CHICAGO — Nearly four months ago, a mother and her six children used a Section 8 housing voucher to move into an apartment in Greater Grand Crossing. But as the family unpacked and settled into their new home, they found that their unit in the three-story building was infested with cockroaches, bedbugs and mice.

The mother — who asked that she not be identified — reached out to the building’s property manager, and a pest control company was dispatched to the unit in late January. But the insects and rodents remained.

“We have a major bug problem. Not just roaches. We have mice, we have bedbugs. Something’s gotta give,” the woman said, adding that the cockroaches were “coming out of the walls, coming out of the windows, the vents. It was really crazy. These problems do still occur.”

As days became weeks and weeks became months, the mother contacted the Chicago Housing Authority, the city’s public housing agency that disperses federally subsidized Section 8 funds to landlords. The agency has a policy that requires a unit to be inspected prior to a voucher holder moving in.

The CHA ultimately issued the family’s unit a failing grade and allowed them to break their lease, but it’s now up to the mother to find the family’s next home. In the meantime, much of the family’s possessions have been stored in garbage bags in an effort to keep the bugs away.

“We’re just trying to make it the best we can until we’re able to change out situation by getting out of here,” she said.

Lolita Davis, the assistant director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, said that voucher-holding tenants who are allowed to break a lease still face serious hurdles when searching for their next home.

“Once a tenant receives their moving papers, it’s a critical time,” Davis said. “They have to come up with money for moving fees, application checks and background checks, security deposits possibly. It’s just a critical time and a lot of times tenants can’t get extensions on those moving papers if they can’t find a unit.”

Davis added that voucher-holders also often face discrimination when searching for their next home.

“It’s a lot of source-of-income discrimination that’s going on because a lot of people don’t want to accept Section 8 voucher holders, so they’re at risk of losing their rent subsidy and becoming displaced and homeless,” she said.

Records from the Cook County Clerk’s office show the building in Greater Grand Crossing is owned by Mark Fenzel. He’s purchased several other residential properties across the South Side over the last 20 years and, he says, each one was fully rehabbed after he bought it.

Data from the CHA show that the housing agency has performed at least 770 inspections in 77 different units owned by Fenzel since October 2004. Of those 770 inspections, 143 were failures — nearly 20%.

In that same time frame, Fenzel has been paid more than $5.1 million in federally subsidized rent, according to records from the CHA.

In a statement, CHA spokesman Matthew Aguilar said that “housing authorities are not able to subsidize units that do not meet Housing Quality Standards.” 

“If the unit fails our HQS Inspection while the voucher holder is in the unit, the property owner has 30 days to correct the issue(s) (24 hours for emergency fail items),” Aguilar said. “If the deficiencies are not corrected after this period, then the participant is issued moving papers and can terminate the lease.”

Speaking with WGN this week, Fenzel said that “failed” inspections are often caused by a tenant who’s unwilling to let him fix a problem. That was the case, he said, with the mother and her six children in Greater Grand Crossing.

“They want us to fail … because they want out,” Fenzel said. “So they don’t let us address the problem. … That’s the kind of power they have over us.”

Fenzel stressed, though, that “it’s high-cost to lose a tenant” and leasing a unit is a time-consuming and often expensive process.

“We don’t want to lose tenants but sometimes we’re helpless,” he said.