ROGERS PARK — After a career as a trailblazing Black journalist and media professional, Gwendolyn E. Osborne and her family found an apartment in Rogers Park where she could live in her retirement.
Osborne’s golden years were cut short after the 72-year-old and two other women were found dead in the James Sneider Apartments during a sweltering heat wave this month. Now, Osborne’s son is suing the building’s landlord, saying its decision to keep the heat on during 90-degree temperatures led to his mother’s death.
“We lost somebody way too early who was actively fighting on behalf of other people,” said Ken Rye, Osborne’s son. “This is the last thing we ever expected would happen to my mother. We just have to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
The lawsuit is at least the second such legal action against James Sneider Apartments, 7450 N. Rogers Ave., where the three women died in early May. The women were found dead in their apartments after residents complained for days about sweltering conditions inside the complex. Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) asked that the air conditioning be turned on to no avail.
The family of Janice Reed, 68, has also filed suit, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Delores McNeely, 76, also died in the heat wave at James Sneider. An official cause of death has not been released, but family and officials have attributed the deaths to heat exhaustion.
Osborne’s son has retained prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is working with attorneys Steve Levin and Laura Mullins to file suit against landlord Hispanic Housing Development Corporation in the death.
“This was a tragedy that was completely preventable,” Crump said at a press conference outside the building Tuesday. “How cold could your soul be to know these people are suffering from the heat and you do nothing about it? No human should die in this horrible way.”
The women were found dead May 14 when first responders arrived and helped cool down the senior living building where some units were as hot as 103 degrees, attorneys said Tuesday.
Residents of the 55-and-up James Sneider building complained about the temperature in their units days before the women were found dead and just as Chicago experienced an unseasonably early heat wave.
Despite complaining of the temperature, building management did not turn off the heat and turn on air conditioning, officials said. Ald. Hadden said asked to get the building’s air conditioning turned on, but management cited the city’s minimum heat requirements as reason they couldn’t turn on the air.
The city’s heat ordinance requires landlords keep temperatures at least at 68 degrees during the day and 66 degrees at night between Sept. 15 and June 1. That ordinance does not require heat to be turned on, merely just that units have a minimum temperature, Hadden and other officials said.
Attorney Steve Levin said the decision not to adjust the temperature control during a heat wave rises above just negligence.
“To allow an apartment to get to the heat level they did is like locking someone in a car on a hot summer day,” Levin. said. “How could they not intervene?”
In a statement, leaders of the prolific affordable housing organization Hispanic Housing Development Corporation said it is cooperating into the death investigations.
“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,” the firm said in a statement.
“Hispanic Housing Development Corporation has long been devoted to providing affordable homes and services that allow seniors to remain independent. 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.”
The Osborne lawsuit has not yet been filed, the attorneys said. The suit on behalf of Reed’s family was filed Monday and names landlord Hispanic Housing Development Corporation as well as building owner Gateway Apartments Limited, according to the Tribune.
Osborne worked as a reporter for The Detroit Free Press and for Pioneer Press newspapers before becoming a public relations professional at institutions including the University of Illinois-Chicago and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, according to son Ken Rye. She was a founder of the Chicago chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists.
“People always knew her as a fighter,” Rye said. “Everybody that knew her said she was a person that would always stand up for them.”
Hadden has called for City Council investigations into the deaths and is working on an ordinance that strengthen city laws about temperatures in residential buildings, including possible maximum temperatures in living units, she said.
“We’re going to come up with strong guidance,” Hadden said. “If we need to be more prescriptive, we will be.”
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