SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Two residents of 219 South Orange Avenue took to the mic during the public comments portion of the Jan. 13 Village Trustees meeting, wanting to express their frustrations with their senior housing apartment building. TAPinto SOMA spoke with the CEO of the building's management after the meeting for a response.
Marlow Taybron began by announcing, “I think everyone should know what’s going on in the building regarding the renovation.” She continued, “Seniors’ furniture is being put in the hallway. The hallway is being made as a storage area and it’s not only furniture but it’s personal items. And when I spoke to the concierge, Genese Rutherford, she explained to me that this was taken up with you guys, and you guys approved it.”
This resident reported that personal items were also being broken. Her largest complaint was the safety hazard that the clutter poses. She barks out at the board, “So, if there’s a fire, are you guys going to take responsibility for senior apartments' furniture?” and “You could fall down and break your neck.”
As the board sat quietly, respectfully waiting for her to finish her speech, the timer rang. The resident continued to rant past her allotted 3 minutes. She made somewhat of a threat to utilize social media. “Some of these young people, want to take it to make it viral, so that you will see it on television of how the seniors are being treated in that building. It’s clearly senior abuse, and me being a domestic violence advocate, it should not be tolerated.”
She stated, “I would love to see you bring your patooies over there and see what’s going on.”
George Matias spoke with the same vigor. He remarked, “I’m the voice for the voiceless.” Seconding everything that Taybron felt, he also dug deeper into the living conditions at 219 South Orange Ave. He explained that this building was meant to harbor seniors who are trying to live out their happy golden years, but the renovation has frustrated them instead.
He brought up a point about new technology being installed in the building, that seniors do not know how to use. He said, “They are putting these combination switches in the kitchen to operate, use your stoves.” He pointed out that several seniors have vision impairments and are unable to see such small buttons. For the same reason, he complained about new digital thermostats, “you either roast in your apartment or you freeze in your apartment because you do not know how to operate these smart thermostats.”
In response, the board recognized their frustration but revealed that this was new information. Collum gently and clearly explained, “For members of the Board Of Trustees, this is not a village owned property, it is one of the senior buildings in South Orange that is privately owned and operated; but we can certainly follow up with respect to that the governing body authorized the placement of furniture in the hallways. We certainly did not. I’m not saying that it didn’t happen through the permission of the village but we’ll look into that. It would need, obviously, the approval of the fire department or another agency, but this is the first that we’re hearing about it so thank you for sharing that with us.”
Collum communicated with the attendees that senior living is a priority for them, but they are unable to comment further without knowing all the details. Collum appropriately turned to the village administrator and asked, “Mr. Loehner, I ask that you follow up with the CEO and keep the board apprised of anything that we can do to help the residents there.”
The two residents took to the mic yet again during the second public comments session. Taybron said she refused to believe the board was in the dark about the situation and continued, “You better be careful what you say. Don’t push me that far. Don’t you dare.” She continued, “I’m known all over the state and thank God, New York too. This must stop.”
Board members and other attendees stared as she said, “I’ve had enough, I’ve got to get out of here,” and stormed out of the meeting.
Matias spoke out again as well; this time, he wanted to express his worries surrounding blown out street lights. “There are too many streetlights that are out in the village of South Orange.” His concern is that darkness "breeds crime." He finished on a rather patriotic note, insisting that the blown out police station light be restored, to light up to display the American flag in all its glory.
After the meeting, TAPinto SOMA reached out to Harold Colton-Max, the chief executive officer of Jewish Community Housing Corporation, the non-profit agency which manages the building. He allowed that items from apartments are moved into hallways while individual apartment floors are being worked on, but, he stressed, "There is never any fire hazard that exists because these items are being placed in the hallway." He explained, "We would never block access to emergency exits, even temporarily. [When] furniture is moved out of a resident's apartment, it is always returned as soon as possible and no later than the end of the workday."
He explained that the renovation of the building, which offers affordable housing to low-income seniors and disabled adults, is extensive: As part of the $7 million project, the residents will gain an expanded community room and, in each apartment, new flooring, new kitchen cabinets and appliances, and new showers or bathtubs. On the exterior, improvements include a new roof, a repaved parking lot, and new outdoor exercise equipment. Additionally, increased generator capacity will mean a working outlet in each apartment should the power go out, so that residents can have refrigeration or charge a phone. The generator improvements are being included in response to past large storms including Superstorm Sandy in 2012, he said. "It's not required by the state or anyone else, but it’s what this organization feels is right – we are committed to going above and beyond to assist our residents no matter what weather events happen."
Colton-Max acknowledged that any renovation can be stressful and produce anxiety for those living through it, and to alleviate the stress, "we are paying to help the residents pack up their belongings and unpack for them." He said the building is also "adding extra activities [and] a hospitality suite in the building with a new television" for when residents can't hang out in their apartments, and "providing meals and refreshments for those undergoing kitchen renovations," all at no cost to the residents, he said.
"We know that renovation is not easy to go through, and none of us would mean to suggest to that it wouldn't provoke concern and anxiety.” He said the building and agency staff is "fully committed to making this process go as smoothly as possible. We remain available to meet with and talk to any resident” during the process. Colton-Max is a long-time South Orange resident himself, who serves as chairman of the Planning Board.
He also addressed resident Matias' concern about the smart thermostats. Every resident has been provided with training to use them, he said, and “if residents have difficulty with them, we will assist them.”
Colton-Max expects the renovations to be done in all the apartments by April. And when it is complete, and residents are living in like-new, modern apartments, he stated, "their rent will not go up even one solitary dollar."
Additional reporting by TAPinto SOMA Editor Alia C. Covel