A group of about 20 people braved single-digit temperatures on Feb. 14, lining the sidewalk outside the Riverside home of Ronald Kafka, blaming him for leaving dozens of residential and commercial tenants in the cold last week and adding their voices to those demanding he improve living conditions at the Tower Apartments in downtown Riverside, where heat was out for several days last week.
The protest followed in the wake of complaints to police, on social media and in the press from residents of the Tower Apartments. Tenants said the building’s property management company dragged its feet after the boiler that provides heat for the entire 44-unit building failed on Feb. 7.
“It’s OK for me, we live on the top floor and it really doesn’t get below 45,” said a tenant who spoke at the protest outside Kafka’s home on Northwood Road at about 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 14. “But the people below me, I feel bad or them. There’s elders, there’s children, pregnant women. Some people can’t stay. My neighbors are staying with friends, with family.”
The tenant, who asked not to be identified fearing retaliation – a common request from those whom the Landmark spoke to over the past week – said the property management company didn’t communicate with tenants about what they were doing to fix the heat after the boiler went out.
“We were left in the dark for basically over 24 hours, maybe 36,” the tenant said. “Instead of us having to tell them that the boiler’s broken, it’s their prerogative to let us know and not turn their phone off when we have an issue.”
It took more than 24 hours for the company to take any corrective action, according to village officials, and heat wasn’t fully restored to the apartment building until sometime on the afternoon of Feb. 14.
The new boiler wasn’t working properly until Feb. 15 when additional work was done to prevent the unit from automatically switching off because the water supply to the boiler wasn’t adequate, according to Riverside Community Development Director Sonya Abt.
“It does appear to be in working order now,” said Abt on Feb. 15. “They got it back on this afternoon. Hopefully, they should have no further problems.”
The Tower Building at 22-42 East Ave. and 25-39 Forest Ave., was built around 1928 and is designated a local landmark. It’s a prominent downtown building with nine commercial storefronts in addition to 35 residential apartments.
It’s owned by a real estate trust and is managed by a company called Property Rental Inc. Tenants and village officials for years have identified Kafka as the landlord of the property, although he has denied owning the building or any company associated with it.
The Feb. 14 protest outside Kafka’s home was organized by Indivisible West Suburban Action League, one of the many Indivisible groups that sprouted nationwide in response to the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, and History Never Taught, an organization started by local college students last summer in response to the death of George Floyd, which sparked demonstrations across the country, including Riverside.
“He’s been living here comfortably, because we’ve been allowing it,” said Audrey Pekny, one of the founders of History Never Taught, who stood for an hour outside Kafka’s home as the temperature topped out at 7 degrees. “But the second that we make our presence known and make it known that we’re not going to let this continue to happen is the second that we might see a change.”
Many tenants sought shelter elsewhere while the temperature inside their apartments dropped below 50 degrees for days, but there were some who had no place to go. The apartment building houses a variety of people, from senior citizens to children, who are attending school remotely because of the pandemic.
“These apartments are right by an elementary and middle school and high school, so there’s obviously students that are trying to learn and are trying to sleep and be safe, so it’s a very wide range of people that are being deeply affected,” Pekny said.
Lindsay Morrison, of Indivisible West Suburban Action League, said she was protesting because the conditions at the Tower Apartments hurt not just the tenants, but the village as a whole.
“We want to show that this behavior by Kafka and his companies is not acceptable in our community here and we condemn it,” Morrison said. “It’s a drain and he has been for decades, because he owns so many buildings here.”
On Feb. 10, the village of Riverside filed a complaint and an emergency motion for an injunction in Cook County Circuit Court against the owners of the Tower Apartments after receiving calls from tenants that they had been without heat since late on Feb. 7.
“The village has told them they needed to move quickly,” said Riverside Village Manager Jessica Frances last week. “It’s unacceptable and illegal to have a multifamily building without heat.”
In addition to filing the complaint, the village issued four building code violation notices, which will be pursued for the maximum fine allowed for each violation, said Frances, which is $750.
Those citations will be considered at a village adjudication hearing scheduled for March 25.
The Landmark left a phone message seeking comment with a woman who answered the phone at the property management company on Feb. 11. No one from the company responded.
Riverside moved to file the complaint in court, because they believed they needed to force compliance. According to the village’s complaint, Property Rental Inc. was informed about the boiler failure by tenants on the morning of Feb. 8 but failed to take any action to repair the problem until Feb. 9, after village officials began making inquiries based on resident complaints.
A police report obtained through a Freedom of Information request states a police officer went to the property management company just after 9 a.m. on Feb. 9 to inform them of a tenant complaint.
At that time, according to the police report, someone at the office told police they “are aware of the problem and it is being worked on now.”
However, the village’s circuit court complaint states that the property management company “did not call [the boiler repair company] until late on Tuesday morning.”
The delay, according to the village’s complaint, “is evidence that Property Rental is not acting in good faith to make the repairs in a timely fashion.”
It was not until sometime on Feb. 10, according to the court record, that the company called in to assess the problem and determined the boiler needed to be replaced.
More than one tenant told the Landmark that after a new boiler was installed on Feb. 12, it was on for about two hours from 7 to 9 p.m. before switching off for the rest of the night.
The heat went on again briefly on Saturday morning before switching off again.
“By Sunday morning it was freezing cold,” said one tenant, who is eight months pregnant.
With her apartment at just 49 degrees, the tenant said she grabbed some items and left to stay at a family member’s house Sunday night. She had still not returned to the building as of mid-morning on Feb. 15.
That tenant also complained the power to her stove and refrigerator was still out, a full week after she blew a circuit trying to warm her apartment with a space heater. Multiple tenants told the Landmark they were doing everything from running their ovens to boiling water on top of the stove to generate heat.
Another tenant turned on the stove to heat the apartment, setting off the unit’s carbon monoxide detector and resulting in a response from the Riverside Fire Department and Nicor.
According to the tenant, a rusty stove valve was the reason for the problem.
“I don’t feel safe using the oven,” the tenant said.
The boiler failure is just the latest in a series of maintenance issues at the Tower Apartments dating back more than a decade. In 2006, the village sued the building’s property management company after a second-floor toilet flooded a ground-floor commercial space, driving out a longtime business. The village dropped the suit after it was satisfied environmental remediation had taken place.
In 2018, the building management was forced to replace a three-story wooden rear staircase after a man hired to paint the old one fell to his death when a railing gave way. The victim’s family sued the owners and won a $950,000 settlement.