Note: This story was updated at 5:27 p.m. with a comment from the state Department of Community Affairs.
Responding to a lawsuit filed by the administration of Mayor Ras Baraka, a spokesman for the Garden Spires apartment complex in Newark said the owner was "disappointed" with the legal action taken by the city.
"The reality is that for nearly four years, we have been in contract with a highly qualified buyer to take ownership of the Garden Spires property in Newark to address all issues, and rehabilitate the building," said Ronn Torossian, a New York-based public relations consultant representing the building owner, First King Properties LLC of Kearny.
Omni New York LLC, a real estate development company that focuses on rehabbing affordable apartment complexes, entered into a contract four years ago to purchase the complex. Torossian said the buyer has committed to investing more than $43 million to refurbish the building, without displacing residents.
The sale of the complex is contingent upon the allocation of tax-exempt bonds by the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency (NJHMFA), Torossian said. To date, the agency has not approved the allocation.
"This buyer has New Jersey experience, and this process will better the community," Torossian said. "We hope the government will work with the qualified buyer who is at the table as it’s in the best interest of tenants, the city and state. If there's no solution and tenants need to be relocated it will cost taxpayers significant money and harm the area."
Tammori Petty, a spokespeson for state Department of Community Affairs, which oversees NJHMFA, said the federal government has a responsibility to participate in solving the longstanding problems at Garden Spires and has not stepped up to that obligation.
"The State has no role in approving or disapproving the sale of this building, and will not bail out every party with a financial interest in the deal, at the expense of taxpayers," Petty said. "The state will not make a commitment of over $140 million in taxpayer money to the sale of that property when there are thousands of violations that have not been corrected, many going back nearly five years. The owner shouldn't be rewarded by the state for resisting our efforts to hold them to a reasonable standard of maintenance."
Baraka said anticipating a sale of the complex is a poor excuse for putting the lives and health of tenants in jeopardy.
"The condition of the buildings speaks for itself," Baraka said. "It is unconscionable for the landlord to have collected inflated rents for nearly four years, without using the money to fix the horrible and inhuman conditions in the building."
In the lawsuit filed July 14 in Essex County Superior Court, the Baraka administration seeks the appointment of a receiver and a court order declaring the buildings uninhabitable and ordering the evacuation and relocation of the tenants of the property, at the expense of First King Properties. The complex has more than 800 apartments.
“After numerous inspections by code enforcement, fire, health and engineering inspections, it has been determined by the public officer of the City of Newark that the property has been determined unfit for the human habitation; rat infested unsanitary stairwells, evidence of urine and human feces, poor/inadequate ventilation creating sever mold in units,” according to the complaint.
“Defective radiators, deteriorated stand pipes, damaged window guards, excessive garbage/bulk visual and active illegal drug activities which promotes a dangerous to health or life and is likely cause of sickness among the occupant which creates a public nuisance,” the suit states.
Evelyn Conception, the tenant president of Garden Spires, said the apartments addressed in the lawsuit are not reflective of the entire building and the families living in those apartments.
“Some apartments are beautiful and well maintained,” said Conception, who has been a resident of Garden Spires for the last four years and has watched the building deteriorate with the changing dynamics of the neighborhood. “Residents love their apartments and love their city. We represent those who are not drug dealers or vandals but hard working people."
Felicia Alston-Singleton, a tenant advocate and a fair housing officer for the city, said she had initially called for receivership in 2015. But since then, she said, management of the building has been working to abate the violations found in inspections by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the state Department of Community Affairs.