More Chicagoans lacked heat in January than any month since 2019 amid historic cold

An analysis showed Chicagoans made more no-heat complaints during January’s historic cold snap than any other time in the last five years.

cold weather street scene
Temperatures plummeted during a historic cold stretch in January, leading to a spike in no-heat complaints. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times
cold weather street scene
Temperatures plummeted during a historic cold stretch in January, leading to a spike in no-heat complaints. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times

More Chicagoans lacked heat in January than any month since 2019 amid historic cold

An analysis showed Chicagoans made more no-heat complaints during January’s historic cold snap than any other time in the last five years.

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Doris Tompkins, 82, is used to covering her windows with plastic wrap to keep the cold at bay.

For many renters, that and calling the city are “basically all you can do” when the heat goes out, said Tompkins, a resident of South Shore for more than 40 years.

“If you don’t own the building, it’s hard to get help,” she said.

A Jan. 22, 2021 Department of Buildings inspection detailed the scene in Tompkins’ last apartment at 7145 S. Cyril Ave. She made “extensive use of extension cords” to keep four space heaters going — and even then the apartment remained at 62 degrees. It took a city inspection to get the owner to fix the issue.

Tompkins hasn’t been struggling alone. A WBEZ analysis of the city’s 311 data showed that more Chicagoans reported not having adequate heat this past January than any other month since at least February of 2019. Moreover, South Side neighborhoods like Tompkins’s have made the most heat complaints nearly every year since 2019.

It’s an issue residents have gotten all too used to.

City records show her current building at 6700 S. Oglesby Ave. had at least one broken boiler and apartment temperatures in the 50s and 60s as recently as Jan. 16 of this year. A representative for the building gave no comment.

Apartment building at 6700 S Oglesby
An apartment building at 6700 S. Oglesby in South Shore. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times
Tompkins hasn’t filed a complaint about this year’s cold. She’s not sure the city cares.

“They’re supposed to regulate the heat according to the weather, but it doesn’t work like that,” she said.

The city’s Department of Buildings said it responds to thousands of no heat complaints annually, and said it holds owners accountable through administrative hearings and the courts.

“In most cases, the heat is successfully restored,” said Michael Puccinelli, a spokesperson for the Department of Buildings.

“Is the heat gonna go out again?”

Chicagoans submitted nearly 1,300 no-heat complaints during the month of January, surpassing every month since at least February 2019, according to the WBEZ analysis.

Nearly half of the complaints were made during January’s cold snap, when Chicago’s temperature didn’t climb above 3 degrees for three consecutive days and wind chills dropped to 30 below zero — enough to cause frostbite in 10 minutes.

Gold Coast City Club Apartments at 860 N. Dewitt Place has had nearly 50 heat ordinance violation reports since February 2019, the second-most of any building in the city since 2019 and the most this January.

City inspectors described “very unsafe working conditions” in the lobby after they found an employee working in 35 degree temperatures Jan. 15. Several apartments on the first and second floors sat at 50 degrees around 5 p.m. that same day. Eight days later, the heat went out for the entire building.

The Chicago heat ordinance dictates that all habitable rooms of a residential space must be at least 68 degrees between 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 p.m. between Sept. 15 and June 1.

Gold Coast City Club Apartments
Gold Coast City Club Apartments at 860 N. Dewitt Pl. Violet Miller / Chicago Sun-Times
One resident in the building, who did not want to be identified, told the Sun-Times they didn’t expect to run into such issues in “the richest neighborhood in the city.”

“The fact that this has even been an issue is crazy,” they said. “They need to act as if they live here.”

The building’s owners are currently putting $700,000 into repairs, with work expected to be completed next month. Six tenants have already broken their leases over the ordeal, a representative for the building said in a statement.

“City Club Apartments is fully committed to repairing the heating systems and ensuring that our residents are provided with a comfortable living environment,” the statement said.

South Siders file most no-heat complaints

The cold weather’s impact is felt even more acutely in less affluent parts of the city.

WBEZ’s analysis showed residents of three South Side ZIP codes — 60649, 60619 and 60637 — submitted the most complaints out of any other ZIP code in Chicago nearly every year since 2019. Residents in those ZIP codes, which cover all of South Shore, Woodlawn, Burnside and parts of neighboring communities like Chatham and Greater Grand Crossing, filed more than 100 complaints each year — and in some years over 300 complaints.

The number of complaints filed was also disproportionately high compared to the number of rental units in those ZIP codes. About 8% of all renter-occupied units are in those three ZIP codes, but tenants there filed nearly 20% of all heat-related complaints.

“It’s worth noting that most of this is happening in predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods on the South and West side,” said Philip DeVon, a staff attorney with the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, a tenants’ rights advocacy group. “There’s a racial component to the folks that are suffering more from lack of repairs.”

During Chicago’s longest cold snap in nearly 30 years this past January, one South Shore resident — who didn’t want to be identified out of fear of retaliation — thought back to when their heat went out on the “coldest day of the year” two years prior.

The lifelong Chicagoan remembers living without heat for about three months by November 2021. The radiators at 6751 S. Chappel Ave. offered no warmth. They and their preteen son moved to their current South Shore apartment at 6940 S. Clyde Ave. later that month, only for the heat and hot water there to cut out within a week.

“It is always in the back of my head, ‘Is the heat gonna go out again?’ ” the resident said. “It’s something I’m always thinking about, especially when winter time hits.”

Very few building owners fined, records show

After a complaint is filed with 311, a building inspector visits the property and records one of several outcomes: the temperature is adequate and there isn’t a violation; the inspector wasn’t able to gain entry into the building; or there is a building code violation.

In the latter case, the inspector’s supervisor can determine whether to elevate the violation with the city’s Department of Administrative Hearings, where a judge will rule whether a property owner is liable or not, or issue a violation notice that won’t lead to any action. The supervisor may also process the violation for the Cook County Circuit Court.

A WBEZ analysis of 311 complaint outcomes from Feb. 1, 2019, through Feb. 29, 2024, shows about 40% of investigated complaints were at residences where the heat was restored or the inspector determined there was no violation, while 30% were not investigated because the inspector couldn’t gain entry. Five percent were processed for an administrative hearing and 5% were processed for circuit court. The remaining complaints were either processed with a violation, listed as active, were transferred to other departments or didn’t have an outcome listed at all.

But advocates say the current system of enforcement and penalties isn’t enough. DeVon said the inspection outcomes from the analysis can be misleading — building inspectors may come weeks after cold snaps have passed or arrive unannounced when tenants aren’t home to let them in. As a result, people don’t get help when they need it the most.

“Should tenants be expected to take days, maybe even weeks off of work to stay home in a house without heat in hopes that an inspector might show up?” DeVon said. “Everyone schedules things online today, from the DMV to the doctors office, so why can’t the building department?”

A snowstorm added to the misery of a historic cold stretch in January. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times file photo
Puccinelli said city building inspectors “make every effort to contact the caller to schedule an appointment prior to coming out to perform the inspection. Response times can vary, based on the volume of heat complaints received.”

The city has fined few owners of properties where residents have reported heat ordinance violations, according to a WBEZ analysis of ordinance violations filed with the Department of Administrative Hearings.

From Feb. 1, 2019, through Feb. 29, 2024, building owners at fewer than 200 out of the more than 9,000 addresses where residents have logged 311 complaints were found liable and issued a $500 to $3,500 fine. Most of the buildings where residents have reported dozens of complaints in the last five years haven’t been fined at all.

Puccinelli said the agency addresses repeat offenders on a “case-by-case basis,” though it pursues “all available legal remedies” when facing non-compliant owners. As for fines, the determinations are made by administrative law judges.

Property owners accused of more serious or hazardous code violations are prosecuted in Circuit Court, where a judge may order building owners to fix the violations, said Robin Bartram, an associate professor at the University of Chicago who studies housing and building code inspections.

“Judges in Circuit Court actually have the power to do something, in addition to just fining a property owner,” Bartram said. “Frequently, building owners who have a court case against them will be in court for months, maybe even years, coming in every three or six months to show their progress on fixing a building. Whereas [in] Administrative Hearings, you just turn up that one time, and you just get fined or don’t get fined and there’s no focus on remediation.”

And a lack of heat could be one of a host of issues that require repairs, DeVon said. Older buildings can be harder to heat without additional maintenance. Some buildings only get routine inspections if someone reports a problem.

“What we really need is preventative maintenance and enforcement,” DeVon said. “We’re talking about inspections every couple of years, I think. Five years is what we would be asking for initially. That way, we don’t end up with buildings … that are literally collapsing.”

Apartment building at 6940-38 S Clyde Ave
An apartment building at 6940-38 S. Clyde Ave. in South Shore. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times
The resident of 6940 S. Clyde said they hope to move out of the building before next winter. Neither the management company for the building nor lawyers for the owners would comment.

Even after uncharacteristically warm weather this year, the resident said the possibility the heat could go out — like it did in their unit in 2021, when 10 no-heat complaints were filed by residents of the building — remains in the back of their mind.

“It’s always been an uphill battle,” they said. “Hopefully I won’t have to go through that again, but you never know.”

What to do if your heat goes out

  1. Call 311 or go to to report the violation and request an inspection.
  2. Obtain a reference number and keep an eye out for communications from the Department of Buildings about an inspector visiting.
  3. Take notes throughout the process to keep a paper trail of events.
  4. Follow up with the Department of Buildings at (312) 744-3449 to see the status of the report.
For additional assistance, call the Metropolitan Tenants Organization’s Tenants Rights Hotline at (773) 292-4988 from 1-5 p.m. Monday-Friday or visit

For more information and resources on your renting rights, visit the Department of Housing’s Chicago Renting Right webpage

Violet Miller is a general assignment reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times. Follow her @_ViMiller. Amy Qin is a data reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @amyqin12. Jessica Alvarado Gamez is a Roy W. Howard Fellow for WBEZ. Follow her @AlvvJess.