‘Like an oven’: Heat in woman’s unit was intolerable, son says after mother dies at Rogers Park nursing home

Before Janice Reed was found dead in her apartment at a senior citizens’ residence in Rogers Park on Saturday, she spent days complaining to family and friends about the heat inside the building.

“She had even come downstairs to talk to [the staff] about lighting the air,” his son, Veldarin Jackson Sr., told the Sun-Times on Monday. “And they told him no, you know the policy, we have to wait until June 1st.”

Reed, 68, was among three women found unresponsive over a 12-hour period 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 circumstances 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 wellness check that morning, he said his bedroom thermostat read 102 degrees.

“When we walked in there,” Jackson said, “it was like an oven.”

He now fears the heat played a part in his death after temperatures last week soared into the upper 80s and into the 90s from last Tuesday. Residents began to complain about the oppressive conditions that day, according to elderly tenant and local alderman 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 landlord was still running the heat to avoid being potentially cited by the city for turning it off too soon.

City ordinance requires rental properties to be at least 66 degrees overnight and 68 degrees otherwise from September 15 to June 1, with landlords facing fines of up to $1,000 a day for non-compliance .

On Monday, a spokesperson for the city’s buildings department said only that the resort had “no open violations prior to this weekend.” In a statement, the agency said the heat ordinance does not prevent homeowners “from engaging their air cooling systems,” but acknowledged that “switching the respective systems from heating to cooling” may take hours or days.

Hadden said management at the main facility agreed on Thursday to bring forward the schedule to do just that. At the same time, she said, a “cooling space” was set up in a common area – a move seen by one resident as potentially life-saving.

“While the investigation into the cause of death is ongoing,” the Buildings Department said, “the City continues to take the necessary steps to ensure residents are safe, and also holds property owners buildings responsible and accountable for caring for their residents.”

“Deeply saddened” developer

The apartment complex is owned by the Hispanic Housing Development Corporation, a nonprofit developer of affordable housing projects and social housing manager. Paul Roldan, the company’s president and chief executive, said his team was “deeply saddened” by the news in a statement on Sunday.

“The safety and security of our residents has always been our top priority at HHDC,” he added. “We are working with the City of Chicago and conducting our own investigation into the incident.”

A longtime promoter of affordable housing, Roldan is chairman of the board of the Cook County Housing Authority and previously served as co-chair of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Housing Transition Committee following her election in 2019.

Hadden said it was “maddening” that those responsible for managing the 10-story building apparently did not “put the lives and safety of their residents first,” especially in a complex that receives public funds. She plans to propose changes to city rules “regarding cooling and especially the elderly.”

“If we can’t trust these companies to use their common sense, use their logic and take responsibility for their tenants,” she said, “then we will come up with a new legislation to force them to do so.”

“It was my world”

As Jackson tried to come to terms with the “devastating” loss of his mother on Saturday, he ended up seeing the death toll rise at the apartment complex.

“The last thing that came to mind was to make it a heat issue,” he noted. “I was sitting in mourning with my mother. … 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 James Sneider Apartments for at least a decade after retiring from a job at a Social Security office in Evanston, he said.

“He was my world and he was a loving person,” said Jackson, who grew up in Uptown and now lives in Calumet City.

He now finds himself in a sort of state of uncertainty, waiting to find out if his death was heat-related and for his body to be released so he can start planning his funeral.

“I can’t do anything until they get the body,” he said. “It’s all just messed up.”

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