Problem Solver: Pipe leak halts neighbors' water for weeks

North Lawndale residents upset that so many affected for so long without a repair

A crew from Amalgamated Services, Inc. begin the process of fixing a three inch broken water pipe, which has kept residents without water since early last month in the austin area on March 1, 2013. (Abel Uribe/ Chicago Tribune)

On her kitchen table, Cassandra Austin keeps two milk jugs, a 96-ounce orange juice container, stainless steel pots and an assortment of plastic pitchers.

Every evening for the past three weeks, her 32-year-old son has gathered the containers, walked out the back door of her North Lawndale neighborhood apartment and filled them at her sister's house across the way.

If the jugs don't get filled, Austin can't flush her toilet, wash her face or brush her teeth.

It has been this way since Feb. 6, when the city shut off a neighbor's water service because of a leak.

Because the pipe also feeds Austin's house and eight other town houses in the 10-unit complex, the city's decision to cut off service meant all the units went dry. That left the residents, including senior citizens and young children, without potable water.

Almost a month later, Austin's four-bedroom town house remained without water service, in part because no one was willing, or able, to fix the broken pipe.

"I never thought I'd have to live like this. Never," Austin said last week.

For each toilet flush, she must transfer water from open-mouthed steel pots to an easier-to-carry orange juice container. She then carries the orange juice container into the bathroom, opens the top to the toilet tank, and pours. Austin repeats the process until there's enough water in the tank for a proper flush.

"If you don't have a full bucket, it won't go down," she said. "I work seven days out of a week and I pay taxes. It's unheard of. It's past angry. It's stressful."

Austin and her neighbors say their troubles began in late November when the pipe in front of one of the units burst, sending water into the complex's common area. The complex, in the 1800 block of South Kildare Avenue, consists of two five-unit buildings whose front doors face each other, with a common walkway down the middle. Two units aren't occupied.

All units are individually owned, but there has never been an association or condominium fees, neighbors said.

Because of the way the complex was constructed, the pipe from the city's water main is on private property, and officials told the residents it was not the city's responsibility.

This is not the first issue with water service to the complex. In 2005, the pipe burst under a different unit and the city turned off the water. At the time, the unit owner could not afford to fix the pipe, and a charitable organization paid for repairs. Residents said they were without water for about a day.

This time, no one stepped in to pay.

Betty Anderson, who owns the unit where the pipe burst, said she has gotten two estimates for repairs, one for $3,500, the other $8,000. Anderson, who rents out her unit for $1,000 a month, said she can't afford to pay the entire cost and shouldn't have to. The cost should be shared by all the unit owners, she said.

"I don't have no $4,000 to pay by myself when it's not just my problem," she said. "I was trying to come together with several people in the community, but they won't work with me. I don't know what to do."

Austin said other homeowners are willing to pitch in, but few have money for repairs. Austin said only herself and the owner of one other unit are employed. She said Anderson has not been cooperative.

"She wasn't just hurting her tenant, everyone on this line was hurt," said Diane Stamps, whose mother lives in a unit without water.

Stamps, who lives in the building immediately south of the complex, ran a hose insulated by PVC pipe approximately 100 feet from her house to her mother's house so that her mother could have running water.

"We tried to do whatever we could," Stamps said. "We're lucky. Not everyone has relatives nearby."

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