency room in December.

WARD: His asthma was acting up real, real bad that day.

The hospital put Ward in touch with its research-and-outreach sister organization, the Sinai Urban Health Institute. Helen Margellos-Anast directs a pediatric asthma program there. She's been fighting the disease in North Lawndale for years.

MARGELLOS-ANAST: We've done some home visits where we've helped the families come up with ways they might be able to address some of the basic triggers...

... like cigarette smoke.

MARGELLOS-ANAST: But that is kind of where we had to stop because we didn't have the support to address--if there was a hole in the wall, the family is not necessarily going to be able to fix that, nor is it their responsibility.

Now Sinai has the support it needs to take that next step. A $1.3 million federal grant is expanding the pediatric asthma program over the next three years. The money is providing, among other things, a full-time advocate from the Metropolitan Tenants Organization.

Twenty-three-year-old Loreen Targos's job is to go after landlords. Right now, she's in Ward's apartment waiting for that family's landlord, who's driving in from suburban Northbrook.

TARGOS: [doorbell rings] All right, she's here. I'm nervous. Hi. Are you Kalli?

The landlord is Kalli Shaykin. She buys and sells homes in low-income neighborhoods here on Chicago's West Side. Shaykin has a maintenance crew with her for a walk through the apartment.

Ward gets down to business.

WARD: Do something about these mice. Because they've jumped into bed with my granddaughter already.

Targos, the tenant advocate, steps in.

TARGOS: There are a lot of asthma triggers in this household.

She begins the tour in a dark bathroom.

TARGOS: Right here is the problem. There's a pipe leaking under here.

The leak has opened a four-inch hole in the ceiling above the toilet. Ward says human waste from the upstairs neighbors rains down. And all the water has led to mold, an asthma trigger.

TARGOS: Another problem they've, of course, mentioned is roaches.

Cockroaches and rodents can also trigger asthma.

Shaykin, the landlord, says she doesn't deserve all the blame. In the kitchen, she points to a pile of dirty dishes.

Targos nods.

TARGOS: Certainly you want to clean up the food. Tenants do need to work make sure that they're not feeding the roaches or the rats.

And tenants need to contact the landlord about any health hazards right away. Shaykin says Ward didn't do that until last month.

SHAYKIN: She was issued a five-notice on April 10. And the notice said she owed us $3,700. That's when all the issues started.

ROETTIG: When the tenant doesn't pay the rent, then that proceeds to an eviction, which in the city of Chicago can now take anywhere from 3 to 8 months.

Judy Roettig of the Chicagoland Apartment Association says this lag puts the property owners in a bind.

ROETTIG: There's not a landlord in the city of Chicago who can maintain a building unless they're collecting rent.

Roettig says Sinai's asthma program would be more effective if it provided resources for landlords.

TARGOS: You see all this black stuff down here, and you can smell it.

Headed for eviction or not, Ward wants her landlord to address the asthma triggers.

WARD: I shouldn't be living in these conditions.

SHAYKIN: If her conditions are bad, she should not have to live here. So she can move.

TARGOS: You know, working with a tenants rights organization, we often hear landlords come in and say, ‘So move.' But the fact is that the conditions in this building are against the Chicago building code.

The landlord agrees to do the work. But, back in the living room, her crew is having it out with the family about who's responsible for the rodents.

Ambi: Shouting match.

So far Targos has worked for seven families in the North Lawndale asthma program. She's made progress for most of these tenants.

But, if today is any indication, the next three years won't be easy.

TARGOS: [yelling] Let's try and keep the tempers down. We're going to try to get some agreements here.

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