NEWTON — Residents of the Newton Town Centre senior housing project on Spring Street say mold, bedbugs, security doors that don’t close and the general lack of maintenance are ruining their quality of life.
On Wednesday night a group of residents of the low- and moderate-income residence took their complaints to the Sussex County Board of Commissioners. After the meeting, the residents met privately with some county officials.
It was the second time the group brought the issues to the commissioners. They have also attended Newton Council meetings to air their complaints.
So far, no one has helped.
Commissioners on Wednesday night said they would set up a virtual meeting with the county’s attorney, Newton’s Town Manager Thomas Russo and Town Attorney Eric Bernstein to discuss the complaints with RPM Management, which manages the 64 apartments at 225 Spring St.
The meeting took place on Thursday.
Following the meeting, Russo said he “found the meeting to be very amicable and productive as they (RPM) are working through any open items and have addressed other items brought forth to them by concerned residents and town officials.”
Sussex County Board of Commissioners Director Anthony Fasano had not responded to a request for his observations on the meeting.
Town and county officials have said there is little they can do other than possibly inspect the premises for fire and or building/code issues.
RPM Management denies the presence of any mold in the building, saying any mold that is present is a tenant issue, confined to clothing in individual apartment closets.
Carol Novrit, administrator of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services told the New Jersey Herald that most local and county departments do not have the authority to become involved. The county’s Senior Services is not able to assist with building issues and the county’s Division of Health has no authority to enforce violations in the building, Novrit said. The same goes for the Newton zoning officer and building inspector, Novrit said. Because the structure has multiple units, it falls under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Community Affairs.
One thing has become clear, however, residents said, there is no state law dealing with mold issues which the tenants claim is present in the building.
On Sunday, about a third of the tenants gathered to discuss the issues they say need to be addressed in the building built in 2018 at the corner of Spring Street and Union Place.
Tenants of the third and fourth floors are currently in the midst of a bed bug infestation, residents said. One tenant brought to the meeting a copy of the “Bed Bug Addendum” she said she was forced to sign by the management team when she renewed her lease.
Howard Barash, chief operating officer of RPM Management, via an e-mail to the New Jersey Herald, said just two apartments were experiencing bed bugs.
“We recently had an issue where a resident self-treated for bed bugs without making us aware,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, they spread to a neighbor’s unit. That neighbor made us aware and we immediately treated that unit as well as the original offender’s unit.”
He said he was not aware of the Bed Bug Addendum.
RPM Management oversees several apartment complexes in northern New Jersey with major developments in Newark and Jersey City.
Barash was presented with a list of the issues brought up during Sunday’s tenants’ meeting and responded to many of the issues.
“We take issues involving our property seriously and consistently work to keep the property well maintained. We continue to address issues as they are brought to our attention and always strive to be responsive to our tenants.”
Novrit, who met with the tenants following the commissioners’ meeting, noted there are no laws in New Jersey dealing with mold, a fact noted on the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) website, which does, however, offer tips on dealing with various types of mold.
The DCA is involved because 225 Spring St., is a multi-unit building that falls under its jurisdiction. Newton officials have often complained about the lack of inspections by DCA, even when presented with obvious violations.
As an example, town officials point to a multi-unit building on Halstead Street where illegal drugs were being sold. While police have made arrests there, town officials could not get the DCA to take action against the owners.
In his response, Barash said RPM investigated and the reports of mold are unfounded.
“We recently inspected common areas, individual apartments as well as ductwork and other conditions in apartments where tenants had registered complaints. In fact, there was no mold on any apartment surfaces, including inside ductwork where we inspected with a camera,” he said. “We noted numerous personal housekeeping issues which can result in mold forming on clothing during times of heat and humidity.”
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The idea for the building came to the Town Council in 2013 and the owner, RPM Development later received tax credits from the state, along with property tax allowances from the town. The property now occupies what was four lots, two privately owned and two others owned by the Newton Parking Authority which retained some parking spots in a lot that is covered by the building.
The tax breaks came because the building remains limited to low and moderate-income people over 55 years of age. Tenants said all but two of the building’s apartments are leased.
Among the tenants’ issues in addition to mold and bed bugs, are exit doors that do not properly close, which Barash disputed. He also disputed tenants’ claims that hallways are cold and lead to individual heating bills increasing because unit entry doors are not air-tight.
“I cannot attest to the electric usage patterns for individuals,” Barash wrote. “I was personally in the building on a very cold day recently. The temperature in the building hallways was at a comfortable level and I walked with no jacket.”
Barash said the former full-time maintenance person died last year and the company has used temporary help since. “This position will be filled as a qualified applicant is found and we welcome any referrals,” he wrote. “The trash compactors are regularly cleared in accordance with the trash company’s pick-up schedule.”
Barash said the tenants are encouraged to put in work orders for maintenance issues, however, the residents say the company is slow to respond, and if there is a response, the repairs are often haphazard.