Two Illinois families are suing the apartment complex their loved ones lived in after the women were found dead — dying from injuries caused by conditions on the property during a heatwave, the families say.
The temperature in each woman’s domicile hit approximately 100 degrees, and lawyers say the complex managers sent heat instead of air conditioning to the apartments during unseasonably warm weather.
On Saturday, May 14, Janice Reed, 68, Gwendolyn Osborne, 72, and Delores McNeely, 76, were found dead in their James Sneider Apartments units in Rogers Park at 7450 N. Rogers Ave. in Chicago.
Attorneys for the Reed family filed a lawsuit in Cook County against the building’s owners and operators, the Hispanic Housing Development Corporation and Gateway Apartments, alleging negligence and wrongful death, ABC 7 News reports.
The lawyers allege Reed died because of excessive heat in her unit and the building owner and managers failed to respond to residents’ numerous requests to turn off the heat and turn on the air conditioning system.
“What happened is deplorable. They basically had them in a brick oven and despite their pleas for help no one responded until three of them died,” said attorney Larry Rogers Jr., who represents Janice Lee Reed’s son, Veldarin Jackson Jr.
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump lent his voice to the tragedy, saying at a news conference the buildings betrayed the community’s trust.
“Trust has been betrayed because the James Sneider Apartments apparently put profit over safety,” He said, adding. “No human being should die in this horrible way, just needing a little air.”
The Cook County medical examiner’s office has not yet ruled on the cause, or manner of any of the three women’s deaths, the Chicago Sun-Times confirms.
Reed’s only son, Jackson, who is taking lead on the complaint, spoke at the news conference about the moment he found his mother dead.
He described what it was like for him to enter the apartment and see his mother, saying, “He unlocked the door, and we went in and my mom was laid out on the bed dead, and even then it was hot … when I say hot, it was burning up in there.”
For Jackson, his mother was his “best friend,” his “father,” his “everything.”
Even more devastating is that the last time Jackson saw his mother was on Mother’s Day, a week before she died. He said he and others in the family celebrated her with balloons, a card and took her out to eat. He remembers her being in good spirits, saying, “typical visit, sitting there, talking, laughing,” the Chicago Tribune reports.
A friend of Reed found her unresponsive body in the apartment after she asked a maintenance worker to assist her in doing a welfare check. The friend became worried after Reed did not show up for a breakfast date earlier in the day and didn’t return her call.
Reed’s niece Tondolaya Blisset said the friend found her aunt “laid up against the headboard with no top on.”
The lawyer for Reed’s family, Larry Rogers Jr., said when the friend arrived in the apartment, she knew the unit felt too hot and went to check the thermostat. It registered the temperature around 102 and 103, a “deplorable condition” for anyone to have been expected to live.
Before succumbing to the dangerously hot heat, Reed had complained to the managers, but to no avail. Reed’s neighbor Lorna Barnes said the grandmother of five had even come to her asking for help because she was so hot.
Barnes said, “Janice asked for help. She went downstairs, and she asked for help like I did.”
Jackson said he didn’t know about the complaint, saying his mother never mentioned the issues she was having during the heatwave to him.
However, he also said his mother was not the type to share with her family any problems she was having with the building. For over a decade, she never shared with them complaints she believed she could handle with the management of the apartment complex on her own.
Other residents and politicians, like 49th Ward Alderwoman Maria Hadden, petitioned the building to provide a cooling option but was told a citywide ordinance that required them not to access the air conditioning meant the request could not be met.
Hadden, who also received the complaints, says the building’s management was erroneous in their interpretation of the law.
“To be clear, our ordinance does not require that heat is on in a building through June 1,” she said.
According to Chicago.gov, “The Heat Ordinance requires that during cold weather months landlords supply heat to rental units where occupants do not have individual control of the heat. The Heat Ordinance also requires that landlords maintain individual unit heating equipment in operating condition, but tenants may be required to pay the associated utility bills.”
“From September 15 through June 1, the temperature inside a rental residence is required to be at least 68 degrees Fahrenheit from 8:30 AM to 10:30 PM and at least 66 degrees Fahrenheit from 10:30 PM to 8:30 AM,” it further states, adding, “Landlords face fines of up to $1,000 per day, per violation, for each day they do not supply adequate heat.”
“The problem would have been if they had turned off the heat system they can’t turn it on the next day. It doesn’t work that way,” remarked 2nd Ward Alderman Brian Hopkins. “So that’s the reason they were reluctant to turn it off, was because the ordinance required them to keep it on on-mode all the way until June 1.”
Hopkins has proposed City Council change the ordinance to not require buildings to adhere to the heat requirement in May and early fall “if the average outside temperature for the succeeding five days will be 75 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, or the heat index for one or more days in the succeeding five days will reach or exceed 75 degrees.”
He offered, “Let each individual building decide when they wean to disable the heat system, and if they have a central air conditioning system. If they do, they can activate it at that time.”
Hipolito “Paul” Roldan, president and chief executive officer of the Hispanic Housing Development, gave his condolences to the family while promising to cooperate with the city officials to figure out what went wrong.
He said, “We are deeply saddened by the deaths of three women who made our James Sneider Apartments their home. We mourn the loss of Janice Reed, Gwendolyn Osborne, and Delores McNeely and send our deepest sympathies to their families and friends.”
“Hispanic Housing Development Corporation has long been devoted to providing affordable homes and services that allow seniors to remain independent,” he continued. “The safety and security of all our residents have always been our highest priority. We are working with the city of Chicago and conducting our own investigation into last week’s circumstances.”
Rogers Jr. believes the company’s actions show the opposite, giving clear examples of how low a priority the residents are to them. He said both HHD and Gateway “refused to address the concerns of our most sensitive and tender citizens, our seniors.”
“When you ignore people’s complaints like this, people who have no ability to control the environment in their own properties, you have tragedies like this,” he said. “This is much more than just a negligent maintenance issue. This is a specific financial decision this owner and manager made to not operate air conditioning for months, not protect these citizens based upon the financial cost of operating the air conditioning.”
He added, not putting the air on was “purely a financial decision that cost the lives of these three ladies.”
“They’re deciding financially not to turn on the air because it costs more money, that’s what it appears to me,” Rogers said.
Roldan denies that, insisting they were only following the ordinance, “There is no cost savings related to the operation of the heat as compared to the air conditioning, and the building’s management was obligated to comply with the city of Chicago’s heat ordinance. A cost analysis was not involved in the decision-making.”
Osborne’s family is also gearing up for a lawsuit. Attorney Steve Levin, who is representing that family, said the building’s claim of innocence is “absurd.”
The McNeely family has not released a statement.
Reed, who was buried on Saturday, May 28, leaves one son, five grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, and a host of loved ones.