Some Chicago Renters Are Stuck Living Without Water During The COVID-19 Pandemic

Vernal Green fire hydrant
Vernal Green getting water from a fire hydrant near his West Woodlawn apartment. María Inés Zamudio / WBEZ
Vernal Green fire hydrant
Vernal Green getting water from a fire hydrant near his West Woodlawn apartment. María Inés Zamudio / WBEZ

Some Chicago Renters Are Stuck Living Without Water During The COVID-19 Pandemic

Every morning, Vernal Green grabs a five-gallon bottle and a monkey wrench. He then leaves his West Woodlawn apartment and walks to a fire hydrant at the corner of South Langley Avenue and East 65th Street.

Green, who’s in his 60s, takes the monkey wrench and loosens the hydrant just enough until water squirts out. He uses the bottle to capture as much water as he’ll need for the day. He then lugs the five-gallon bottle back to his apartment where he’ll use the water to bathe, wash dishes and flush the toilet.

This daily ritual has become a necessity for Green. The fire hydrant is his only source of water.

Green has rented his apartment in West Woodlawn for seven years. Two years ago, after a pipe burst during the winter, the water was turned off to repair it. But the pipe was never fixed, and the water was never turned back on. He’s unemployed and can’t afford to move.

“I need water until I can move,” Green said.

He’s not the only one on this block without water. His neighbor, Sheila Johnson, 68, and her husband are also living without water. They moved to the block in January. Everything was fine when they moved in, but then the water was turned off. Johnson said she thinks the building is in foreclosure and that the landlord was in the process of selling the property before the pandemic.

Living without water has been challenging. Johnson relies on neighbors, libraries and park districts to get water or to use the bathroom. The situation has turned into a nightmare during the pandemic.

“I can’t wash my hands. I use wipes all day, sanitizer,” she said. “Nothing cleans like water.”

Last week, Chicago officials acknowledged that — while the city has halted water shutoffs following a mandate last May from newly-elected Mayor Lori Lightfoot — no plan has been created to restore services to residents who had their water disconnected prior to the shutoff moratorium.

Officials told WBEZ that residents without water should call the city’s finance department and enroll in a payment plan to get their water restored. But for many renters in Chicago, like Green and Johnson, they don’t have the option of calling the city to enroll in a payment plan. They don’t have water bills in their names. Instead, they pay rent to their landlords and property managers and rely on them to pay the city for water services.

If their landlords don’t settle their debts with the city, renters like Green and Johnson are stuck without water during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Johnson’s husband, Steven Jackson, said their situation will worsen as the pandemic continues. “They ain’t seen nothing yet. … They think it’s a pandemic now, just wait,” he said.

Jackson said that he knows many families in his neighborhood living without water. “Come back here when you have time. I’ll show you,” he said.

Johnson said she’s glad community groups like Blacks in Green and Elevate Energy are distributing free bottled water. Blacks in Green and other groups organized a water distribution event on Saturday, just a few blocks from Johnson’s apartment. 

“We’re trying to make connections with people in the community today who may need assistance with helping to get that water back on,” said Davis, founder and executive director of Blacks in Green.

Davis wants Mayor Lightfoot to come up with a plan to identify Chicagoans living without water and to restore services. She said Lightfoot’s heart is in the right place, but she questioned whether the Chicago water department is committed to restoring services in black neighborhoods, which have been hit hardest by water shutoffs and deaths from COVID-19. In 2017, the water department was cited by the city’s inspector general for “an unrestricted culture of overtly racist and sexist behavior and attitudes. 

“The troubling people in the Chicago water department … have demonstrated a contempt for black people that’s fully and well documented,” Davis said, adding that she and other advocates will continue to distribute free bottled water until the city prioritizes restoring water to Chicagoans.

Davis is collecting information from people who don’t have water and hopes she can help them restore water services.

María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.