A landlord in South Shore forced tenants to go 34 days without hot water despite numerous calls to the city’s 311 non-emergency hotline.
The ordeal came to an end hours after this Crusader journalist, who was among the tenants, emailed Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office seeking answers to a problem that affected an entire building in the 2200 block of 68th Street for weeks.
In the end, the landlord, Catalyst Realty, was never fined and no building inspector ever visited the site to address the problem, a 311 operator told the Crusader.
Meanwhile, the mayor and officials from the Department of Buildings remain silent as questions remain whether a 311 hotline that helps residents obtain city services failed tenants as they waited for help that never came.
With little transparency, no official explanation has been given over what went wrong with the 311 system and why Catalyst Realty was never held accountable.
It’s a story that affected this journalist, who was forced to use his position as a journalist to alert the mayor after his personal calls to the 311 hotline led nowhere.
The problem began June 10 when I opened a work order that informed Catalyst Realty there was no hot water in my apartment. Without it, I was unable to take a decent shower or effectively wash dishes. I spoke to several neighbors who said they were also without hot water.
Days later, I called the city’s 311 hotline for non-emergency services. I was told that the city’s Department of Buildings would schedule a visit to the property. Days passed and one of my neighbors, a mother with three children who has since moved out, told me she had called 311 six times, demanding that an inspector come to visit the building.
As we tenants waited, I called the leasing office to get an explanation for the lack of hot water. A staff member told me they had no information but had received a lot of calls about the problem from other tenants.
About one week after the problem began, tenants received a text message from the office, acknowledging that there was a water problem that they were working to correct.
On June 23, nearly two weeks after the problem began, I made a status request online and noted that the open ticket had been marked “completed,” although tenants were still without hot water.
I entered another work order that said, “The problem has not been corrected despite the request being labeled completed.”
The same day my new work order was labeled ‘canceled.’
During this ordeal, gas was over $5.50 a gallon. I drove six miles each way to take warm showers at a fitness gym in Bronzeville. That’s in addition to driving to press conferences across town. At one point it cost me $71 to fill the tank of my Chrysler Sebring.
To clean dishes, I heated my water in the microwave because it was quicker and kept me from using the stove during the hot days of summer. But the trips to the gym and covering the weeks leading up to the June 28 Primary left me too tired to clean a stack of dishes that piled up over time.
I kept calling the leasing office for updates only to be told “we have no information.”
I texted a special number for Catalyst Realty, explaining the trips across town for showers and was told to call the leasing office. The result was an endless loop that led nowhere but left me confused and frustrated.
My neighbors kept calling 311 too, demanding to speak to an inspector as the hot water problem continued. Near the end of June, we received an email from the office that reminded us to pay our monthly rent for July, but the message gave no update on the problem with the hot water.
Despite being without hot water for 20 days in June, we were not even offered a discount on July’s rent as the problem persisted with no end in sight. On June 30, we received an email saying the leasing office would be closed for the Fourth of July weekend, but the message did not give an update on the problem. It was our fourth weekend without hot water, and I simply began to shower with cold water.
On July 7, tenants received an email from the office that said “Good morning, Tenants we do apologize for the continuously [sic] inconsistency with the hot water. However, we are working hard with the City of Chicago and Peoples Gas to get the matter fixed, unfortunately it is taking longer than we expected. Thank you for your patience, we do appreciate. We will keep you updated until the matter is fixed. CATALYST REALTY.”
Contrary to the email, the tenants never experienced “inconsistency” with the hot water, which suggests it was on sometimes. There was never hot water at any time since I reported the problem on June 10.
On July 10, exactly one month since the problem began, the hot water finally returned. I discovered it working while washing dishes. My neighbors and I cheered as though this were some long overdue gift to us. Amid this relief, we received no explanation from property management as to what caused us to be deprived of hot water for an entire month.
On August 25, the building was without hot water again. I texted Catalyst Realty saying that I was concerned that the current problem would again leave us without hot water as the upcoming Labor Day Weekend approached.
I was told to call the office, which I had already done, only to be disconnected twice. I texted Catalyst Realty again, saying that I was a good tenant, never late on rent and who kept his unit clean.
This was their reply: “Unfortunately, I do not have any information.”
The next day, I called the city’s 311 hotline and asked whether a city inspector ever visited the building or whether Catalyst Realty ever received a ticket or fine since the problem began in June. After a few seconds of searching the database, the woman said no.
Shocked, I decided to seek answers as a journalist rather than as a resident who had gotten nowhere.
After another weekend of no hot water, a silent landlord and a 311 hotline that seemed worthless, I emailed the mayor’s press office using my Crusader email. I wrote in the subject line “Residents go 34 days without hot water and no fines or inspections for landlord from Department of Buildings.” I then explained the situation and listed several addresses where impacted tenants lived.
That same day, a contractor in a white van was at the building from the early afternoon to around 8 p.m. There were two repairmen in the boiler room located in the back of my building. With the door of the room open, I walked up and asked them if they were working on the hot water. One of them said yes and continued to look at several dials. When they left the hot water was back on.
This time I did not cheer. I wanted to know why after a total of 34 days and many calls to the 311 hotline, I had to email the mayor’s office to bring attention to the problem.
That same day, I received an email from Michael Puccinelli, the new Public Affairs Director for the city’s Department of Buildings. He introduced himself, but I was disturbed and angry when he said, “As for the current situation with Catalyst Realty, I am now aware of the situation, and we are looking into it. We’ll be in touch. Thanks for the tip.”
A tip? Really? I responded with a strongly worded letter describing how the 311 hotline failed us despite numerous calls for help. I ended the email by saying to his department, “Shame on you all,” for not responding when we needed them.
During a phone conversation that day, Puccinelli admitted that he had not seen any of the 311 tickets that were logged from tenants in the building. Without giving a name or documentation, Puccinelli then said that a building inspector visited the site June 14 but left when he couldn’t access the building.
I later reminded him that the problem was resolved the same day I emailed the mayor’s office. I also asked him, “would you make just one attempt to a building where your mother or father were living without hot water for a total of 34 days?”
I added that there were calls to 311 after June 14, so why didn’t anyone return to the site as the problem persisted?
Puccinelli suggested I speak to John Scott, the Deputy Commissioner of Buildings. I told Puccinelli that I’d rather speak to the top official, Buildings Commissioner Matthew Beaudet, who Mayor Lightfoot appointed in 2020.
I requested to speak to Beaudet three more times before Puccinelli told me that I had to go through Scott first and if I’m not satisfied, then I can go to the top official.
I emailed Scott requesting an interview for this story. He did not respond. Instead, Puccinelli sent me an email asking me to submit my questions in writing. When I asked what happened to his previous statement of going through Scott first, Puccinelli said, “there’s a lot going on right now with the budget and other matters. So, in light of that, the questions need to be submitted in writing.”
My response to Puccinelli communicated my disappointment in his shifting responses, which I felt as a journalist led me to believe that he was shielding or protecting his department as I pursued this story.
He replied, “Sounds good. I will reconnect with you after the holiday.”
He never did.
I emailed Mayor Lightfoot’s office five times for an interview for this story. On the fifth email, Summer Hoagland-Abernathy, a press aide for Lightfoot, told the Crusader to contact Mary May without giving her title or phone number.
May is the director of news affairs for the Office of Emergency Management, which manages the 311 hotline. After explaining my ordeal with the Department of Buildings, May said she would reach out to them. She later told me to expect a call from the Department of Buildings.
I never got it.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Hours after this story was submitted, Michael Puccinelli, Director of Public Affairs for the Department of Buildings, emailed this response:
“The Department of Buildings (DOB) takes public safety and quality of life issues seriously. In this instance, the Department of Buildings filed a lawsuit for certain building code violations (21 M1 400163) in the Circuit Court of Cook County, naming the building’s ownership. The last scheduled hearing was held on 06/21/22. The inspector assigned to the ongoing litigation attempted to inspect the property on 6/14/22 but was unable to gain entry to the building. The next court date involving the building located 2202-2210 E. 68th St. is scheduled for 12-6-22 at 9:30 a.m. in court room 1103.
“On August 30th a DOB inspector was able to make entry and determined that hot water had been fully restored to the building. He was informed by a representative of the property management company that the building’s boiler had been replaced sometime during the first week of August. Despite that, the building did experience intermittent outages after the installation because proper start-up procedures were not followed. A qualified start-up technician was subsequently hired by the building’s ownership to set up the system correctly, and as of Friday, August 26th hot water was fully restored to the affected units.”