Skepticism lingers at James Sneider Apartments after City Council takes action on cooling/heating rules

“You don’t need the ordinance, you need common sense,” Dr. Demetra Soter said. “This management company knew what to do and didn’t do it.”

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The James Sneider Apartments at 7450 N Rogers Ave in Rogers Park, Sunday, May 15, 2022. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

A new ordinance designed to help keep seniors safe during oppressive heat waves is being applauded as a well-intended step in the right direction.

Still, some of those closest to the tragedy at James Sneider Apartments in Rogers Park, where the deaths of three women were the catalyst for the ordinance, believe it would have done little to save them.

The ordinance was passed by the Chicago City Council on June 22. Among other things, it requires buildings housing seniors, as well as other residential high-rises, to establish cooling centers in common areas when the heat index reaches 80 degrees. (The index takes the air temperature and factors in humidity to estimate how hot someone actually feels.

Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) pushed for the ordinance after three Sneider residents — Janice Reed, 68; Gwendolyn Osborne, 72; and Delores McNeely, 76 — died in mid-May during an extended heat wave. The building at 7450 N. Rogers Ave. is in Hadden’s ward.

Some elected leaders applauded the measure as filling a gap in the city’s building code, but those with connections to the Sneider Apartments feel the ordinance, though well intended, could be seen as giving building managers an excuse for what they believe was negligence in refusing to turn the building’s cooling system on.

“You don’t need the ordinance, you need common sense,” Dr. Demetra Soter said. “This management company knew what to do and didn’t do it. I am so unhappy they are blaming an ordinance [as] the reason why they didn’t turn on the AC.”

Many larger buildings use what are called “two-pipe” systems, with pipes that can supply hot water for heating or cold water for cooling — but not both at once. And switching from one to the other takes time.

Soter learned what was happening at James Sneider from her patient Catherine Cheeks, who has lived there for 18 years. Cheeks told Soter about the excruciating heat she was living in, which prompted the physician to start calling building managers to ask them to take action — pleas that, she said, were ignored.

“The same thing happened two years ago. ... I received a call from Cathy telling me about the heat,” Soter said. “I was able to convince the manager then to turn the AC on, so I am not sure why this time they refused to do so.”

Soter said the City Council’s swift action can’t be allowed to obscure what happened.

“The issue is negligence,” Soter said. 

During that May heat wave, temperatures in Cheeks’ fifth-floor apartment exceeded 90 degrees, and she slept in the basement for two nights to stay cool.

“I probably would’ve died if I stayed in my apartment,” Cheeks said, “because we went through this for four nights and it was just unbearable.”

Cheeks said building managers did eventually create a cooling center in the lobby. The next day, the three women were found dead.

She’s glad the city did something and hopes it prevents other seniors from dying.

Larry Rogers, an attorney representing the son of one of the women found dead in the senior living facility, said there shouldn’t be a need for such an ordinance, because people simply shouldn’t be allowed to live in sweltering conditions.

“I think the ordinance clarifies for those who might misread the current ordinance,” Rogers said. The key is to “do what is obvious, which is to provide heat when it’s cold and appropriate air conditioning when it is hot,” Rogers said.

“The owner and manager of the apartment building in question shouldn’t need this kind of clarification.”

His client, Veldarin Jackson, didn’t respond to a request to offer his own comment on the ordinance.

Sneider Apartments is owned by the Hispanic Housing Development Corporation, a nonprofit developer of affordable housing.

Paul Roldán, president and chief executive of the nonprofit, said the safety and security of their residents has always been a top priority and they “welcome any ordinances that establish clear guidelines for building owners and managers.”

“However, there remain very difficult challenges of regulating indoor temperatures in large, multi-unit apartment buildings during months when outdoor temperatures can vary by 50 degrees over a 48-hour period,” Roldán said. “We would like to note that the requirement to provide a cooling room for residents outlined in the new ordinance was a step that had already been taken by the James Sneider Apartments management team.”

Besides those cooling centers, the new ordinance also expressly states engagement of the building cooling system is allowed as long as the required minimum temperatures are maintained.

The ordinance also mandates the immediate installation of temporary cooling systems, such as plug-in window units. And it requires the installation of permanent, separate, independent cooling systems by May 1, 2024, in buildings with two-pipe combined heating/cooling systems.

Housing Opportunities & Maintenance for the Elderly (HOME) is a senior advocacy group that provides housing and housing support services throughout Chicago. They also have several senior housing centers, including one in Rogers Park.

“This is an important issue to solve and all different sectors should be coming together —not just the housing sector but health care and the disability sector too,” said Gail Schechter, executive director of the group. “I am really pleased that Alderwoman Hadden came up with a political solution.”

Schechter said it is about time the city mandated that building owners keep elderly tenants cool during extended heat waves. He’s just sad that people had to die to make it happen.

“I like to think a law like this would’ve prevented [the deaths at James Sneider Apartments] but honestly, common sense should’ve factored in too,” Schechter said. “Now at least it is spelled out and people can go to the building manager or owner and say ‘Look, there is a law on the books and here it is.’”

Still, HOME’s Nathalie Salmon House apartments, which also serve seniors, had no heat-related deaths during that same May heat wave. Its building managers did turn on the air conditioning, which uses a system similar to that at the Sneider Apartments, less than a mile away.

Keeping residents comfortable was most important, Schechter said.

“Specifically, in Chicago, we have mandates around heat. So why wouldn’t we have it around cooling too?” she asked. “What seems like a blip in the calendar where you have 90-to-100-degree temperatures in the spring is not going to be a blip anymore. It’s going to become more common as time goes on.”

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