NEWARK, NJ — The lawsuit filed by the city in 2017 against the former landlord of the Garden Spires apartments did not make allowances in its characterization of the building’s conditions: Unfit for human habitation, rat-infested, human feces and mold were just a few choice words.
What had become normal day-to-day living for the tenants of the affordable housing complex was an all-too-familiar scene of unaccountable ownership, then First King Properties, collecting the checks of economically vulnerable people. At one point, the Department of Community Affairs recorded more than 2,700 building and fire code violations at Garden Spires and its counterpart, Spruce Spires.
In 2018, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also took action against First Kings Properties, declaring them an absentee landlord and ordering them to pay $800,000 in civil penalties.
But on Thursday, Mayor Ras Baraka hosted Acting Gov. Sheila Oliver and other distinguished guests to mark the beginning of a new era for the notorious towers. A collective effort between local and state officials and the buildings’ new ownership, Omni America, has culminated in 650 fully renovated units for tenants at affordable rates.
“This place was the poster child for what not to be done in public housing. It was a disaster, and anything that happened out of here, I would say should be attributed to living conditions that we heaped upon these people for so many years,” Baraka said.
The projects, completed in 18 months without displacing tenants already living in the towers, cost $172 million, which was in large part funded by the state. Once the site of Newark Academy, the 57-year-Old Garden Spires received $59.4 million in financing for the $135.3 rehab costs from the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency’s Conduit Bond program, according to the city.
The same entity awarded $16.3 million for the Spruce Spires project, which came in at $37.3 million. HUD provides project-based Section 8 rental assistance for 350 units at Garden Spires and 112 units at Spruce Spires.
“Growing up in Newark, I remember when this was built. Through the years, unfortunately, prior owners and management at these apartments did not do a good job,” Oliver said. “They subjected the most inhumane conditions that you could imagine on the tenants.”
As commissioner of the DCA, Oliver worked with NJHMFA Executive Director Chuck Richmond to work out the logistics of acquiring the property and putting together the financing to set the renovations in motion.
“We are changing the paradigm here, and we’re deeply committed to it. Not just us in the Murphy administration, but this is also one of the first things Mayor Baraka put his focus on,” Oliver said.
In addition to the monies provided for both projects, NJHMFA also gave Omni America 4% Low Income Housing Tax Credits, which amounts to $49.1 million in private equity. The New Jersey Economic Development Authority’s State Economic Redevelopment and Growth Program provided $43 million in tax credits.
Omni America, owned by MLB All-Star Mo Vaughn, was selected by the city for its experience as a fair and equitable affordable housing provider. The company received a 30-year tax abatement as well as a lowered rate for PILOT payments.
“After 18 months of hard work by the Omni team, we are pleased to not only improve the physical conditions of these buildings but also improve the quality of life for our residents at Garden Spires and Spruce Spires Apartments,” said Eugene Schneur, managing partner of Omni America.