A problematic Kansas City apartment is without heat. Residents are paying the price
A fire knocked out the heat in a Northeast Kansas City apartment complex Friday, leaving residents in the cold indefinitely. The property owner, who serves on the board of a housing advocacy nonprofit, blames the issue on unhoused people breaking into the building. But the building has a history of code violations.
Dozens of residents of an apartment building in Kansas City’s Historic Northeast spent the weekend without heat, after an electrical fire knocked out utilities early Friday morning.
Kansas City firefighters responded to a fire in the basement of Gladstone Court apartment complex on N. Lawn Avenue in the early hours of January 20. But the KCFD told residents they would not turn the gas meters back on because of multiple dangerous code violations found in the building. Officials said they were unable to contact the property owner to fix the issues.
Tenants were eventually offered temporary housing in a hotel in the Northland, but many chose to remain in the building in the freezing cold, over fears their belongings may be stolen if they left.
Sophia Be lives in the complex with her husband and four children, who go to school at nearby Gladstone Elementary.
“My kids are too small,” Be said. “That's why we were planning to stay home and get warm with the space heaters. We just stay with that and wear warm clothes to sleep.”
The complex is owned by FTW Investment. CEO Parker Webb serves on the board of reStart — a social services nonprofit in Kansas City.
“We never see the landlord and have never met them,” Be, who has lived in the apartment since 2018, said. “They just put the letter to the doors if you have to pay the rent. They don't introduce themselves. We never see them.”
Many residents are immigrants or refugees
Some of the residents of the complex are Burmese immigrants or refugees — many of whom speak little or no English.
Worried about freezing temperatures and a possibility of snow, Be reached out to her daughter’s teacher at Gladstone Elementary Friday morning. Be says some of her neighbors are elderly and sick and didn’t know what to do.
Kansas City Public Schools connected the residents with KC Tenants, a citywide tenant union. The group spent hours Saturday working to get in touch with the city, the landlord and the property manager of the building. Be spent the day translating for officials and organizing help for her neighbors.
Eventually, the fire and health departments returned to the apartments, but without cooperation from a landlord or property manager, the fire department and Spire could not turn the meters back on.
Because of the numerous code violations, the health department eventually offered the residents the option to stay the weekend in a northland hotel.
According to Tara Raghuveer, director of KC Tenants, all but two of the families in the building decided to stay.
The Be’s were one of the families who stayed. With one car, it was important for the family to be within walking distance of their school and work. The hotel was too far away.
KC Tenants collected blankets, warm clothing and space heaters Sunday to help keep residents warm.
“What we're focused on is touching base with the tenants and seeing what support they need if they're still at the building, and then staying in touch with the tenants who are at the hotel to make sure that we don't lose track of them after the two nights that the city has committed to put them up,” Raghuveer said.
Building has a problematic history; landlord blames ‘squatters’
146 N Lawn Avenue has 48 units, most of which are vacant. The building has had 19 complaints to 311 in the past year, resulting in one health code violation, eight property violations, a dangerous building violation and four healthy homes complaints.
This isn’t the first time the building has had a damaging fire. KCFD responded to a fire in March of 2022 in one of the central buildings of the complex — those damages still haven’t been fixed.
Many of the windows in the building are broken. Appliances in multiple units don’t work. Tenants say maintenance hardly responds to calls.
Residents say they haven’t been receiving mail at the building for months, which has caused them to have late bill payments. The many immigrants and refugees in the building worry the lack of mail has complicated their immigration proceedings and piled on late fees.
FTW Investments owns the complex, as well as more than 1,300 multifamily units in the metro. The agency is co-owned by Parker Webb, Logan Freeman and Cory Tuck.
Some tenants and previous property managers believe Tango Property Management is now in charge of the building. Tango is also registered under Heimsoth, with Webb listed as the LLC organizer. Both Tango and 110 White list FTW headquarters as their registered address.
Heimsoth did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In a statement to KCUR, Webb, CEO of FTW, said the company is in the process of selling the apartment complex to another company. He said fires were “not a new issue in the Historic Northeast” and said this fire was caused by unhoused people squatting in vacant apartments. KCFD has yet to release the findings of its investigation.
Webb is also on the board of reStart — a nonprofit that serves unhoused people in Kansas City.
“At the end of the day, the reality of this situation is that unhoused people have repeatedly attempted to break into multiple properties in this area, have done so successfully many times, and have caused multiple property fires,” Webb said. “The worst part of it is that they have caused these fires at 146 Lawn and many places like it where families are already living, and when they started that fire on the night of Thursday, January 19, they put the lives of many people — including children — at grave risk.”
Webb also said that FTW is committed to “safe, clean, healthy housing” and that the company will “continue to make sure this property is livable, even as we prepare to sell it to another company, and will not leave the people who rely on us for their housing without options.”
Webb said FTW representatives were on the scene immediately after the fire assisting with relocation efforts. But firefighters and city officials on the scene Saturday said they had received no contact from FTW or others in charge of the property.
An uncertain future for tenants
The city needs the landlord to fix the electrical issues before it can turn the heat on. But Webb and Heimsoth have not responded to tenants or the city, and without their cooperation, the city is unable to address the issues and turn the gas back on.
Raghuveer worries the issues are too severe to resolve quickly.
“The building's been in disrepair, it's been neglected for months,” Raghuveer said. “No one responds to their calls. The overall concern is that many of the tenants in that building are paying something like $350 or $450 in rent. These are families who are living in apartments that were pretty affordable to them for years and now they just don't know where they're going to go.”
The health department has the authority through the Healthy Homes program to end people’s permits to do business in Kansas City if they fail to comply with the program’s standards.
Raghuveer said the health department told the tenants they won’t let this issue go unnoticed. Still, she’s concerned it won’t be enough.
“The health department committed to the tenants that first thing Monday morning, they're going to be wielding every tool in their toolbox to try to get the electrical wiring fixed and therefore the gas turned back on,” Raghuveer said. “We've seen a couple of examples of properties really turn around after that level of escalation, but it's really only a couple.”
While neglected properties these issues are often attributed to out-of-state landlords, Raghuveer says there are “dozens of slumlords who are local.”
“This ownership entity has been trying to sell this building for a while. So if they're done with the building … we can't really wait around and expect for them to do the decent thing, which is to fix the property and make sure that people have a habitable place to live.”
KCUR spoke to city workers at the scene, but additional requests for comment from KCFD, the Kansas City Health Department, and the city of Kansas City were not returned.