The Tower Apartments, at Forest and East avenues, in downtown Riverside. (Bob Uphues/Editor)

Riverside building department personnel will soon be able to finish up inspecting residential and commercial units at the Tower Apartments, 22-40 East Ave. and 25-39 Forest Ave. in downtown Riverside, after gaining access to only about half the units last week.

On Feb. 19, a Cook County Circuit Court judge also ordered that the building owner and property management company be in daily contact with the village regarding the functioning of the newly installed boiler that heats the entire 50-unit building.

Despite the recent installation of a new central boiler, heating system failures continued last week, prompting a village statement calling the situation “outrageous” and promising to “continue to pursue this matter by every legal means possible.”

The judge also ordered that the village be allowed to inspect about 22 units it was unable to access when inspectors showed up at the Tower Apartments on Feb. 17. 

Village personnel inspected 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.

But inspectors compiled a lengthy list of code violations, including everything from a rear wooden porch/stairwell in “serious disrepair” to exterior porches not cleared of snow and ice “making them inaccessible and dangerous,” to at least a dozen residential units where there were no working smoke alarms or carbon monoxide detectors.

On Feb. 19, the village submitted the list of violations to the judge, who ordered the building management to make the building code compliant and to equip units with functioning smoke/CO detectors as soon as possible. The two sides are due back in court for a status update on March 10.

Riverside Village President Ben Sells last week posted a lengthy statement on Facebook, explaining Riverside’s actions against the owner and property management company of the Tower Apartments and 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 that day, on Feb. 18.

According to the statement posted to Facebook by Sells, “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.

“Neglect of critical maintenance issues has been a pattern with this particular property owner for many years.”

Village of Riverside

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,” Sells’ Facebook statement said.

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.”