CAMDEN, NJ — Carmen Rojas’ eight years at her Crestbury apartment in southern Camden have been plagued by plumbing issues, crumbling walls, health problems and phone calls gone unanswered.

Which is why when she heard that the management company set to take over the 20-acre affordable housing property planned $24 million in renovations, she was dubious.

“I’ll have to see it,” Rojas told TAPinto Camden on Wednesday at her Crestbury home. “And if it happens, it needs to do right for the people living here. We’ve dealt with too much to just accept this at face value.”

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On Tuesday, the Camden City Council unanimously approved the introduction of an ordinance allowing Hudson Valley Property Group, a new set of managers, to apply under the Long Term Tax Exemption Law for the renovation, as well as authorize a financial agreement with Crestbury Preservation Urban Renewal LLC.

If approved at the upcoming Feb. 11 City Council meeting, the ordinance would allow the owners to submit a payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) in order to compensate the city of Camden for the property tax revenue lost due to the exemption.

A muddy past

The 392-unit complex has had issues in the past.

Most recently, residents dealt with raw sewage on the property and around this time last year, photos of overflowing trash circulated online.

Rojas pointed to her floorboards where water commonly seeps through releasing a foul odor. Chipped walls in the kitchen and above her living room window have looked that way for years, she said.

“I had my rent raised in September, just because of the length of time I’ve been here,” Rojas added. “Who knows what it would be once they finish the work.”

While the ordinance passed on first reading, Councilwoman Shaneka Boucher — the ward leader in the area where the apartments are located — and Councilmember-At-Large Sheila Davis also had questions surrounding the project.

Among the questions asked by the council members at City Hall: Will the residents that live in the complex be displaced? Will the rent at the property be raised? Is it possible to build a community center as part of the renovation? Will the renovation provide jobs for Camden residents?

Harvey Johnson, an attorney for the Hudson Valley Property Group, which owns the LLC named in the ordinance, told the council that the project would be carried out in phases — keeping current residents in mind.

For instance while five units are being renovated, he said, those residing there would be accommodated accordingly during construction. Johnson said any raise in rent would be limited but did not clarify exactly what the new figure would be.

He also said he did not think the building of a community center is feasible at the moment as his client intends to use the entire sum for renovations.

“My client has an agreement with the New Jersey Housing & Mortgage Finance Agency to work in 17 different communities to try to preserve affordable housing,” Johnson said. “I think affordable housing is a real need here in the city, especially for people who are in the workforce can afford to pay a reasonable rent and at the same time, have some money to buy clothes and other things for their children and food.” 

Johnson also added that the renovations would create 50 to 100 jobs for locals.

Crestbury resident Noel Cruz, 53, said he has taken care of many of the issues at his home himself.

“I know they won’t do it,” he said. “Been here for many years, and I’ve learned that even when something is fixed, it’s temporary.”

The manager of the complex did not immediately respond for comment.

Who owns it?

The property has been owned since 2017 by New York-based real estate company Lincoln Avenue Capital. Lincoln, a subsidiary of the Matthew Bronfman Family Office, initially paid over $34 million for the complex.

Johnson said he expects Hudson Valley to close on the property in the second quarter of 2020 and the new owner aims to complete the renovations by the end of 2021.

Twenty-three-year-old Danny, who did not provide his last name, said he has had family living in the complex for ten years. 

“In the time they’ve been here, management has changed more than once but still haven’t seen many improvements,” he said.

Councilwoman Boucher also has family living at Crestbury.

“Mr. Johnson did explain that we will have some renderings up for residents and opportunities for them to weigh in via community meetings,” she said. “I am also in touch with the neighborhood association there, so we can hear everyone before the next meeting.”

Davis, who made sure to point out her “yes” vote was purely on first reading, said, “I'm looking forward to having continuous and transparent conversations with Mr. Johnson about this, as well as with the residents.”