NEWARK, NJ — Clad in a fur-collared coat and designer brands, Siree Thomas, co-owner of Ascension Capital Partners, beamed as city officials, his business partner and his family sliced through the ribbon on the Avon Lofts on Tuesday.
The action marked recognition of the South Ward’s newest affordable housing development, two three-family homes offering three-bed, two-bed apartments for low-income families. It’s a project that Morris, who is best known for opening Newark Moonlight Cinema, tapped into his childhood experiences to design.
“My specialty is always three bedrooms, two bathrooms minimum because as families, we need space. We need multiple rooms, we need multiple bathrooms,” he said.
Morris, a South Ward native, wasn’t always decked out in luxury apparel and jewelry. Growing up, the developer and business owner lived in cramped Section 8 housing, sharing two bedrooms and one bathroom between his three brothers, sister and one parent.
Surrounded by drugs and crime, Morris used his bleak circumstances, basketball and community to motivate himself toward a civil engineering degree from Rutgers-New Brunswick. A promising start working for a land developer put him on a path to break the cycle of poverty, but in 2012, that came to a crashing halt when he was laid off.
Morris and his wife, Ayana, were forced to move in with Ayana’s mother. Though dejected at the time, the bump in the road was just a way of redirecting Morris toward his true purpose. His high school basketball coach happened to be ascending to the Mayor’s Office, so he sought a position in the city’s engineering department.
“When I got laid off, I was kind of hustling out here a little, but I said, ‘Let me go get a city job,” he said. “I went to see (Mayor Ras Baraka), and I told him I also wanted to do land development. He said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to need you to go do that other stuff.’”
And so it was — in addition to opening the Avon Lofts within a year of their groundbreaking, Ascension Capital Partners, run by Morris and Ryan Curran, are developing at least six other affordable housing projects. That includes the city’s first multi-family shipping container home on Halsey Street in the Central Ward.
All his housing, Morris said, is outfitted with free Wi-Fi, an in-unit washer and dryer and security cameras to make his tenants feel safe. The Avon Lofts run for just $1,750 per unit, below the area’s fair market rent value and about 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI).
Lesser apartments can cost tenants upward of $2,800 in the Newark area. The average cost of rent for a one-bedroom dwelling in Newark is around the same cost as a unit at the Avon Lofts at $1,649, according to PayScale.
“This is going to be a beacon of development in the South Ward. There are more projects going on, and this will be a bedrock of that,” said South Ward Councilman John Sharpe James.
Ascension Capital Partners’ next urban renewal opening will be on Astor Street, where Morris was raised. The development, The Michael, is named for Morris’ late brother.