Proposed ordinance would give building owners flexibility on AC

A manager of the building where three women died during a stretch of warm temperatures said city rules required them to provide heat through June 1. “Nobody is going to freeze to death in Chicago in May,” said Ald. Brian Hopkins, who introduced an ordinance to ease that requirement.

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The James Sneider Apartments at 7450 N. Rogers Ave. in Rogers Park.

Three women were found unresponsive at the James Sneider Apartments in Rogers Park during unseasonably warm temperatures earlier this month. The building’s air conditioning was not turned on.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

If Chicago developers can’t be trusted to protect residents from sweltering temperatures, then the city should relax its mandatory heat requirements to give building owners the freedom to turn on the air conditioning.

That appears to be the motivation behind an ordinance introduced at Monday’s City Council meeting, aimed at preventing a repeat of what happened in Rogers Park earlier this month, where three residents of a senior living facility died.

The ordinance was introduced by downtown Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), who is mulling a run against embattled Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

It states: “Buildings with a heating plant used in common are exempt from the requirement to supply heat between May 1st and June 1st and September 15th and October 31st if the average outside temperature for the succeeding five days will be 75 [degrees Fahrenheit] or higher or the heat index for one or more days in the succeeding five days will reach or exceed” 75 degrees.

“Nobody is going to freeze to death in Chicago in May. That will not happen no matter how crazy the weather gets. But as we’ve just seen, you can have unseasonably hot temperatures in May. And with the sun beating through a window making a unit even hotter when the pipes are still activated for heat because the city is requiring that, it can add five degrees,” Hopkins said.

“It’s just one more example of a mandate that assumes one size fits all when it really doesn’t. Individual buildings need the flexibility to make their own judgement calls about when to flip the switch from heat to cool in the spring and from cool to heat in the fall.”

Rogers Park Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) could not be reached for comment. She introduced her own resolution Monday, demanding City Council hearings on the heat-related deaths at the James Sneider Apartments, 7450 N. Rogers Ave.

Hadden has told the Sun-Times a building manager cited the city’s heat ordinance in responding to complaints about the heat and questions about why the air conditioning hadn’t been turned on before three residents died: Janice Reed, 68; Gwendolyn Osborne, 72, and Delores McNeely, 76.

“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,” the alderperson said.

“They anticipated colder weather soon, so they were distributing fans but they also told me they still had the heat running.”

Before Reed was found dead in her apartment on May 14, she spent days complaining to family and friends about the heat inside the building only to be told their hands were tied, according to her son, Valdarin Jackson Sr.

“She had even went down to talk to [the staff] about turning the air on,” her son told the Sun-Times last week.

“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 last week, the Buildings Department clarified that the ordinance doesn’t preclude complexes like James Sneider from activating the air conditioning but acknowledged switching from heating to cooling “may take hours or days.”

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.

The Sun-Times reported last week that the developer of that Rogers Park building has repeatedly violated the city’s heat ordinance.

None of the violations were found at the James Sneider Apartments, but eight relate to a city ordinance requiring 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.

Paul Roldan, president and chief executive of the Hispanic Housing Development Corporation, has said “all heating citations were dismissed in court with no fines being issued or paid.”

Hopkins isn’t certain his ordinance would have prevented the three deaths, though “clearly, it would have allowed for building management to feel they at least had the ability to de-activate the heat system during the unseasonably warm temperatures,” he said.

“They’re on record as saying they wanted to, but they couldn’t because of the ordinance saying you must provide heat until June 1st. So they felt like they didn’t have the ability to use their better judgment and disable the boiler.”

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