Skepticism lingers at James Sneider Apartments after city council takes action on cooling/heating rules

A new ordinance designed to protect seniors during oppressive heat waves is welcomed as a well-intentioned 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 air temperature and factors in humidity to estimate how warm a person 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 a prolonged heat wave. The building at 750 N. Rogers Ave., is in the neighborhood of Hadden.

Some elected leaders have applauded the measure as a gap in the city’s building code, but those with connections to the Sneider Apartments feel the ordinance, while well-intentioned, could be seen as an excuse for building managers for what they believe was negligence in the act. refuse to turn on the building’s cooling system.

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

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

Soter learned what happened to James Sneider from her patient Catherine Cheeks, who has lived there for 18 years. Cheeks told Soter about the unbearable heat she was living in, prompting the doctor to call building managers asking them to take action — pleas that, she said, were ignored.

“The same thing happened two years ago. … I got a call from Cathy who told me about the heat,” Soter said. “I was then able to convince the manager to turn on the air con, so I’m not sure why they refused this time.”

Soter said the city council’s swift action should not obscure what happened.

“The problem is negligence,” Soter said.

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

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

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

She is glad the city has done something and hopes it will prevent other seniors from dying.

Larry Rodgers, a lawyer representing the son of one of the women who was found dead in the retirement home, said such an ordinance should not be necessary because people simply shouldn’t live in sweltering conditions.

“I think the regulation provides clarity for those who might misinterpret the current regulation,” Rodgers said. The key is to “do the obvious, which is provide heat when it’s cold and appropriate air conditioning when it’s hot,” Rodgers said.

“The owner and manager of the apartment building in question would not need this kind of explanation.”

His client, Veldarin Jackson, did not respond to a request to comment on the ordinance.

Sneider Apartments is owned by the Hispanic Housing Development Corporation, a non-profit 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 that they “welcome any ordinances that establish clear guidelines for building owners and managers.”

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

In addition to these cooling centers, the new regulation also explicitly states that the use of the building’s cooling system is allowed as long as the required minimum temperatures are maintained.

The regulation also requires 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 living centers, including one in Rogers Park.

“This is an important problem to solve and all the different sectors should come together – not just the housing sector, but also the healthcare and disability sectors,” said Gail Schechter, the group’s executive director. “I am very happy that alderman Hadden came up with a political solution.”

Schechter said it is high time the city required building owners to keep older tenants cool during prolonged heatwaves. He’s just sad that people had to die for it to happen.

“I like to think that a law like this would have prevented” [the deaths at James Sneider Apartments] but to be honest, common sense should have come into play,” Schechter said. “At least now it’s clear and people can go to the building manager or owner and say, ‘Look, there’s 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. The building managers turned on the air conditioning, which uses a system similar to that at the Sneider Apartments, less than a mile away.

The most important thing was to keep the residents comfortable, Schechter said.

“In Chicago, in particular, we have mandates around heat. So why not talk about refrigeration as well?” she asked. “What looks like a blip in the calendar where you have temperatures of 90 to 100 degrees in the spring will no longer be a blip. It will become more and more common over time.”

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