Eighty-seven-year-old Ernestine Davis says she spent most of January wrapped in a quilted robe and huddled near her gas oven because the heat was out at the South Side apartment she leases with the help of a Chicago Housing Authority voucher.
It was 29 degrees outside on Jan. 13 when city building inspectors showed up and found the temperature inside her South Shore apartment was just 54 degrees.
Davis, who lives alone, had been relying on her stove, an electric space heater and extra clothing to try to stay warm.
“I had a long quilted robe, jogging pants, socks and pajamas,” she says. “I was running my little heater and my stove. I never came up in the front part of the house.”
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City Hall sued her landlord for violating Chicago’s heat ordinance, which requires landlords to keep apartments at a minimum of 68 degrees during the day and 66 degrees at night between Sept. 15 and June 1.
The lawsuit was one of 209 that city lawyers have filed against landlords this year over a lack of heat.
Thirty-four of those heat cases involved buildings where the CHA subsidizes rents through “housing choice vouchers,” commonly known as Section 8, a Chicago Sun-Times and Better Government Association investigation found. Those suits involved 94 voucher households with a total of 207 tenants, CHA records show.
“We take these complaints seriously, and our inspection process is designed to ensure properties are in compliance with program guidelines,” says Molly Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the CHA.
Sullivan says the agency “inspects every occupied . . . unit on an annual basis and conducts special complaint inspections when a complaint is received. If a unit repeatedly fails a series of inspections, CHA will suspend payment to the owner and give the tenant the opportunity to move to a new unit.”
A week after City Hall building inspectors visited Davis’ first-floor apartment in the 7400 block of South Chappel Avenue, city lawyers sued her landlord, Randolph Lewis. As a result, a Cook County judge appointed a third-party receiver, Globetrotters Engineering Corp., to put in a new boiler, as well as smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors.
The heat was out for several weeks last winter at this building, center, in the 7400 block of South Chappel Avenue, forcing 87-year-old Ernestine Davis to use her oven to try to stay warm. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times
Lewis, 88, doesn’t live in the building, where two of the three apartments were occupied. Davis’ upstairs neighbor also was without heat.
Davis says the heat didn’t come back on until sometime in February.
“They got everything new,” says Davis. “It stays warm now.”
Still, after 24 years in the apartment on South Chappel, she says, “I’m ready to move. But it’s hard to move. I just had two hip replacements.”
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Lewis, who couldn’t be reached for comment, paid $58,000 for the building in 1992, records show. He charges Davis $821 a month in rent, with the CHA covering 83 percent of that through the voucher program.
In another case, the CHA cut off the rent for 28 days on a second-floor apartment in a three-flat in the 1500 block of South Hamlin Avenue where all the tenants had vouchers. The heat was out when city inspectors showed up on Dec. 29. They found the voucher tenant on the second floor using her stove to heat her apartment and another voucher-holder, on the third floor, relying on a portable space heater, records show.
A voucher-holder who lives on the first floor, Luisa Torres, says she had no heat for Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Luisa Torres at her home in the 1500 block of South Hamlin Avenue. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times
“We basically slept in the kitchen, with the oven on, with the kids,” says Torres, the mother of two teenagers.
All of the tenants pay for their own heat. But Torres says the furnace wasn’t working because of an electrical problem.
Preston Letts, whose company manages the building, says the problems with the heat began shortly before Christmas and repairs kept failing because of an electrical problem with Commonwealth Edison. Letts says the heat was fixed by mid-January.
Still, the city sued the building owner, Vision Home Sales II of Las Vegas, on Feb. 11. The case was dismissed March 3.
Sullivan says Torres’ apartment failed several CHA inspections before passing on March 22, though Torres says she still has roaches in her kitchen and bedbugs.
“I don’t know how this passed inspection,” Torres says.
Sullivan says the CHA cut off the rent for 28 days for the second-floor apartment over heating and other issues including roaches. The apartment, which remains occupied by three people, has yet to pass inspection “due to deficiencies on behalf of the landlord and the tenant,” according to Sullivan.
As of January, Vision Home Sales II of Las Vegas had been collecting $3,235 a month in rent from the building, with the CHA covering 88 percent of that.
Shortly after Christmas, the heat went out in the Englewood six-flat where Mileissa Weddle, above, lives. “The landlord put a sign on the door that the heat was going to be off for a couple of days, but it was longer than that,” Weddle says. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times
Shortly after Christmas, the heat went out in the Englewood six-flat where Mileissa Weddle lives with her parents and siblings. They are one of four voucher households living there.
“The landlord put a sign on the door that the heat was going to be off for a couple of days, but it was longer than that,” Weddle says. “No hot water either. The landlord provided us with space heaters. It was cold. It almost felt like we were outside.”
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When city inspectors showed up on Jan. 12, they found it was 58 degrees inside the building. Two days later, city lawyers sued the owner. A judge dismissed the heat case on Feb. 11.
“The heat was out because we were in the process of installing the gas meters,” says Dimitre Dragotchev, a Glenview resident whose company owns the building near 66th and Stewart. “I thought it was going to last one day. It turned out it lasted a week. It was the coldest time of the year.”
Dragotchev paid $47,500 for the building in May 2014 and has rehabbed it. He collects $4,052 a month from his voucher tenants, with the CHA covering 91 percent of that.
Six CHA voucher-holders living in another six-flat on the South Side had to use stoves and electrical heaters for heat for several days in January when the boiler went out at their South Shore building, according to the city’s lawsuit.
It was 54 degrees in a first-floor apartment when city inspectors arrived at the building on Jan. 21. City Hall sued four days later. A judge dismissed the case on Feb. 9.
The Chicago Housing Authority cut off rent payments this year for three of the six units in this building in the 6800 of South East End Avenue after failed inspections over issues including no heat. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times
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In 2000, the Chicago Housing Authority embarked on the largest public housing makeover in the country. Today, the Chicago Sun-Times and Better Government Association continue their examination of the effects of the city’s “Plan for Transformation.’’
Richard Jardine’s Good Energy Holdings LLC bought the building in the 6800 block of South East End in November 2014 for $300,000. A year later, the Miami Beach company took out a $909,660 mortgage on the property. The landlord collects $6,972 a month from the six voucher households, with the CHA paying 75 percent of that.
“The crew looked at everything and said we needed a new boiler,” says Jardine, 38. “The boiler, which cost $25,000, was paid for all within a day of the issue. It took two days to install the boiler. The heat was out four days.”
“If you can actually find a better Section 8 owner than me, I’d be surprised. Don’t ever call me again.”