City crackdown on Newark landlord finds crumbling walls, mold in housing complex

By Vernal Coleman | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on July 28, 2015

Building inspectors find crumbling walls, faulty plumbing and other violations at Tuesday raid of notorious Newark apartment complex.

 

NEWARK — For the last 15 years, Shonnette Parker has rented a two-bedroom apartment at the Garden Spires housing complex on First Street, but her family now only uses one.

Behind a closed door, the second bedroom remains empty, save for the remains of a few pieces of furniture and piles of soot-stained clothing Parker said were ruined by flooding from leaking building pipes.

Parker has five children, three of which still live with her in their corner apartment. She won't allow them into the second bedroom, citing the mold creeping up the closet walls and crumbling sheetrock.

Parker said her calls to Garden Spires owner King Properties about the condition of the apartment are frequent, and often go unreturned. And when building maintenance personnel do respond, their fixes to problems like the continually running shower faucet and falling bathroom tiles last only for a short time, Parker said.

"It's a slum," Parker said. "I want out."

Parker's apartment was singled out Tuesday as an example of what city officials said are the grim conditions posing safety and health risks to the more than 800 tenants residing at the Garden Spires complex.

Dozens of city code enforcement officers swept through the 550-unit complex Tuesday morning, going door-to-door to gather residents' complaints.

"We're here today to deal with the mass of violations and to deal with the ownership," said Patrick Council, city director of neighborhood and recreational services. "We want to hold every -- not only homeowner -- but every business owner, every building owner and every owner accountable for the housing that they provide for the people here in the great city of Newark."

The city will seek to compel owners King Properties to pay for the temporary location of those residents whose apartments are determined to be uninhabitable, Council said. Following the sweep, the city will file charges detailing the residents' complaints against the company, which could face up to $50,000 in fines, Council said.

Attempts to reach representatives for King Properties for comment were unsuccessful.

The mass inspection was prompted by Mayor Ras Baraka, who visited the complex earlier this month as part of his administration's Occupy the Block initiative, Council said.

During the visit, city officials discovered dead mice, rodent droppings and out-of-date food inside Ashley's Supermarket, a grocery story attached to the housing complex, Council said. It was immediately shut down, he added.

Many residents present during the visit complained of poor lighting in the building hallways, toilets that fail to flush and apartments infested with insects, officials said.

Other residents on Tuesday confirmed those complaints.

"When you call the management company, they drag their feet," said Gwen Clemons, whose daughter is a resident of the complex. "There's mildew and mold everywhere. You call them and they just come and fix it when they want. But no one wants complain because they're afraid they'll get put out."

The buildings are inspected annually by the Newark Fire Department Division of Fire Safety and Life Preservation, which can fine owners for a multitude of violations related to building integrity and safety. Inspectors revisit each property until the violations are fixed.

Department supervisor E. Fonesca-Ruiz, who was present Tuesday's sweep, said both Garden Spires towers were inspected in December 2014. Inspectors cited King Properties for a failure to provide valid inspection reports relating to the buildings elevators and standpipe systems. Neither issue has been abated as of Tuesday, said Fonseca-Ruiz.

City officials could not say Tuesday what, if any, code violations King Properties currently faces in connection to the Garden Spires complex.

While individual resident complaints are regularly investigated, the city does not currently have a process for regular top-to-bottom inspections of local housing properties, officials said. It's only when officials believe code violations affect a mass of residents that such an inspection is ordered.

The last mass inspection of the complex took place in 2013, according to to city officials.

For Gloria Jones, whose grand-daughter lives in the complex, any positive results would keep her from looking elsewhere for housing. "It's unbearable, some of what you see in this building," she said.

But for residents whose ability to pay rent is based on the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program, Garden Spires may be the cheapest and only housing option.

The voucher program is valid only in designated areas, which Shonette Parker said has left her with little choice but to remain in her current apartment, despite its condition.

"I applied for a three-bedroom apartment here," Parker said. Eight years later, Parker said she's still waiting on one to become available. "You have times when you feel they're not listening."

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