Maxine Lathan, an Algonquin Apartments resident and plaintiff in a lawsuit filed Wednesday against Algonquin property manager Mac Properties, calls on Mac to be held accountable for a December power outage that displaced nearly 200 people during a press conference Thursday. To her left is attorney Caryn Lederer; to her right, neighbor and co-plaintiff Gabriella Johnson. Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago

KENWOOD — Three South Siders sued their landlord this week on behalf of nearly 200 residents affected by a December power outage at their apartment buildings that officials say was caused when their landlord installed unapproved electric heaters.

The lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court Wednesday, alleges Mac Properties, property manager of the Algonquin apartment complex in Kenwood, violated the city’s Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance and state laws.

The suit also names three partial owners of the Algonquin — Indian Village LLC, Cedar Algonquin LLC and Pointe Algonquin LLC — as defendants.

The companies’ negligence and “willful and wanton misconduct” when putting in electric heaters without obtaining city permits or notifying ComEd caused a heat, water and power outage that forced about 181 residents out of their homes for three weeks, the lawsuit reads.

The residents are suing for damages, court costs, rent forgiveness and other relief. They want the companies to be held accountable for property damage, displacing residents during dangerous weather conditions, residents’ needs for outside housing during the outage, emotional distress and more.

“I’ve had it up to here with Mac Properties,” plaintiff and resident Gabriella Johnson said at a press conference Thursday. “I don’t want to stay there. I don’t feel safe.”

Mac had not been served with the lawsuit as of Thursday afternoon, director of community development Peter Cassel said. The company sympathizes with the residents, “who have been through a terrible ordeal,” he said.

Nearly 200 residents of two Algonquin apartment buildings in Kenwood were displaced after a Dec. 23 power, heat and water failure at 1607 and 1617 E. 50th Place. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

A transformer serving two buildings at 1607 and 1617 E. 50th Place failed around 11 a.m. Dec. 23, city officials said. City officials and ComEd blamed the electric window heaters for causing the outage amid a winter storm that brought frigid temperatures.

The electric heaters were first installed in another Algonquin building as part of a pilot program in 2021, according to the Hyde Park Herald. All six buildings at the complex have been heated by the electric units since Mac Properties turned off the boiler-based heating system in summer 2022, Cassel told Block Club earlier this month.

“Both buildings froze” due to the power outage because they were heated by the electric window units, Cassel said. City officials deemed the two unpowered, unheated buildings unsafe to live in and ordered the buildings closed Dec. 24 when power was not restored by that evening.

Plaintiff and former resident Maxine Lathan said she contacted Mac as early as August 2022 with concerns the electric heaters could overload the power systems and cause a fire, but did not receive a response.

Cassel has denied the electric heaters were to blame. He also has said the electric heaters will not be removed as they are “the long-term heating and cooling system for all six buildings.”

“The series of events that led to the Dec. 23 transformer failure are complicated and involve a number of factors, including many that were beyond Mac’s control,” Cassel said in a statement Thursday.

“We are confident that under scrutiny our residents will see that Mac has always been a good and compliant landlord and cooperated with the city, ComEd and all of our business and community partners to provide safe and comfortable housing for the residents of Hyde Park,” he said.

Algonquin Apartments resident Gabriella Johnson speaks about her experience evacuating the property on Christmas Eve, a situation which “petrified” her, during Thursday’s press conference. Johnson is flanked by her co-plaintiffs (from left) Maxine Lathan and Shaunte Sims, as well as Sims’ young child. Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago

Johnson, who lives on the 13th floor of one of the affected buildings and has arthritic knees, was informed around 11 p.m. Christmas Eve she needed to evacuate and took the stairs in the dark to do so, she said.

Some residents — like plaintiff Shaunte Sims, her spouse and two children — sat in their car for hours to stay warm before the city shut the building down. Others slept overnight in their cars after the buildings were closed, ABC 7 reported.

Sims and her spouse paid for a hotel on Christmas Eve, then went to Texas to stay with family for a couple weeks before returning to Chicago, she said.

While the buildings were closed, inadequate security combined with the Fire Department’s forced entry into apartments when they swept the building led to some homes being burglarized, according to the lawsuit.

“I still expected my place to be looking how I last saw it,” Sims said. “… It was like my house was ransacked. It was filthy. It was only like three [Christmas] gifts left under the tree, and it was probably 18 to 20 gifts that I wrapped.

“That’s crazy, right? Hard-earned money got spent on that, and I be expecting my stuff to be secure in my house. It’s no way somebody should’ve gotten access to my things.”

Sims ended her lease and moved into a home further from her job and her kids’ daycare; Johnson moved back into her Algonquin apartment Jan. 13; Lathan, moved to another Mac property, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit seeks repayment for moving costs, damages and other residents’ needs, but specifics on how much that compensation should be are not yet available, attorney Caryn Lederer said this week.

Lathan said she wants Mac to take responsibility for its “negligent” behavior, she said.

“I know that profits are important to any business, but please don’t put your profits ahead of your tenants’ safety,” Lathan said. “Do right by us.”

The city shut down two buildings at the Algonquin apartment complex after a Dec. 23 power outage. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Mac provided shelter to displaced residents at hotels or other company-owned apartments by request and gave a $100 prepaid debit card to each household, Cassel said earlier this month. The company has since offered another $150 debit card to some displaced households, according to the lawsuit.

Mac is also working with residents “to ensure they are reasonably reimbursed for damages” — including paying up to $500 worth of renter’s insurance deductibles — and “issuing appropriate rent credits for residents who were displaced,” Cassel said.

Some tenants received their usual January rent notices; have not been credited in full for the days they were displaced; and experienced pushback as they requested the second debit cards, residents said. Many residents never received the second card, according to the lawsuit.

The buildings were reopened Jan. 13 with city approval after Mac restarted the boilers, repaired leaking pipes and installed temporary doors on all units, Cassel said. Crews have continued to fix cosmetic damage and deep-clean apartments since residents moved back in, he said.

The city’s buildings department allowed the affected apartments to reopen as of last week, spokesperson Michael Puccinelli confirmed. The city, the owner and ComEd are working to “safely increase the supply of electricity to the building” to account for the window heaters’ operation, he said.