Despite the installation late last week of a new central boiler to provide heat to residential and commercial tenants at the Tower Apartments, 22-40 East Ave. and 25-39 Forest Ave. in downtown Riverside, heating system failures have continued, prompting a village statement calling the situation “outrageous” and promising to “continue to pursue this matter by every legal means possible.”
Village President Ben Sells on Feb. 18 posted a lengthy statement on Facebook explaining Riverside’s actions against the owner and property management company of the Tower Apartments, ensuring residents the village was working to force a resolution.
“Substantial village resources have been expended over the past week and a half addressing this outrageous failing on the part of the building’s owner,” the statement said. “Village staff, including Code/Building Department personnel and the fire chief, have been in constant contact with a number of tenants and the company making the boiler repairs and replacement, as well as building management. The village has taken every legal means available to it to respond aggressively on behalf of the affected tenants.”
The statement was triggered by the latest failure of the heating system earlier on Feb. 18, a day after village personnel inspected a little more than half of the building’s 50 units, pursuant to a court order issued Tuesday.
According to the statement posted to Facebook by Sells at about 2 p.m. on Thursday, “The village was informed that the heat outage that occurred earlier today was due to build-up of steam in the boiler room, which tripped an emergency shut-off. Repair personnel are onsite now installing a steam vent.”
The building had been without any heat at all, according to tenants who spoke with the Landmark, from late on Feb. 7 until the evening of Feb. 12, leaving tenants to endure indoor temperatures in the 40s and 50s or seek temporary shelter with friends or relatives.
Tenants tried to heat their units by turning on ovens, boiling water on stove tops and using space heaters. In at least one instance, the use of a space heater shorted an electric circuit, leaving that tenant without the use of a stove or refrigerator.
The village of Riverside on Feb. 10 filed a complaint in Cook County Circuit Court to force the immediate replacement of the building’s boiler, which heats all of the units, and allow village personnel to inspect every unit to make sure the repairs had been done and ensure the building’s code compliance.
It wasn’t until the evening of Feb. 12 that a new boiler was installed and heat turned back on. But, the heat was short-lived, going off after a couple of hours, according to tenants, sending temperatures falling again inside units.
The heat turned on again, seemingly for good, on the afternoon of Feb. 14, but on the evening of Feb. 15 the boiler shut off again after a frozen steam pipe burst. The leak forced a water shutoff to the entire building while two separate leaks inside one unit were repaired.
A Riverside Fire Department report of the incident noted that “there are no individual water shut offs for the units in this large building and the main water valve needs to be shut off when there are leaks. This compounds the issue because the boiler (which requires a water supply) also needs to be shut off during this process.”
The village apparently does have the power to declare the building uninhabitable, but in the Facebook statement, officials said they were reluctant to take that step.
“Many of the tenants still in the building do not have alternative housing and have been reluctant to accept alternative housing when it has been offered to them,” the statement said.
On Feb. 16, a Cook County judge ordered the Tower Apartments’ owner, which is a real estate trust, and management company to allow village building department staff, the fire chief and Nicor to inspect every unit “as soon as possible … to verify compliance with village building and other codes concerning health, welfare and safety.”
Tenants and village officials commonly identify Riverside resident Ronald Kafka as the landlord/building owner. Kafka has consistently denied ownership of the Tower Apartments.
On Feb. 14, about 20 people gathered outside Kafka’s home in Riverside to protest the conditions at the Tower Apartments.
“The village shares the anger, outrage and frustration not only of the affected tenants, but of the community as a whole regarding the current situation,” the village’s Facebook statement said. “Neglect of critical maintenance issues has been a pattern with this particular property owner for many years.”
Village personnel, according to the Facebook statement, were able to inspect 28 of the 50 units on Feb. 17. They were not able to inspect the remainder because tenants weren’t home and the master key provided to inspectors did not work.
Officials will be back in court Friday, according to the village’s statement, “to seek further access to the remaining units, and to pursue continuing court oversight of getting health and safety issues addressed at this property.”