Before Janice Reed was found dead Saturday inside her apartment at a senior living facility in Rogers Park, she spent days complaining to family and friends about the heat inside the building.
“She had even went down to talk to [the staff] about turning the air on,” her son, Veldarin Jackson Sr., told the Sun-Times Monday. “And they told her no, you know the policy, we have to wait until June 1.”
Reed, 68, was among three women found unresponsive over a 12-hour span that day at the James Sneider Apartments, 7450 N. Rogers Ave. Gwendolyn Osborne, 72, and Delores McNeely, 76, also died.
Autopsies ruling on the cause and manner of their deaths are pending, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
When Jackson showed up at the building after his mother’s body was discovered during a well-being check that morning, he said the thermostat in her room showed it was 102 degrees.
“When we walked in there,” Jackson said, “it was like an oven.”
He’s now concerned the heat played a role in her death after temperatures last week climbed into the upper 80s and low 90s starting last Tuesday. Residents began complaining about the oppressive conditions that day, according to one elderly tenant and the local alderperson, Maria Hadden (49th), who believes the deaths were caused by a lack of air conditioning.
Hadden previously told the Sun-Times that a building manager informed her last Thursday that the owner was still running heat to avoid potentially being cited by the city for shutting it off too early.
A city ordinance requires rental properties be at least 66 degrees during overnight hours and 68 degrees otherwise from Sept. 15 to June 1, with landlords facing fines of up to $1,000 per day for failing to comply.
On Monday, a spokesperson for the city’s Buildings Department said only that the complex had “no open violations prior to this weekend.” In a statement, the agency said the heat ordinance doesn’t prevent owners “from engaging their air cooling systems” but acknowledged “the switch over of the respective systems from heat to cooling” may take hours or days.
Hadden said the management at the senior facility agreed on Thursday to move up the schedule to do just that. At the same time, she said, a “cooling space” was set up in a common area — a move one resident credited as potentially lifesaving.
“While the investigation into the cause of death remains ongoing,” the Buildings Department said, “the City continues to take the necessary measures to make sure residents are safe, and also hold building owners responsible and accountable for the care of their residents.”
Developer ‘deeply saddened’
The apartment complex is owned by the Hispanic Housing Development Corporation, a nonprofit developer of affordable housing projects and manager of public housing facilities. Paul Roldan, the firm’s president and chief executive, said his team was “deeply saddened” by the news in a statement Sunday.
“The safety and security of our residents has always been our highest priority at HHDC,” he added. “We are working with the city of Chicago and conducting our own investigation into the incident.”
A longtime developer of affordable housing, Roldan is the board chair of the Cook County Housing Authority and previously served as co-chair of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Housing Transition Committee after her election in 2019.
Hadden said it’s “infuriating” that those tasked with managing the 10-story building apparently didn’t “put the life and safety of their residents first,” especially at a complex that gets public money. She plans to propose changes to city rules “around cooling and especially around seniors.”
“If we can’t trust these companies to use their common sense, to use their logic and to uphold their responsibility to their tenants,” she said, “then we’ll come up with some new legislation to make them do so.”
‘That was my world’
As Jackson attempted to process the “devastating” loss of his mother on Saturday, he wound up watching the death toll grow at the apartment complex.
“The last thing on my mind was making it an issue about the heat,” he noted. “I was sitting up mourning with my mom. … It’s heartbreaking. I wouldn’t wish this pain on anyone.”
An only child, he described Reed as the “best mom in the world.” She had been living at the James Sneider Apartments for at least a decade after retiring from a job at a social security office in Evanston, he said.
“That was my world, and she was a loving person,” said Jackson, who was raised in Uptown and now lives in Calumet City.
He now finds himself in a sort of limbo state, waiting to learn whether her death was heat-related and for her body to be released so he can begin planning her funeral.
“I can’t do nothing until they get the body back,” he said. “This whole thing is just messed up.”