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Headline:

City Agencies Fail To Intervene Before Three Older Women Die in Uncooled Apartment Building

Deck:

Tenants of the Rogers Park complex see the limitations of the city’s 311 complaint hotline as City Council adopts new rules requiring air conditioning units in senior buildings.

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A half dozen calls for help from a Rogers Park apartment complex went unheeded by city officials last month amid the season’s first heat wave that killed three senior tenants, a Better Government Association investigation found.

That’s because city officials say there was nothing they could do, given the lack of city laws to require landlords to cool their buildings during heat waves.

One alderwoman who visited the site two days before the deaths said she immediately joined the chorus of people trying to persuade building managers to turn off the heat and to turn on the air conditioning — all to no avail.

Help came too late for Gwendolyn Osborne, 72; Janice Reed, 68, and Delores McNeely, 76, all of whom died in their sweltering apartments on May 14. The official causes of death are awaiting a final decision by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.

The calls for help from their 120-unit James Sneider Apartments in Rogers Park — logged by the city’s 311-hotline set up specifically to respond to resident requests — began coming in three days before their deaths. All were routed to two different city departments with little response.

Now, their families are demanding answers.

“She was always encouraging. She was always nurturing. She was always advocating and fighting on somebody else's behalf and she was just snatched from us,’’ said Ken Rye, Osborne’s son. “And that's the hardest thing to deal with.”

He said his mother loved her apartment of more than seven years, her view of Lake Michigan, the convenience of the elevator and how close she was to the train and everything she needed.

"This was supposed to be the perfect setup and it turned out not to be," Rye said in an interview with the BGA.

The problems began at the 7450 N. Rogers Ave. complex on May 11 during an unseasonably hot stretch of several days. That’s the day the first calls to 311 were made.

According to records and interviews, officials at the non-for-profit property management company that owns the complex, Hispanic Housing Development Corporation, denied requests — from residents and even from their alderwoman — to turn on the central air conditioning.

Ald. Maria Hadden, 49th, told the BGA she visited the complex on May 12 — two days before the three women died — to investigate complaints to her office.

Hadden said an employee there told her they don’t get to decide when the air conditioning comes on and she would need to talk to company vice president Christian Rodriguez.

Hadden said she reached Rodriguez by telephone, and he assured her the heat — that was still being circulated in the building during the heatwave — would be turned off and windows opened to circulate the air.

Hadden said Rodriguez mistakenly cited a city ordinance requiring buildings to provide heat through June 1 as the reason the building had not been switched to air conditioning. He promised Hadden to “move up that timetable.”

Hadden also suggested the company provide portable cooling devices in the interim, and Rodriguez promised to do so, she said. 

The on-site property manager, Maida Durakovic, offered tenants an air-conditioned community room on the first floor, along with one bottle of water from the room’s refrigerator, according to a letter from her provided by one of the women’s sons.

Hadden said she didn’t receive any further calls from residents until May 14, when she was told someone had died.

“I don’t know what Hispanic Housing was doing from the discovery of their first dead resident in the morning, but again they didn’t call me, they didn’t call the city, they didn’t call the fire department,” Hadden said. “They didn’t call for help, the residents and I did.”

Hadden said she again called Rodriguez, who told her the death was “not necessarily because of the heat.”

Police officers were already at the building when she arrived. The fire department arrived after Hadden and others had started wellness checks and began helping people get to the cooling center.

Over the next few hours, a maintenance crew came out to turn on the air conditioning, doors were propped open to allow air to circulate and the fire department and the city’s department of buildings vented the building, Hadden said.

Durakovic and Rodriguez did not respond to requests for comment. HHDC President and CEO Hipolito Roldan also declined to be interviewed, citing pending litigation from the families of their deceased tenants.

“The safety and security of all our residents have always been our highest priority,” Roldan said in an email to the BGA.

Hadden and other city officials interviewed said one central problem was the city’s lack of requirements for landlords to provide air conditioning during waves of extreme heat.

She now advises residents to call 911 instead of the 311 hotline if they feel their health is endangered. City Council is planning a public hearing in early July to understand “what happened, when it happened” and the failures that contributed to the situation, she said.

“I'm hoping to learn more through our hearing to make a better determination of scenarios like this, but I think some of the challenge is we tell people to call 911 in an emergency, but one of the challenges is how do people know if it's an emergency?” Hadden said.

Hadden said calls to 311 can take days because it is not set up as an emergency response hotline.

The city bills its 311 system as a way to get “easy access to non-emergency police services, from filing police reports to talking to police personnel in your district” as well as other non-emergency services or requests, according to a set of frequently asked questions about the service.

Calls to the 311 system are then assigned to other city departments to follow up and determine next steps. The city’s first line of defense is supposed to be its 311 service line, which residents can call to seek information on cooling centers, transportation to those areas and requesting wellness checks.

Several of the 311 complaints from the building were diverted to the city’s Department of Buildings, which did not investigate. Officials there said they had no authority to force the landlord to address cooling issues.

Rye said following his mother’s death, he learned from other residents in the building that temperatures had been an issue in the past.

“They knew for a fact that the heat was already up and running and they really tried to make light of the situation, that there was a cooling room that was available, and ‘feel free to come on down for coffee and donuts,’” Rye said. “That was their response to the situation.”

He said the last time he spoke to his mom was six days before she was found dead in her apartment.

Rye said he’s gotten information from the media, “not from the complex, not from the property managers” about the tragedy.

Rye described his mother as a fierce advocate and fighter for causes she believed in, especially civil rights. He’s now advocating for her as he tries to understand how her death happened — and how to prevent it from happening again.

The families of all three women say they are pursuing legal action against the building manager and investigating the city’s role in the incident.

“This was not just preventable, it was egregious, and how easy it would have been to flip a switch or something and you change the entire course of three people’s lives,” said Brian Salvi, the attorney for McNeely’s family.

A caretaker who visited McNeely most days in her 7th-floor apartment found her in bed, Salvi said.

McNeely had two sons, Jerome McNeely and Tyrone Williams, as well as nine grandchildren. Williams, who lives in Dallas, was a week away from visiting his mother.

Larry Rogers, an attorney for Reed’s family, said the 68 year old was one of several tenants who went to the building’s management staff and asked for the air to be on.

Her body was found by friends in the building after she didn’t show up for a lunch date, Rogers said.

Along with her son, Reed is survived by five grandchildren.

Both Salvi and Rogers said the building’s managers showed “gross negligence” for failing to cool the building.

311 not for emergencies

Calls to the city’s non-emergency service line are received by Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, OEMC. The call center routes 311 complaints to the responsible city agency based on the subject of the complaint or request, said Michael Puccinelli, the director of public affairs for the city’s Department of Buildings.

Records show six calls were made to the city’s 311 hotline between May 11 and May 16.

Of those calls, one was categorized as a shelter request; three were categorized as ventilation violations, another three were added to a city call log, two were requests for senior information and assistance, and three were categorized as requests for a well-being check for seniors.

At least two of those calls — one made three days before the women died and one that came the same day they died — were specifically about the high temperature in the building and lack of air conditioning, Puccinelli said in an email.

Four of the calls were routed to the city’s Department of Family and Support Services, DFSS, an agency set up specifically to support the needs of underserved residents from newborns to the elderly, records show.

The agency did not respond to questions from the BGA after initially agreeing to an interview — an agency spokesperson did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the calls it received during the heatwave and the agency’s response.

In an email response to the BGA, DFSS spokesman Joseph Dutra said his department did dispatch an “outreach team” on May 14 in response to a 311 request that afternoon for a well being check.

Dutra said the outreach team confirmed there was no air conditioning and sent a senior well-being assessment referral to the family support services department, which followed up on May 16 — two days after the three women died.

Rye has decided to pursue legal action and is represented by Levin & Perconti.

Puccinelli said his office received two of the 311 calls, but did not investigate them.

“DOB does not have any authority to require air conditioning in apartment buildings and does not send an inspector in response to alleged conditions which are not violations of Municipal Code provisions that DOB has authority to enforce,” Puccinelli said in an email.

Puccinelli said OEMC operators are trained to provide information about cooling centers and other public resources to home and apartment residents who are concerned about high temperatures.

Based on information the BGA obtained through an open records request, none of the 311 complaints from the Sneider apartments were routed to emergency services.

The city's 311 services, established in 1999 and administered by OEMC, have a well-documented record of long wait times and unfulfilled requests. The line is designed to field requests for city services such as graffiti removal and tree-trimming, along with non-emergency reports of crimes.

“Non-emergency” 311 complaint inspections are completed within 30 days, Puccinelli said in an email.

“Alleged emergency violations,” which include no heat during extreme cold, building failure, and dangerous and hazardous electrical issues, are inspected within 12 hours of receipt, Puccinelli said.

Asked to respond to concerns that the system is confusing or not helpful, especially as it relates to heat emergencies, a spokeswoman for OEMC said in an email the city "strives to make 3-1-1 easily accessible to all residents" and works with city departments and others "on ways to improve reporting and delivering services under the City’s jurisdiction."

Attempted reforms

The widely-publicized deaths of Osborne, McNeely and Reed prompted City Council members to quickly adopt a number of reforms.

At its June 22 meeting, City Council unanimously passed an amendment to its municipal code that mandates landlords provide cooling centers in common areas in all buildings taller than 80 feet, with over 100 units and senior buildings.

Those systems will be required to operate when the heat index hits 80 degrees or higher. The updated ordinance also requires buildings to offer tenants temporary cooling systems, like window or portable air conditioning units. Those changes take effect in early July.

If not already equipped with a central air conditioning system, all buildings with more than 100 units and senior buildings will be required to install a separate cooling system in common areas by May 1, 2024.The council also amended the city’s municipal code to clarify any confusion about a landlord’s ability to turn on the central air.

“To be crystal clear, the current heating ordinance does not prevent and has never prevented a building owner from disengaging the heating system or engaging the cooling system prior to June 1, at the end of the period when minimum indoor temperatures are mandated,” Matthew Beaudet, the city’s Department of Buildings, said at a city council committee meeting last week.

Ald. Brian Hopkins, 2nd, who worked with Hadden who sponsored the ordinance, said landlords need no punitive incentives to keep their tenants safe.

“They understand that comfort, and now that safety, is at stake and if you get it wrong results can be tragic, as we’ve seen,” Hopkins told the BGA. “The old ordinance was written prior to the reality of climate change and it’s much more likely today that we’ll have a life threatening heat wave.”

Hopkins said City Council may revisit the 311 hotline’s response system as it relates to excessive heat complaints.

After a heatwave in 1995 killed more than 730, the city enacted “a lot of reforms,” he said. “But, like anything, time goes by and good intentions back slide a bit.”

“Chicago's weather will make a fool of you. When you get it wrong and convert too early people just call and complain … so you really have to try to get it right,” Hopkins said.

Since 2012, 69 heat-related deaths in Cook

Heat is the leading weather-related killer in the U.S., according to the EPA.

Certain groups — Black people, those 65 and older, who have respiratory or cardiovascular illnesses, are economically disadvantaged — are at higher risk for heat-related death, according to an EPA study into climate change

A Better Government Association review of heat-related death records from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office found that of the 69 heat-related deaths that were reported between 2012 and January 2022, 34 deaths were over the age of 65.

Over half were Black or brown.

The average age of those who suffered heat-related deaths was 62-years-old. Several of those who died also had health issues linked to cardiovascular issues, the leading cause of death for the state since the early 1900s, according to an IDPH spokesman.

Nineteen of those deaths came during a three-day heat wave in July 2012.

At the county level, there is likely no way to adequately determine the total number of heat-related deaths because not all such deaths are reported to the medical examiner's office.

Trent Ford, Illinois’ climatologist, said the high temps in May were “very very odd” and those deaths are likely because the heat wave happened suddenly, which meant the women — and others in the Chicagoland area — were unable to properly acclimate to the suddenly sweltering temperatures.

“That three-day period (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) was the third highest excess heat factor number of any heat wave going back to 1870 in Chicago and twice the number during the 1995 heat wave,” Ford said.

“It’s not like the heat wave was twice as bad as the 1995 heat wave,” Ford added. “But the biggest thing about this is not only how unusual the temperatures were but especially how quickly we went from these prolonged cool, cloudy, rainy wet days to the middle of July.

“And not just middle of July, like normal for Chicago, middle of July hot. And so that was a very unusual shift,” he said. “It had the perfect makings for a bad heat wave when it comes to human health.”

Ford said the sudden shift makes it more difficult for everyone — especially higher risk groups infirm — to acclimate.

May’s hot days are likely the start of what could be a warmer than average summer, per weather forecasting models, Ford said. That could mean a higher frequency of days with dangerous heat and more heat-related deaths and hospitalizations.

The warnings came too late for Rye, who last heard his mother’s voice on Mother’s Day.

Rye called from Atlanta and their last exchange was one of reminiscing about his infancy, when Osborne was at Michigan State and her fellow Deltas and fraternity brothers doting on him.

As always, there was the motherly advice on interpersonal relationships and checking in on Rye’s son, her only grandchild.

Along with being an advocate and romance novelist, Rye recalled his mother’s regimented schedule of sending cards sent in advance of friends’ birthdays or holidays and her “irreverent, spark plug” personality, one that led her to always fight for others.

The only child of an only child, Rye said those pieces of his mother now fall to him to carry on.

“There’s a void because she’s gone prematurely,” Rye said.

“​​There are people who are still going to receive cards from her, like, posthumously because she was always in touch,” Rye said.

This story was produced by the Better Government Association, a nonprofit news organization based in Chicago.

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Image icon Download oobineme_bga_photos_kenryejamessneidersuit_20220609-20 (1).jpg (9.59 MB)Ken Rye is seeking answers after his mother Gwendolyn Osborne after her death during an early season heat wave last month.Olivia Obineme
Image icon Download Group 1 (7).png (696.8 KB)Gwendolyn Osborne (left/Photo courtesy of Osborne family) and Janice Reed (right/Photo courtesy of Reed familiy). 
Image icon Download oobineme_bga_photos_kenryejamessneidersuit_20220609-6.jpg (318.17 KB)(Olivia Obineme/BGA)

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