Decaying, rat-infested housing complex gets $200M renovation

Posted Mar 05, 2020

The Garden Spires apartment complex used to be a different place.

Not long ago, the two Newark residential buildings were on the brink of being uninhabitable due to unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

Roaches were hiding in the baby food sold at the first-floor supermarket. Rodents were turning up dead. Abandoned apartments were a sanctuary for old furniture, cats and squatters.

But over the course of the last 18 months, it’s been transformed into a modern-day apartment complex, complete with shiny wood floors, fresh coats of paint and new bathroom and kitchen appliances.

“This was the poster child for what not to be done in public housing. This place was a disaster,” Mayor Ras Baraka said Thursday in the shadow of the two buildings. “It’s one thing for housing to be affordable, but it must also be quality.”

On Thursday, federal housing officials joined Baraka and Acting Gov. Sheila Oliver in unveiling the overhauled First Street apartments, nearly three years after the city sued the buildings’ developer over the living conditions.

The discovery of more than 2,000 housing violations at Garden and Spruce Spires prompted Baraka’s administration in 2017 to sue the complex’s landlord, First King Properties, and seek a buyer that could extensively renovate the space.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ultimately forced the landlord to pay $800,000 for failing to meet federal housing regulations, according to Baraka.

Omni America purchased the 52-year-old buildings from the city and spent nearly $200 million remodeling, city officials said.

The New Jersey Home Mortgage Finance Agency granted Omni America $59.3 million toward renovations, in addition to $49.1 million in private equity through tax credits, Baraka said in a past op-ed about the complex. The State Economic Development Authority also awarded $43 million for the redevelopment, he previously said.

The buildings are now 98% occupied, according to Paul Ceppi, managing director of business development for the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.

Omni co-managing director and founder Eugene Schneur thanked residents for their patience in what he described as a long renovation process.

“This is a tough process for the residents,” he said. “It (was) tough living here.”

According to the city, the “substantial capital funding” for the project from the state allowed Omni to renovate more than 650 of the buildings’ apartments. HUD provides project-based rental assistance for 350 apartments in one building and 112 in the other, officials said.

Baraka said the public perception is those who cannot afford rent shouldn’t complain about what kind of housing is offered to them — even when conditions are deplorable.

“I reject that notion. Everybody rejects that idea. We want to have housing in the city of Newark that’s affordable but that’s also decent at the same time,” the mayor said.

Rent for the apartments ranges from $850-$1,569, according to Apartments.com listings.

Garden Spires opened in 1967 as an affordable housing option for Newark families on the former site of the Newark Academy, which moved to Livingston.

Oliver, who worked with the city and HUD on the renovations, remembers growing up in Newark and watching Garden Spires being built. The neighborhood prospered back then, but the buildings fell into disrepair because of neglectful owners and management, she said.

In an editorial submitted to The Star-Ledger, Baraka said living conditions at the apartments began to deteriorate just four years after the buildings’ grand opening. In the 1980s, residents complained of faulty elevator service, decaying stairwells and other maintenance issues, he said.

In 1999, then-Mayor Cory Booker protested the conditions by sleeping in a tent in the parking lot.

Oliver described the buildings’ recent state as the “most inhumane conditions you could imagine."

“I think that we have given collectively the residents a sense of dignity that they deserve as human beings," she said.

Chuck Richman, executive director of the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Authority, said the vast amount of renovations needed made him skeptical it’d ever be completed.

“They kept it in conditions no one should ever live in,” he said. “It was dark, it was ugly. It wasn’t inviting. And today it’s beautiful.”

Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment