NEWARK, NJ — Hundreds of Newark families have swapped rats, feces and mold for a brighter future.
It wasn’t long ago that Garden Spires and Spruce Spires, two of Newark’s most maligned affordable housing complexes, were “nearly uninhabitable” to the families who live there. But after a massive, $172 million rehab effort – largely done with state funds – about 650 households have managed to hold on to some “human dignity,” according to Acting Governor Sheila Oliver.
On Thursday morning, a mix of federal, state and city officials gathered for a press conference on First Street, eager to announce some big changes that have transformed the complexes, which had amassed more than 2,700 state fire and building code violations from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA).
Watch a video of the announcement below.
Garden Spires, which was built in 1963 on the site of the old Newark Academy, consists of two 20-story buildings located on First Street adjacent to Route 280 that provide 544 apartments for families.
Spruce Spires, which was built in 1920, has 112 apartments spread across four four-story buildings and one five-story building located on Spruce Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard.
According to past statements from city officials, some of the stomach-churning issues that have plagued residents include rat-infested stairwells, evidence of urine and human feces, poor or inadequate ventilation which creates severe mold, defective radiators, deteriorated stand pipes, damaged window guards, excessive garbage in public areas and illegal drug sales in the area.
At one point, the situation got so bad that Mayor Ras Baraka called the complex a “stain on the city.”
After a continued outcry from the people living at the complex, officials began to take action.
The City of Newark started conducting unannounced building inspections in 2015, citing the previous owner, First King Properties, for violations, and suing them in 2017 when they failed to make repairs.
At the time, a spokesperson for Garden Spire Apartments said that the property’s owners were “very disappointed” with the city’s lawsuit, and alleged they had been stymied in their effort to sell the property to a “highly qualified buyer.”
City officials also named the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in their complaint, alleging that the federal agency was giving First King Properties funds for apartments that were “uninhabitable” or vacant.
In 2018, the HUD – which provides Section 8 rental assistance for 350 units at Garden Spires and 112 units at Spruce Spires – also took action against First King Properties, declaring the company an “absentee landlord” and requiring them to pay $800,000 in civil penalties.
“Last year, I declared war on New Jersey slumlords making it crystal clear that they have a legal and moral obligation to provide decent and safe housing to the families we serve and that there will be stiff penalties to pay to those who fail to do so,” said Lynne Patton, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development regional administrator for New York and New Jersey.
“What I saw at Garden and Spruce Spires is what helped HUD prompt the national change to HUD’s REAC scoring system,” Patton said. “Today, we have finally come full circle to celebrate the completion of this incredible rehabilitation for the long-suffering residents of Garden and Spruce Spires.”
Meanwhile, city officials spearheaded an effort to find a developer willing to completely renovate the properties and preserve them as affordable housing. They found an ally in former Major League Baseball All-Star Mo Vaughn and his company, Omni America LLC.
Vaughn, who co-founded and co-manages Omni America, now helps oversee more than 14,000 units of affordable housing in 11 states, including New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Wyoming.
In addition to providing affordable housing, the company partners with local community and neighborhood organizations to offer after school programs, skills training seminars and adult education classes for residents of their housing complexes.
Omni America received funds to make repairs from several sources, city officials said:
WHAT’S NEW AT THE SPIRES?
According to Newark officials, the multi-million facelift addressed all past building and fire code violations.
No tenants were displaced during the rehabilitation project, which began in the fall of 2018 and took 18 months to complete. Renovations took about two to three weeks per apartment unit with residents able to return to their homes at the end of each day.
State funds were put to use for new roofs, flooring and lighting, kitchen cabinets, appliances and fixtures, bathroom vanities, sinks and bath enclosures, hot water heaters, boilers and electrical panels, as well as a cogeneration system at Garden Spires.
At Garden Spires, work also included repaving the parking lot, repairing sidewalks and walkways, adding community rooms and laundry facilities, upgrading the security alarm system and installing about 400 DVR surveillance cameras.
At Spruce Spires, work included the repair of sidewalks and walkways, upgrades to the security alarm system and the installation of about 100 DVR surveillance cameras.
HERE’S WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
Project stakeholders and elected officials offered enthusiastic praise for the turnaround at Garden Spires and Spruce Spires.
Acting Governor Sheila Oliver – “Today’s ribbon cutting of the fully renovated Garden and Spruce Spires shows what collaboration among government agencies and the private sector can accomplish when everyone is working toward a common purpose. Looking at these revitalized buildings today, I am reminded of a time during my childhood when people of all occupations were clamoring to get into apartments here. These improvements do more than abate safety violations and property decay; they show that every person is deserving of human dignity, which includes living in clean and decent housing they can be proud to call home.”
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker – “I applaud all the partners for their work in seeing this critical project through to completion. During my days as a housing advocate in buildings like Garden Spires and later as mayor of Newark, I saw firsthand the challenges families face in trying to satisfy the fundamental human right of access to safe, affordable, and adequate housing. We must all be committed to ensuring each and every Newark resident has the dignity of safe and secure living conditions, and the completion of this project marks a step forward in fulfilling that promise.”
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka – “For the last two years, this administration has driven efforts and worked diligently with public and private partners to rehabilitate the Garden Spires and Spruce Spires apartment complexes, which had become nearly uninhabitable to their tenants, a public health hazard to our community, and a serious public safety threat. Today we can report to our city in general and to the 650 households of these buildings in particular, that after 18 months, the properties have been restored.”
NJHMFA Executive Director Charles Richman – “With the new ownership of Omni America and a substantial rehabilitation of all buildings, today we celebrate a new beginning for residents. Thank you to Omni for taking this project on. These renovations will continue to preserve affordable housing and provide stable homes, enabling residents to live without fear of their living conditions or being priced out of their neighborhood.”
NJEDA CEO Tim Sullivan – “Governor Murphy’s vision for more equitable, inclusive economic development includes targeted investment in our cities. The improvements to the Garden and Spruce Spires facilities illustrate how this approach can impact the well-being and future of countless families. We thank Acting Governor Sheila Oliver for her leadership and appreciate DCA’s and NJHMFA’s crucial roles in bringing this project to fruition.”
Eugene Schneur, managing partner of Omni America – “”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. We want to thank all of the government and financial organizations that worked together to make this deal possible.”
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