CHA accident burns girl, raises maintenance questions

A lawsuit involving an infant severely burned in a Chicago Housing Authority building highlights dangerous maintenance lapses at the agency, say housing advocates and the girl's lawyer.

Speaking for the first time about the case, which the agency settled three months ago for $225,000, attorney Nancy Hirsch opened up about the maintenance problems that led to young Jasmine Watson suffering severe burns to the face while living in Chicago's public housing. 

"It was in the evening," says Hirsch, a lawyer at the Chicago firm Reibman, Hoffman, Baum, Hirsch and O'Toole, about the 2004 incident at the Harold Ickes Homes on the South Side.

"She sort of scooted to the edge of the bed and slipped off, falling right on to a hot radiator coil," Hirsh says. "The radiator cover was broken."

While the case was finally settled, the central question was never answered: Was the Chicago Housing Authority and the company that manages Ickes, Woodlawn Community Development Corp., to blame for the alleged negligent conditions that caused Jasmine's injury?

Jasmine's grandmother, the registered tenant, said the radiators had been damaged for years, and the problems had been reported during annual unit inspections.

Hirsch says CHA could not produce the inspection documents for the years prior to Jasmine's accident, but the inspection notice from two month after the incident showed the radiator covers to be in disrepair.

"The litigation was settled in a matter that all parties believed to be fair and acceptable," says CHA spokesman Matt Aguilar. "The CHA declines to comment further."

Hirsch says because the case was settled, CHA officials never admitted to any wrongdoing. But cases like this aren't uncommon. Since 2000 when the Plan for Transformation began, more than 180 premises liability complaints have been filed against CHA.

"There are a lot of residents that live with chronic ongoing problems that don't make the headlines," says Nicki Bazer, attorney for the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago.

Problems can include leaks, mold, rats, roaches, broken appliances, dangerous stairwells, defective lighting and sewage problems.

Not all of these problems lead to cases like Jasmine's, but the concentration of people in neglected units can lead to accidents and problems, as well as poor living conditions.

"I mean, there's just a lot of kids in small spaces," says Hirsch.

These problems are common throughout public housing, says Charles Petrof, another attorney with LAF, but are more prevalent at places like Ickes.

"Over the years because of lack of funding or lack of determination, a lot of these buildings have been run into the ground," says Petrof. "The news on the street is that Ickes has been having trouble."

Ickes is in a kind of public housing purgatory right now. Plans for its redevelopment haven't been set, according to the CHA's 2009 Plan for Transformation document. That means unlike other projects that have been demolished and rebuilt or rehabbed, redevelopment at Ickes is idle, with no clear direction for the future.

Resident leader Gloria Williams says when residents come to her with problems in their unit, she makes sure they get fixed. But she says she doesn't trust the management company to take care of everyone's problems.

"I don't like some of the things they do," says Williams. "I don't figure they (tenants) should have to come to me to get what they're supposed to have."

According to their website, the Woodlawn Organization manages around 3,600 public housing units around the city of Chicago, including Ickes, Trumbull Park Homes and South Chicago Towers.

"They have a checkered history," says Petrof. "Many of the developments they manage, tenants have had problems with maintenance."

But Bob Whitfield, attorney for the Central Advisory Council, say Woodlawn's record varies from property to property and often depends on the individual employees.

"You live and die by the people who do the job," says Whitfield. "You will find some very bad; a few, very good; and there's a bunch in the middle."

CHA says it monitors management companies like Woodlawn to make sure they're doing a good job.

"The management responsiveness to maintenance issues is a matter that is constantly monitored and is reflected in the management companies ongoing evaluations," says Aguilar.

Officials at Woodlawn Organization could not be reached for comment today.

Until the Plan for Transformation is complete, Whitfield says finding quality housing is going to continue to be a problem.

"It's quite an undertaking," says Whitfield. "What it means is, they can't do it all at once. "

As for Jasmine, Hirsch says she's doing well. She is five years old now and has lasting scars from the incident. She will have to wait until she's older to see if any further medical procedures need to be done. 

"She seems to be a resilient, strong-willed little girl," says Hirsch.

Staff Writer Megan Cottrell covers public housing for the Daily News. She can be reached at 773-362-5002, ext. 12.