Newark tenants look for change from new building owner

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on January 20, 2017

 

Residents at Georgia King Village in Newark have heard the same line when a new owner and management company take over. It goes something like this:

Life at the low-income housing complex is going to improve. There will be better security. More guards and surveillance cameras. And new heating and sewer systems are on the way.

But in the end, all the grandiose plans to overhaul the complex, which consists of two, 18-story buildings plus 144 townhouses, never seem to pan out.

"Different management companies come in promising us the rainbow and we get nothing,'' said tenant president Hassan Hamilton. "Even though they might be coming in doing the right thing and their heart might be right place, we've been so tarnished, we come in defensive.''

The new owner - L + M Development Partners of New York - understands the mistrust but it's confident that things will change.

"The only real way to demonstrate is by action and by doing,'' said Adam Hellegers, L+M's director of preservation development.

The company has aggressive plans that have been explained to residents since it took over the property in July. Earmarked for phase one, with an $8.6 million price tag, is a new boiler system, new insulation of all the buildings, new roofs and surveillance cameras. Since July, Hellegers said, 70 vacant apartments have been rehabilitated.

In the $17 million second phase of the massive restoration project, Hellegers said, there will be a comprehensive renovation of all the units in early 2018. This means new kitchens, new appliances, new everything.

"When you do this work, you're stepping in and transforming lives,'' he said.

L+M has a history in this line of work, having renovated more than 5,000 housing units in New York City during the last five years.

In downtown Newark, it has purchased the Verizon building, which it plans to convert into housing. But its marquee development is the conversion of the former Hahne's department store into 160 apartments and office and retail space, which includes a Whole Foods Market and cultural arts center for Rutgers University.

But away from downtown, the residents at Georgia King Village just want L+M to follow through at their complex where others have failed. They're tired of broken promises.

Gee Cureton, a resident who is also a district leader, said the building has had about seven management companies in the past 15 to 20 years.

"We've just got to see," Cureton said. "If they do what they're saying they're going to do, then we're okay.''

Over the years, residents have complained about sewer problems, crime, apartments in need of repair and no heat. The list goes on.

Last week, heat was an issue again.

The tenants held an emergency meeting when the temporary boiler wasn't producing enough heat. Residents were cold for a few days, then the boiler stopped working.

They called code enforcement, West Ward Councilman Joe McCallum and C&C, an apartment management company that is a subsidiary of L+M.

Management provided space heaters, and then repaired the temporary boiler the same day it broke down last Tuesday.

But having little-to-no heat reminded residents of past winters, and it had them wondering if this was going to happen all over again.

"We've been going through this for years,'' said Ethel Ellis, a 20-year resident.

Darcelle Harris thanked management for the space heaters and getting the boiler working, but she tearfully let them know about her years of frustration.

"I'm tired of coming from out of the cold into a cold apartment,'' Harris said. "We get so many fake promises. I'm tired of the same thing over and over."

C&C Apartment Management listened intently.

They get it. They understand that no one likes Band-Aid repairs. Georgia King has its issues and residents have been hurt.

Since July, C&C has hired a 24-hour maintenance director. It has improved the lighting on the grounds and hired a new security company that has removed loiterers from the complex.

"Folks used it as a hangout space and that created an eyesore,'' said Yasmin Cornelius, director of external affairs for C&C. "It created a feeling of not being safe for residents, mainly children and seniors.''

At the emergency meeting, management told residents that it would improve how staff gives updates on repairs and projects. For instance, they announced that 200 surveillance cameras were on the way. Repairs to the roof are starting soon, and by spring, the temporary boiler will be replaced with a new heating system.

"We recognize that we are walking in and dealing with somebody that's been angry for 10 to 15 years,'' Cornelius said.  "But you have to understand these are permanent fixes and it has to take time.''

While C&C deals with big ticket repairs, Cornelius said, the company is also making its way through a still-growing list of nearly 400 work order requests from residents.

Councilman McCallum said he has been working with management, and believes the outcome for residents will be positive this time around.

"They're going to fix up the place,'' he said. "They've done a fantastic job.''

Residents are hopeful, realizing the building is old and that it needs works.

When they first met management about its rehabilitation plans, the sessions were packed

Now they're not.

Management views this as a sign that it is making inroads.

Then again, it could be that residents are still skeptical and don't see the need to come.

Either way, time and progress will be the true test.

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