City should move quickly on new rules after possible heat-related deaths of three seniors

One step would be to adjust the deadline in the city’s heating ordinance to a date earlier than June 1.

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City officials are contemplating new ordinances in the wake of three possibly heat-related deaths at the James Sneider Apartments in Rogers Park.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The deaths last weekend of three women in an overheated Rogers Park senior living facility were upsetting — and possibly preventable.

And now tragedy must lead to immediate change.

The victims died over the course of 12 hours at the James Sneider Apartments, 7450 N. Rogers Ave.

The deaths coincided with an unusually warm May week, in which temperatures reached 90 degrees.

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And while most Chicagoans either opened their windows or flicked on the AC, Sneider’s building manager kept the furnace on, allegedly fearing the facility would be cited and fined by the city for shutting off the heat before June 1.

In the wake of the deaths — and the manager’s tragically incorrect reading of the heat ordinance — city officials told us they are now considering adjusting the deadline in the heating ordinance to a date earlier than June 1.

City officials are also planning an ordinance requiring residential building operators to have cooled gathering spaces within their facilities.

These are good initial steps. We hope they are taken quickly.

Air conditioning refused

Janice Reed, 68, spent the last days of her life telling family and friends last week that the Sneider Apartments were too hot.

“She had even went down to talk to [the staff] about turning the air on,” her son, Veldarin Jackson Sr., told the Sun-Times on Monday. “And they told her no, you know the policy, we have to wait until June 1.”

Reed, Gwendolyn Osborne, 72, and Delores McNeely, 76, were found unresponsive in their apartments over a 12-hour span and were later pronounced dead.

A building manager last Thursday told Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) the same thing.

Hadden said it is “infuriating” that building management allegedly failed to “put the life and safety of their residents first.”

“Anyone who deems to be a housing provider needs to be put on notice for this,” she said.

That notice should also include better educating building management about the heating ordinance.

The law doesn’t require owners of rental units to keep the heat on until June 1, but to maintain a temperature of at least 66 degrees at night and 68 degrees during the day between Sept. 15 to June 1.

The manager’s reasoning for leaving the heat on, regardless of the weather and the complaints from residents, flies in the face of logic and common sense.

It’s all the more frustrating, given the building is owned by Hispanic Housing Development Corporation, a professional — and clout-rich — non-profit that knows better and has the resources to make sure its employees do also.

HHDC President and CEO Paul Roldan said the group is “working with the city of Chicago and conducting our own investigation into the incident.”

New ordinances needed

The Cook County medical examiner’s office has not yet ruled on whether, or how, the heat played a role in the three residents’ deaths.

But Janice Reed’s son Veldarin Jackson described the circumstances he found when he went to his mother’s room after her body was found during a well-being check.

“When we walked in there, it was like an oven,” Jackson said. The room thermometer read 102 degrees, he added.

This is an issue to watch, across the city, as global warming and climate change lead to summers that arrive earlier and hotter.

A watchful eye is especially important when it comes to senior citizens and the facilities in which they live.

Although Sneider had air conditioning, there is no ordinance requiring the facility to maintain cool temperatures the way the heat ordinance requires warmth.

There is a law that requires licensed senior facilities such as Sneider to maintain a 75-degree temperature — but only if it’s 100 degrees or more outside.

Residents and managers can call 311 for heat relief, which eventually did happen at Sneider. The city brought in equipment that cooled a space for residents until the air conditioning was turned on.

But days had already passed since the first heat complaints to building management.

“If we can’t trust these companies to use their common sense, to use their logic and to uphold their responsibility to their tenants,” Hadden said, “then we’ll come up with some new legislation to make them do so.”

New ordinances and rules are needed. Building owners and operators have to step up their game as well.

Send letters toletters@suntimes.com.

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