Rats, Dirty Air, Broken Faucets: Lakeview Terrace Residents Wonder When Help Will Come

A new data-gathering initiative on air quality might change public policy—but will take at least two years

click to enlarge Lakeview Terrace, one of the oldest public housing projects in the country, has long been a site struggling with air pollution. - Mark Oprea
Mark Oprea
Lakeview Terrace, one of the oldest public housing projects in the country, has long been a site struggling with air pollution.
It was a summer day in 2018 when a stolen bike almost cost Shauntya Ellis her life.

Her son, who she preferred to keep nameless, returned home after school to Ellis' small apartment off Loop Dr., on the northern side of Lakeview Terrace, the public housing complex situated in the center of Whiskey Island, limestone mounds and the Great Lakes Shipyard. Neighborhood kids, her son said, had stolen his bike, and were after him.

Ellis ran outside. As she reached Loop, the group of kids started shooting at her. Ellis and her son ran in different directions, and managed to dodge, Ellis thought, any of the fire.
click to enlarge Shauntya Ellis, 35, and her dog, King. Ellis, who has been trying to move out of Lakeview since she was shot in 2018, said CMHA's been neglectful of both her ask for relocation and her son's asthma. "They never tried to do nothing about it," she said. "It's like that they can do something, [but it must] get bad before anybody pays attention." - Mark Oprea
Mark Oprea
Shauntya Ellis, 35, and her dog, King. Ellis, who has been trying to move out of Lakeview since she was shot in 2018, said CMHA's been neglectful of both her ask for relocation and her son's asthma. "They never tried to do nothing about it," she said. "It's like that they can do something, [but it must] get bad before anybody pays attention."
"I made it all the way back home before I realized it was blood running down my thigh," Ellis, 35, said, standing across the street from her apartment in early May. With pup King in her left arm, she lifted her right leg, revealing a browned scar the size of a nickel. "See? It went right through."

Months after the shooting, Ellis said she developed anxiety and symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Her son, who's currently in the seventh grade, had seen long-running breathing issues worsen. A doctor at Lutheran prescribed him albuterol sulfate, a common medicine used to treat pulmonary illnesses, but Ellis said it was mostly ineffective.

"He had to have, like, several breathing treatments," she told Scene. "He [would] wake up in the middle of night sometime. He can't stop coughing. Like he can't catch his breath." Ellis said she's reported both her PTSD and her son's asthma for emergency relief or transfer from her managers at the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, but to no avail. "They never tried to do nothing about it. It's like that they can do something, [but it must] get bad before anybody pays attention."

Ellis' seemingly endless rumination—Why's the asthma so bad? What's causing it?—represents an issue that's plagued Lakeview, the oldest public housing complex in the U.S., for decades. Built in 1937, it is backed up against a melange of industrial sites, and its proximity to pollution has long ailed residents forced to breathe industry's excess.
click to enlarge A truck heading south on Mulberry, close to limestone hills less than 100 feet from where residents live. - Mark Oprea
Mark Oprea
A truck heading south on Mulberry, close to limestone hills less than 100 feet from where residents live.
Lakeview's air quality, a harangue for activists since the 1980s, is a part of a list of complaints that have long gone unanswered by property managers or CMHA, a half dozen residents told Scene. Other complaints include hordes of rats screeching by at night, the coughing from cockroach dander, malfunctioning faucets, grimy bathtubs, broken doors—unanswered issues, residents said, that's led to a shoulder-shrugging cynicism.

"These are people whose voices have gone unheard for years," Whitnye Long Jones, director of community engagement for Ohio City Inc., told Scene. "It was completely legal and okay to put that industry next to low income housing to begin with," unlike, Long Jones said, what would happen in the suburbs.

"But here you have individuals who are focused on surviving," she added, "and therefore may feel they don't have the power to stop something like that."

Although Lakeview's air quality had been an area of concern at Ohio City since at least 2010, Long Jones took the issue on as a high priority in 2017, when she started an initiative now called Let's Clear The Air. ("It's a double entendre," she said.) Needing specific air quality data to prove harm to policymakers, Long Jones pursued federal grants to fund research and about ten air quality monitors.

In 2020, Long Jones collected 60 signatures—"complaints"—from residents blaming nearby Ontario Stone, or Cargill across Old River, for their worsening COPD, for their kids born with asthma. The following year, Ohio City Inc. sourced Temboo, a environmental data consultant, to help quantify Lakeview's particulate matter, tiny droplets of pollutants that can harm the lungs.

Let's Clear The Air's initiative is somewhat working alongside Lakeview Connects, a $103,000 study hoping to identify transportation problems and possible solutions for Lakeview's approximately 1,375 tenants.

"What we want to do is compare that data," Long Jones. "The data we're collecting to the data that's collected regionally to show that it's more concentrated based on the proximity that residents are to these industries."

Back at Lakeview, Ellis, when told about the two monitors already installed, and the nine on the way, looked away in slight disgust. "We know the conditions are bad," she said. "It's pointless. You see it's a problem. What's the point of the monitors?"
click to enlarge Steve Harrison, 63, has lived at 1203 Mulberry Ave. since 2010. - Mark Oprea
Mark Oprea
Steve Harrison, 63, has lived at 1203 Mulberry Ave. since 2010.
Over at 1230 Mulberry Ave., where Steve Harrison, 63, has lived alone since 2010, the dust that blows off limestone trucks drifting by on River Rd. is one fact of life upon a pile of many.

For the past year, Harrison said his kitchen sink has lacked running water, and a gaping hole behind the pipes has been unfilled. Harrison admitted CMHA blamed his poor upkeep, yet he said there's no excuse for the non-functioning faucet. (Harrison, like Ellis, believes he's been placed on a "long waiting list.")

click to enlarge Harrison said he's been without running water in his kitchen at 1203 Mulberry. "It's been a year now," a sign he put up to remind CMHA managers. - Mark Oprea
Mark Oprea
Harrison said he's been without running water in his kitchen at 1203 Mulberry. "It's been a year now," a sign he put up to remind CMHA managers.
"All that grease that's coming off my dishes," Harrison said during a tour of his apartment. He pointed to his bathtub, which, like his sink, is half covered in a thin layer of greying grime. "All that's gonna clog my bathtub up!"

In an interview with Scene, CMHA Chief of Staff Jeffrey Wade said that the most dire complaints made by the authority's 45,000 residents—"lack of heat, lack of water, lack of electricity, to the extent that we can control it"—ought to be assuaged in a day's time. And, according to Wade, property managers can't use shoddy upkeep, or any other policy, as an excuse not to fix one's broken plumbing.

As for the lengthier, harder-to-pin issue of air quality, Wade resorted to CMHA's involvement with Let's Clear The Air. Meaning, they have, Wade said, "allowed the placement of air quality monitors across Lakeview Terrace." As for official complaints made by tenants, from those who blame their asthma on the daily dust blowing to their balcony, Wade said he's not "familiar with any specific claims."

"We desire a safe, decent community," Wade said, "for all of those that live at the end of West 25th."

At Ohio City, Whitnye Long Jones agrees. "I don't think CMHA wants to or is neglecting the needs of the people," she said. "I just think there's so much need and not enough people to handle it in a timely fashion."

While Let's Clear The Air is still in its phase-one, funding side of a two-year operation, it won't be until 2025 or later when any businesses are forced to cover or wet their limestone mounds, or reroute daily truck traffic, to curb damage done to Lakeview residents' lungs. And, other than receive official recognition from the city, Ohio City Inc. would need, Long Jones said, qualification from the EPA, the federal body that sets "the standards for the permits of the industry."

Like Ellis and others, Harrison often thinks about leaving. Like others, he's on subsidized rent due to disability and low-income. And like others, he deals with the rat holes in his yard, or the frequent shootings in a kind of realistic stride.

Harrison, a skinny man in a Phantom of the Opera shirt, walked down the steps of 1203, close to where, he said, rats bury themselves at night. As he talks, a truck roars by, kicking up a dense cloud of white smoke that covers the entirety of the yard as it rolls past.

"See! We're breathing that!" Harrison said. He watches the truck roll south down Mulberry out of Lakeview. "All day, every day. Hey, you got to see it for yourself."

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Mark Oprea

Mark Oprea is a staff writer at Scene. For the past seven years, he's covered Cleveland as a freelance journalist, and has contributed to TIME, NPR, the Pacific Standard and the Cleveland Magazine. He's the winner of two Press Club awards.
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