Editor's note: This story is part of a collaboration with WNIJ. Listen to this story's radio broadcast here. Read News Editor Noah Thornburgh's story here. Listen to WNIJ's broadcast on why we came to this story here.
DeKALB — County renters and landlords are amidst a time of reckoning in the wake of 2019’s creation of the DeKalb Tenant Association.
This relationship is illustrated at Suburban Apartment and Suburban Estates, whose tenants have been calling the county with concerns for years.
Suburban sits on the city limits in DeKalb, so tenants must call the county for help.
“Apartments” and “Estates” refer to different collections of buildings on the same ownership lot, run by the same people since 2015.
Together, they measure to roughly 530 units, according to the DeKalb County Health Department.
That department’s voicemail box was, at times, filled with repetitive calls about Suburban in winter 2018.
The voicemails come from a WNIJ public records request, and the department has redacted the callers’ identities.
Greg Maurice, Director of Health Protection, declined to comment.
Suburban received a voicemail Feb. 1 about heat: “I was told you would be the person to contact regarding issues I’m having with Suburban Apartments. We’ve been unable to stay at our unit for the past week because of a broken heater, and they’re no longer responding to any of my calls regarding when we can get back to the unit…”
The same caller tried again Feb. 6.
They said a part for their heater was replaced, but the heater quickly broke again.
The caller said they then put in a work order but didn’t receive any response.
“And they actually sent out an email even though they’re not responding to my calls or sending anybody to check our unit,” they said. “They did send out an email, blaming tenants for frozen pipes, telling everybody to close their windows and saying that if there are any damages caused by burst pipes, that they will be charging the tenants for all of the costs of repairs.”
Heat concerns continued that week, according to additional voicemails.
A voicemail from Feb. 12: “...They haven’t had any heat since yesterday. She said they offered space heaters and some people said yes, but those haven’t been delivered. She said no to the space heater. She doesn’t know how long it will be before the heat is up and going.”
Another from Feb. 13: “...I’ve been crying my eyes out. Still no heat yet. They never handed out the space heaters.”
But having issues with heat during the cold months isn’t a new concern., according to voicemails.
A call came in from October 2018: “I’m just calling to see who I can talk to about hopefully advocating for a woman who [inaudible],” said the caller. “She lives in the Suburban Apartments in DeKalb and is a cancer patient. She’s actually going through chemo. And we found out this morning that she’s been without heat for two and a half weeks. And she’s not getting through to the landlord. The gal in the office is giving her conflicting reports about when the heat might come back.”
These boilers started failing years ago, the voicemails show.
A voicemail from 2016 details a call to then-mayor John Rey about repairs at Suburban Estates: “This has been a diligent effort with...interesting activities. You have a great day, we will get heat to those people,” said the caller.
Voicemails also include concerns about icy parking lots and a lack of handicapped parking signs.
The landlord, technically, is a corporation called MCJ Investments. Kashif Bazal is the property director and a member of MCJ.
Suburban buildings were built in the 1960s, when systems like well water distributors were coming to the end of their lifespan, Bazal said. He said boilers were being replaced in 2016 and 2017 and acknowledged that the work orders prompted complaints of lack of heat and water.
“That’s when a lot of complaints came in stating that there were issues with water, issues with this, issues with heat, issues with everything,” Bazal said. “That’s when we were changing the system.”
He said there are still some older boilers at Suburban, but most have been updated to new systems at different times.
The February voicemails about heat came around the time the Midwest reached record freezing temperatures. Bazal said that deep freeze caused some of the pipes to burst because boilers couldn’t handle the extreme cold.
“I feel sad,” Bazal said. “I feel very, very disappointed. Because the thing is, again, I cannot control — because the first thing that came to me is those families and their kids.”
He said problems with boilers and heat in the past were always eventually addressed.
Shan Bedi, or Sukdharshan S. Bedi, is a Naperville-based property manager at Suburban.
He said Suburban has added $150,000 worth of insulation to buildings 17 through 24 over the past few months in preparation for winter.
“They just finished about two or three weeks ago,” Bedi said.
Bazal said management knows Suburban has had problems with water, like old pipes bursting.
The company was sued over its water systems in 2016, but the case was eventually dismissed permanently.
Bazal said maintenance crews replace aged pipes when a break occurs.
“There’s been some several issues with the water system, no doubt about it,” he said.
Bazal said a company called MGD Water Solutions LLC tests and monitors Suburban’s two private wells.
The Suburban system has no documented violations of contaminants like lead within its treatment facility water, according to IEPA representatives.
But Suburban’s private community water system does have 15 violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act since current owners took over, according to IEPA’s online records.
These violations outline failures in the past to submit testing paperwork to the IEPA within a certain period of time. Bazal said they’ll consider being “more strict” with their water testing company. Bedi said it’s not Suburban’s responsibility.
“Don’t blame me for it,” Bedi said. “You have to start understanding the bureaucracy of the system.”
He said it might not be the fault of MGD Water but a failure of the IEPA itself.
“They’re the ones who are basically misplacing the samples,” he said.
Tenants also raised concerns about discolored water, which can happen when water comes from a well like Suburban’s. Bedi said the occasional yellow tint comes from natural sources and isn’t a cause for concern.
“The color of the water is coming from magnesium and also iron,” Bedi said.
County and city leaders have expressed a desire to change conditions at rural apartments like Suburban to ensure incidents aren’t repeated. According to internal documents, former DeKalb Mayor John Rey emailed county officials multiple times referring complaints he received about Suburban to the company because it sits on unincorporated land.
The apartments are subject to county building code and DeKalb County can do much less than the City of DeKalb. For example, the City of DeKalb can take an unresponsive property owner to court. The county cannot.
Code on the county level is split up between different county agencies, and not all departments track the calls they get about Suburban concerns. Building code was amended as recently as November 2019.
The two county board members that represent Suburban Apartments and Estates, Sandra Polanco and Linda Slabon, did not respond to requests for comment. County Board Chair Mark Pietrowski also did not respond to interview requests.
“Our code enforcement is more reactionary,” DeKalb County Administrator Gary Hanson said.
In October 2018, Hanson wrote an email to another county official as part of a conversation to add more “teeth” to the code. He wrote that he visited with Pietrowski and Community Development Director Derek Hiland to consider writing an ordinance to address Suburban concerns. Hanson’s email said he and Pietrowski were willing to write one, but Hiland was opposed because it would create a “public expectation of enforcement” and they didn’t have the staff to handle it.
“Our biggest source of revenue is property taxes, and I don’t think the whole county would want to pay property taxes to address you know, an apartment complex,” Hanson said.
Hanson said that conversation has been paused.
“I don’t think a definitive decision has been made, but by the lack of writing new ordinances, I guess, by default, we’re letting the marketplace take care of that,” he said.
DeKalb Principal Planner Dan Olson said the city has had conversations about annexing Suburban into DeKalb but the city is not interested, even if it was possible. Suburban isn’t technically surrounded by city infrastructure, so he said officials can’t force an annexation.
“The property owner would have to petition the city, and the city would respond in terms of would it either -- in any case -- either annex it if it’s a benefit to the city, or we don’t have to annex it if it’s not a benefit, which is the case here,” said Olson.
Bazal said Suburban isn’t interested in annexation either. DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas said he agrees with Olson. Nicklas said the city’s comprehensive plan considers its economic standing.
“The 5-year plans for this, and comprehensive plans [for the city] and all that, none of those include going out and fixing an area just to be humane,” he said. “Because we don’t have the means to do that.”
Nicklas said the City will continue to support social services like Family Service Agency to help people when they need it.
Meanwhile, Suburban’s future plans include going solar with an intent to drop rental prices. In 2018, MCJ Investments officially started efforts to bring a solar farm to the property. Bedi said it’s meant as a community focused project.
“Solar maybe will become a thing of the future,” Bedi said. “After they see that something is developed here, maybe they’ll be -- DeKalb may be one of the main centers of solar.”
DeKalb’s Planning and Zoning Commission stood behind Suburban’s solar project in September 2018 when efforts were hampered for a certain time. Municipalities like DeKalb can weigh in on zoning changes such as solar farm additions when the location in question is within a specific distance of their city limits, according to state statute.
“I definitely applaud you all for bringing this up,” Commission Chair Christina Doe said to representatives from the complex when they presented their solar efforts to the commission.
On Oct. 17, 2018, a little more than one month after this zoning meeting, City Attorney Dean Frieders sent a letter to county leadership. The letter detailed a carbon monoxide leak from a faulty boiler at rates of at least 800 ppm.
“This correspondence relates to the current condition of the residential facilities at Suburban Estates,” Frieders writes.
Bedi said reports from the October 2018 monoxide boiler leak are inaccurate.
“I can laugh at this,” he said. “I know... I know. These people just basically make up the things.”
Bazal said the boiler was decommissioned and replaced “immediately.”
Suburban’s future is largely up to property owners and maintenance crews. Bazal said they’ve been responding to concerns as quickly as they can. He said efforts of response like updating lighting and property management software are examples. He also said they’ve added cameras that the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Department can access.
In an email, Sheriff Roger Scott said his department has remote access to camera archives at Suburban Apartments and in-person access to archives at Suburban Estates. Scott said the department doesn’t have live camera access to either Suburban Apartments or Estates.
Bedi said sometimes tenants don’t pay their rent, a practice he said other landlords in the area are seeing as well.
“How do you think any businesses could survive in that?” Bedi said.
The City of Chicago offers protections for tenants if they’re withholding their rent out of protest of conditions, but the practice is not legal in the rest of the state.
Hiland said the county is doing all it can to address complaints. That can be a frustration when residents are trying to get help in dire conditions, he said.
“I would say for those individuals that are having difficulty in their living environment, to continue reaching out...because there are people on the other end that do care about their living conditions and will do whatever is possible to utilize the resources available to help their situations and causes,” Hiland said.
If not, a newly formed tenants association hopes to create a space for residents to speak up so voicemails like this are never heard again: “We’ve had no heat for three days, and I can’t even bring my child home because it’s too cold for her to stay there. And I can’t keep renting hotel rooms. So can I please have someone call me back to help me or — please, just anything. Thank you. Bye.”
Video Editor Brandon Giesey, Contributor Noah Johnson and News Editor Noah Thornburgh contributed reporting.