Owner of senior home where 3 women died during hot spell previously cited for lack of heat
Employees for the Hispanic Housing Development Corporation cited the ordinance in explaining to the local alderperson why they kept the heat on at the James Sneider Apartments in Rogers Park despite stifling temperatures.
The developer of a senior living facility in Rogers Park where three women died Saturday has repeatedly violated the city’s heat ordinance — the same measure employees apparently cited when they allegedly left the heat on and refused to turn on the air conditioning during last week’s hot spell.
Local Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) has said she believes that decision contributed to the deaths of 68-year-old Janice Reed, 72-year-old Gwendolyn Osborne and 76-year-old Delores McNeely, who were all found unresponsive over a 12-hour period at the James Sneider Apartments, 7450 N. Rogers Ave.
Autopsies determining the cause and manner of their deaths are pending, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
Built with help of nearly $6 million in loans from the city, the James Sneider Apartments are operated by the Hispanic Housing Development Corporation, a major developer of affordable housing projects and manager of city-owned senior homes.
City records show 15 properties owned by the nonprofit have been cited for at least 107 building code violations since 1996. That includes violations for bedbugs and other insects, mold and mildew, inadequate hot water and issues with elevators, according to records provided by the city’s Buildings Department.
None of the violations were found at the James Sneider Apartments, but eight relate to a city ordinance that requires rental properties be at least 66 degrees during overnight hours and 68 degrees during the day from Sept. 15 to June 1. Landlords face fines of up to $1,000 per day for failing to comply.
Violations of the city’s heat ordinance include on Jan. 8. 2014 — when temperatures dove three degrees below zero and eleven inches of snow blanketed the ground — at the North and Talman Family Apartments in Logan Square.
Tenants in two second-floor units were using their stoves for heat and couldn’t control thermostats that had been “locked” inside boxes, the records show. Their apartments were, respectively, found to be just 54 and 60 degrees.
Las Moradas Apartments in Douglas Park also racked up three violations for having “insufficient” heat between January 2018 and December 2019. All told, the complex has accrued 14 building code violations since 1999.
Michael Puccinelli, a spokesman for the Buildings Department, said all the firm’s “heat-related violations refer to isolated incidents of insufficient heat for one or two units in a multi-unit building.”
“There have been no additional heat-related 311 calls for service at these buildings since 2019,” he added.
Paul Roldan, president and chief executive of the Hispanic Housing Development Corporation, said “all heating citations were dismissed in court with no fines being issued or paid.”
Yet Hadden said a manager at the building in Rogers Park referenced the city’s heat ordinance when she responded last Thursday to complaints about the heat and asked why the air conditioning hadn’t been turned on.
“The facilities manager ended up telling me that the city says they have to provide heat through June 1 [and] they don’t want to get cited for not providing heat,” she said. “They anticipated colder weather soon, so they were distributing fans but they also told me they still had the heat running.”
Reed’s son, Veldarin Jackson Sr., previously told the Chicago Sun-Times that his mother complained about the heat for days and was given a similar explanation when she approached the staff about turning the air on.
“They told her no, you know the policy, we have to wait until June 1,” said Jackson, noting that his mother’s room “felt like an oven” shortly after her body was discovered there. The thermostat read 102 degrees, he said.
In a statement earlier this week, the Buildings Department clarified that the ordinance doesn’t preclude complexes like James Sneider from activating the air conditioning but acknowledged “the switch over of the respective systems from heat to cooling” may take hours or days.
Roldan was formerly the board chair of the Cook County Housing Authority and previously served as co-chair of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Housing Transition Committee after her election in 2019.
Since then, his firm scored a lucrative contract last September with the Chicago Housing Authority to manage 22 senior high-rise complexes across the city. In the ensuing months, four of those buildings have been cited a total of 21 times, although none for heat ordinance violations.
In response to questions from the Sun-Times, Roldan asserted that his firm “does not have a policy to keep air conditioning systems turned off until June 1.” He said the James Sneider staff first “began addressing the situation” by handing out box fans on May 10, though he acknowledged he wasn’t made aware of the hot conditions until Saturday.
He said staffers later installed portable air conditioning units for two residents on May 11 before purchasing more units and setting up a “cooling center” in a common area the following day. Still, he noted, the building’s air conditioning system — which can’t run concurrently with the heat — wasn’t turned on until 4 p.m. Saturday, after two of the women were already pronounced dead.
“Prior to this year, turning on air conditioning in May has not been a challenge,” he said, adding that “Chicago on average has had one day above 90 degrees” throughout the month.
Contributing: Lauren FitzPatrick