Most Chicago homes built before 1986 have lead service lines
CHICAGO (WLS) -- Jose Gonzalez grew up drinking Chicago water straight out of the tap.
"I was actually the person that would go out of town and say 'oh we have the best water in Chicago,' which I think might be true to some extent," said Gonzalez.
He and his family moved to Little Village back in 1972.
"I think that a lot of people have the misconception, kind of like myself, where you run the water, you pour some in the glass and you drink it because it's clear and it looks fine," said Gonzalez.
But what Gonzalez couldn't see or taste was lead. Most houses built in Chicago before 1986 have lead pipes leading into their homes. Right now, there are more than 400,000 lead service lines in the city. But the city is working to tackle the problem by providing several lead service line replacement programs.
Of the 20,800 city blocks in Chicago, the 3100 block of South Ridgeway, was selected for a free lead service line replacement pilot program. And that's because it comes with a challenge.
"This block has homes that are one story and that have two stories," explained Ald. Mike Rodriguez, 22nd Ward. "There's homes that are set against the property line and set back on the alley line, if you will so there's a diversity in the housing stock and most importantly for me is, there is a lot of working class who need this kind of investment."
This is the same block where Gonzalez's 87-year-old mother Carmen lives, along with her other adult son Rigoberto, who suffers from seizures that have caused injuries to his brain.
Carmen's daughter, Rosa Peña, also grew up in the home, and now lives in Texas. When she heard about the free pilot program, she signed her mom up right away
"We immediately said yes," said Peña. "We want my mother to be protected - and my brother."
They also switched to bottled water after learning their tap water tested positive for lead.
"I come and I stay with my mom two to three weeks," said Peña. "I have to prepare everything with bottled water so if I buy vegetables, potatoes, whatever I have to wash or soak, it's always done in bottled water and that's an expense that I don't feel my mother should be paying but of course we do. But it's something that I worry about because she might forget."
The city has a goal of replacing the lead lines of all 46 homes on the block. It's a job that would normally cost homeowners $16,000 to $20,000 unless they qualify for financial assistance through the city.
"My mother is elderly, she receives a small check from social security," said Peña. "We help her the best that we can so she's not in need but that's an expense that we really couldn't pay."
After the pipe replacement in April, the Gonzalez family obtained access to lead-free water from their tap.
"Carmen and Rosa and their family, have been amazing. They're the first to get this project done, they've gone through the process," said Rodriguez. "I'm confident that we'll get more signed up, particularly as they see their neighbors getting this done on their block - I think seeing is believing."
"This is a great opportunity, there's people here who have children, but they're still not convinced, they just don't realize," said Peña. "If we had known this back in 1972 well of course, I'm sure my dad would have agreed have it done. Why not?"
The city has not yet announced any other pilot programs to replace entire blocks but the city has other programs and financial assistance to help homeowners who may qualify for help.
Homeowners can get free lead testing kits sent to them upon request and apply for the replacement program if the tests find lead in their water.
-To request a Chicago Water Lead Test Kit, click here
-To report a Water Quality Concern, click here