The Crusader Newspaper Group

Before going without hot water, tenants had no heat for three weeks

Who do you turn to when no help is forthcoming from landlord, 311, or city building inspectors?

Summer weather returned to Chicago this past week, but will eventually give way to cooler temperatures. Fall will be here soon, at least on paper. But on Thursday, September 15 Chicago’s heat ordinance went into effect. By law, apartment units during the fall are required to be at least 68 degrees from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Last October and November, tenants in a South Shore apartment building lived without heat for three weeks. Their landlord, Catalyst Realty, was never fined, warned or visited by a city building inspector. The same tenants were forced to live 34 days without hot water this past summer as the Crusader reported last week.

Cold, and using stoves and space heaters to keep warm, tenants in the complex encountered the same problems they reported during the hot water debacle when they called the city’s 311 hotline. Once again, they were told a building inspector would schedule a visit but as temperatures dropped to near freezing levels, no one ever came, the landlord was never held accountable, and the tenants never received an official explanation of what caused the heat to go out.

Living without hot water and heat is illegal in Chicago. Landlords are fined $1,000 each day until the problems are corrected. But Catalyst Realty escaped punishment in both incidents.

As in last week’s story of the hot water problem, I was among the tenants who endured three weeks of cold nights in a red-brick U-shaped building located in the 2200 block of east 68th street. I pay rent to Catalyst Realty, but like most tenants, I never met or spoke with a landlord who remains elusive to city inspectors.

It was one of many concerns I had as a tenant of Catalyst Realty, whose many faults I overlooked, before they grew worse. As a journalist, I had been working from home since the start of the pandemic. That meant enduring many hours wearing layers of clothing and coats while working in an apartment that at times felt like an icebox. Sometimes I worked on my stories in the Starbucks at 71st and Stony Island as an warmer alternative.

Before going without hot water, tenants had no heat for three weeks

As the weeks without heat and no responses from the 311 hotline grew worse, I called several television stations to report the story. None of them responded. Not even ABC 7 Chicago, the television station many Black residents watch.

A journalist myself, I didn’t feel comfortable covering a story that involved me. But there were families with children in the building. With their health at stake and no answers from the leasing office, I decided to write the story.

I spoke to Peoples Gas which gave me a different explanation than my landlord’s. I interviewed other tenants, and with texts and emails from the leasing office, I wrote the story and submitted it on November 3 for that’s week’s edition of the Chicago Crusader.

The headline was “Landlord leaves tenants in South Shore without heat for third straight week.” The day the story was to go to press, the heat was restored. The publisher pulled the story and it was never printed. I kept a copy of it on my laptop and the email that was sent to the office remains.

I never thought about that incident again, until my landlord forced us to go without hot water for 34 days this summer. I saw a disturbing pattern of silence in my landlord when it came to communicating problems that affected the livelihood and health of tenants.

During a string of hot days last May, three Black women died in James Sneider Apartments on the North Side after several 311 complaints were sent to the Department of Buildings, which they did not investigate.

I have growing concerns about the city’s 311 system, which tenants have called many times without any results, for two separate problems that impacted us.

These concerns prompted me to resubmit that story that was never published. It sheds more light on an elusive landlord and a 311 hotline that so far, from my experience as a tenant, allows problems to drag on for long periods of time even as they pose a health risk to residents.

This is what happened to me and dozens of tenants last fall. On October 12, I awakened to find my apartment very cold. None of the three radiators was working.

I called the leasing office, which asked me if I had turned them off. Why would I do that, I asked them. I asked the office to send a maintenance person to come look at the radiators. No one came. I turned on an electric fireplace in the living room that warmed a large part of the apartment. I slept in the living room to stay warm.

This went on for a week before I saw a maintenance man in the courtyard from the window of my apartment on the third floor. I yelled to tell him that my apartment had no heat. That’s when another woman looking out her second-floor window said she had called 311 about five times. She had three children in her apartment and was concerned about the lack of heat on their health.

I then knocked on the doors of several apartments below. One neighbor had on her oven to warm the apartment and another had a space heater purchased from a nearby Walgreens.

I then dialed 311 and gave my name, address and phone number to a female representative who told me a building inspector would schedule a visit to the property.

One week later, tenants were still without heat as temperatures dropped to 45 degrees for several days. By this time, I pulled out a space heater when my fireplace alone proved no match for the steadily falling temperatures.

In my unpublished story I quoted a neighbor who prefers to be identified as “Lisa.” She said, “What kind of landlord leaves their paying tenants in the cold?”

“It’s been one excuse after another, but at the end of the day, I’m without any heat that’s a service we pay for in our lease agreement.”

More than two weeks into the problem, I texted Catalyst Realty several times but did not get a response. On October 30, Catalyst Realty sent me and other tenants an email reminder to pay our rent but gave no update on the heat problem.

Meanwhile, we continued to call 311 only to be told that a building inspector had not yet scheduled a visit to our building.

On November 2, we received an email from the leasing office that had ‘heat’ in the subject line. It said, “Good morning tenants with our deepest apogolizes (sic) for the heating issues, People (sic) Gas is coming out to assist with the problem today, hopefully it will all be resolve (sic) today.”

By the end of that day, we still had no heat and no update after Peoples Gas visited the site.

There were rumors that the boiler in the building was broken and had to be replaced. But then Catalyst Realty texted that the building has low gas pressure.

On November 3, temperatures plummeted to 37 degrees with overnight temperatures in the 20s. I slept in layers of clothing and socks.

I decided to call Peoples Gas, seeking information as a journalist. As it turned out, they never came out to the building on November 2 because they said the problem was not on their end, but with Catalyst Realty.

After introducing himself in an email, David Schwartz, senior communications specialist for Peoples Gas, called me during an off-the-record conversation, which I can’t print. What I can say is the problem was clearly Catalyst Realty’s.

After 22 days, the heat resumed later that day on November 3. It was deadline day for the Crusader’s print edition. I would later learn that no building inspector came, Catalyst Realty wasn’t fined and no official explanation on the heat problem was given. In addition, we didn’t run the story. Looking back, I wish we had.

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