In Memory of Eric Morse: Part II

The following is the second of a two-part report on dangerous physical conditions in CHA buildings. This report was occasioned by the civil trial arising out of the 1994 incident in which two boys, ages 10 and 11, dropped five-year-old Eric Morse to his death from a window in an unsecured vacant unit of a CHA high-rise at the Darrow Homes. The Morse family sued the CHA and a private management company, Diversified Realty Group Inc., charging that they were liable in Eric’s death due to their failure to screen access to the building and to secure vacant units. In Part I we reported on current conditions at the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens—unsecured vacant units, unrestricted access to the roofs of high-rise buildings—similar to those implicated in the death of Eric Morse. Part II below reports on some strategies developed at Stateway Gardens for addressing these conditions.

Young child standing by grate on landing.On November 7, 2001, the suit brought by the family of Eric Morse against the CHA and Diversified Realty Group Inc. was settled. The CHA and Diversified will pay the family $2.75 million. (Another defendant in the suit—Digby’s Detective & Security Service—agreed in June to pay the Morse family $800,000 to settle its claim.) The settlement was announced on the eve of jury selection. And it came ten days after a deposition by former CHA director Vince Lane in which he said that the housing authority had failed to follow its own policies with respect to the securing of vacant units.

The disconnect between policy and implementation acknowledged by Mr. Lane in his deposition is illustrated by a sequence of events at Stateway Gardens. And a strategy developed by the LAC and management company in response to this chronic problem suggests a remedy that could be adopted at other CHA developments.

On June 8, 2001, a meeting was convened by Duwain Bailey, Director of Operations for the CHA, in an effort to resolve various issues that had arisen between the Stateway LAC and the management company, DSSA Management, Inc. (Don S. Samuelson & Associates). In attendance were Francine Washington and Vera Miles, President and Vice-President respectively of the LAC, Don S. Samuelson of DSSA, and myself.

Among the issues raised by the LAC on this occasion was the problem of unrestricted access to the roofs of the Stateway high-rises. We had repeatedly raised this concern in the past. Yet the doors remained open.

On June 11, participants in the June 8 meeting received a memo from Mr. Samuelson in which he reported on the actions DSSA had taken in response to various issues discussed at the meeting.

With respect to roof access, Mr. Samuelson wrote:

Continuation of Mr. Samuelson letter.

This statement was made at a time when roof doors were in fact open throughout the development. One need not assume bad faith in this matter. The essential point stands forth more clearly, if one assumes a breakdown in the chain of command—a directive was given but not implemented. Under such circumstances, in the absence of on-the-ground monitoring, how would Mr. Samuelson, Ms. Washington, and Mr. Bailey have become aware of a clear and present danger to residents which each in their respective roles has a responsibility to address? Would it have been necessary for a child to fall from the roof of a seventeen story building? Or perhaps for someone on the street to be hit by a rock thrown from a rooftop?

This is a concrete, specific instance of a fundamental problem that touches every dimension of CHA’s operations: a profound disorder in language—in the relationship of words to their referents—that has devastating impact on those who live in communities such as Stateway Gardens. Look at Mr. Samuelson’s letter again. Consider the relationship of those words in an official document addressed to the LAC and CHA to the realities on the ground reported in “In Memory of Eric Morse: Part I.”

I do not mean to single out Mr. Samuelson. Rather, I am concerned to make a general point by way of a particular situation I know directly. The disconnect between the policy discourse about public housing and the facts on the ground is such that it is possible to say almost anything without being disciplined by observable realities. Thus we are told that the relocation process is working smoothly, that the “service connector” program is connecting residents to services, that property managers are being held to professional standards of performance, and so on. However much we might wish that these things were true throughout the city, what if they are not? What if various programs are not working as intended? What if they are breaking down or are unrealized at the point of implementation? What if they are working at some sites but not at others? What if the roof doors are in fact open? How will we know?

We posted “In Memory of Eric Morse: Part I” on Sunday, June 17. The CHA responded swiftly. On Tuesday, June 19, Duwain Bailey came to Stateway and summoned Doran Harper, Director of Operations at DSSA, to a meeting with Ms. Washington and myself. Mr. Bailey demanded that DSSA immediately address the problem of unrestricted access to the roof. Mr. Harper reported that DSSA had done so over the previous twenty-four hours—with the exception of one roof door that was in the process of being repaired.

This meeting set in motion a process of negotiation that resulted in DSSA contracting with the Neighborhood Conservation Corps (NCC), a resident organization that works closely with the LAC, to provide continuous monitoring of physical conditions in Stateway buildings.

Kenya Richmond and Andre Williams of the NCC walk each building twice a week. They check every floor. Using a checklist they have developed, they record the following information: unsecured doors and windows in vacant units; unsecured laundry rooms, utility closets, roof doors; trash in common areas; lights out; and the condition of the elevators. At the end of each day, the reports are faxed and/or e-mailed to DSSA and the LAC.

This simple program has proved a cost-effective way of accomplishing multiple ends:

  • It provides the means for the residents’ elected representatives to exercise informed oversight of the management company’s performance.
  • It provides the management company with information that enables it to deploy staff resources on a priority basis.
  • It provides a means for the management company to assess staff performance. On the basis of the monitoring reports, DSSA terminated two janitors and suspended several others.
  • It generates a cumulating record useful to the CHA and others. The information base produced by building monitoring can serve to make monitoring at other levels—e.g., CHA’s internal “quality control” efforts—more effective.
  • It establishes the infrastructure for information gathering and outreach for other purposes.
  • It accomplishes the above ends through resident employment.

After five months, building monitoring is firmly established at Stateway Gardens. According to Ms. Washington of the LAC, it has contributed to improved performance and responsiveness by Mr. Harper and his staff. And Mr. Harper reports that when he recently asked the DSSA management staff whether they thought monitoring should be continued, they unanimously supported the program.

On the basis of our experience at Stateway, it is clear that building monitoring could easily be established at developments throughout the city. The flow of information generated by on-the-ground monitoring of physical conditions would enhance the effectiveness of all parties—resident leaders, private management, CHA—in the performance of their roles. Most important, it would contribute in direct, immediate ways to the safety and well-being of CHA residents and their children.