NJ senior housing residents say constructing has mould, mattress bugs


NEWTON — Residents at Newton Town Center’s senior housing project on Spring Street say mold, bed bugs, security doors that don’t close and a general lack of maintenance are ruining their quality of life.

On Wednesday evening, a group of low- and middle-income residents of the residence lodged their complaints with the Sussex County Board of Commissioners. After the meeting, the residents met privately with some district officials.

It was the second time that the group presented the problems to the commissioners. They have also attended Newton Council meetings to air their grievances.

So far nobody has helped.

The commissioners said Wednesday night they would schedule a virtual meeting with the District Attorney, Newton City Manager Thomas Russo and City Attorney Eric Bernstein to discuss the grievances with RPM Management, which owns the 64 apartments at 225 Spring St.

The meeting took place on Thursday.

After the meeting, Russo said he “found the meeting very friendly and productive as they (RPM) worked through all the outstanding issues and addressed other issues brought to them by concerned residents and city officials.”

Sussex County Board of Commissioners director Anthony Fasano had not responded to a request for his comments on the meeting.

City and county officials have said there is little they can do other than potentially inspect the premises for fires and/or building/code issues.

RPM Management denies the presence of mold in the building, saying that any mold present is a tenant problem, limited to the clothing in each apartment’s closet.

Carol Novrit, administrator for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, told the New Jersey Herald that most local and county departments don’t have the authority to participate. The county’s senior services are unable to help with construction issues, and the county’s health department has no authority to enforce infractions in the building, Novrit said. The same goes for the Newton zoning planner and building inspector, Novrit said. As 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 addressing mold problems, which tenants claim are present in the building.

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On Sunday, about a third of tenants gathered to discuss the issues they believe need to be addressed at the 2018-built building on the corner of Spring Street and Union Place.

Tenants on the third and fourth floors are currently in the midst of bed bug infestations, local residents said. One tenant brought to the meeting a copy of the “bed bug addendum,” which she said she was forced to sign by the management team when she renewed her lease.

Howard Barash, RPM Management’s chief operating officer, said in an email to the New Jersey Herald that only two homes had bed bugs.

“We recently had an issue where a resident self-treated for bed bugs without alerting us,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, they have spread to a neighbor’s unit. This neighbor brought this to our attention and we immediately treated that unit as well as the unit of the original offender.”

He said he was unaware of the bed bug addendum.

RPM Management oversees several apartment complexes in northern New Jersey with significant developments in Newark and Jersey City.

Barash was presented with a list of issues raised during Sunday’s tenants’ meeting and addressed many of the issues.

“We take issues affecting our property seriously and work consistently to keep the property well maintained. We continue to address issues as soon as they are brought to our attention and always strive to be responsive to our tenants.”

Novrit, who met with tenants after the commissioners’ meeting, noted that there are no laws against mold in New Jersey, a fact noted on the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) website, but which offers tips on how to Dealing with various offers types of mold.

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The DCA is involved because 225 Spring St. is a multi-unit building that falls under their jurisdiction. Newton officials have often complained about DCA’s lack of inspections, even when presented with apparent violations.

As an example, city officials point to a multi-unit building on Halstead Street where illegal drugs were sold. While police have been making arrests there, city officials have been unable to get the DCA to take action against the owners.

In response, Barash said that RPM had investigated and the reports of mold were unfounded.

“We recently inspected common areas, individual apartments, as well as ducts and other conditions in apartments where tenants had lodged complaints. In fact, there was no mold on any apartment surface, including the interior ducts, which we inspected with a camera,” he said. “We have identified numerous personal household issues that can lead to mold growth on clothing in times of heat and humidity.”

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The idea for the building came to the city council in 2013, and the owner, RPM Development, later received tax credits from the state and property tax breaks from the city. The property is now on four lots, two privately owned and a further two owned by the Newton Parking Authority, which retained some parking space on a lot covered by the building.

The tax break came because the building remains restricted to low- and middle-income individuals over the age of 55. Tenants said all but two of the building’s apartments are rented.

In addition to mold and bed bugs, tenant problems also include exit doors not closing properly, which Barash denied. He also denied tenants’ claims that the hallways were cold, leading to an increase in individual heating bills, because the units’ front doors were not airtight.

“I cannot confirm individuals’ power consumption patterns,” Barash wrote. “I was in the building in person recently on a very cold day. The temperature in the building corridors was at a comfortable level and I went without a jacket.”

Barash said the former full-time maintenance worker died last year and the company has since called on temporary help. “This position will be filled once a qualified candidate is found and we welcome any recommendation,” he wrote. “The compactors are cleared regularly according to the garbage company’s collection schedule.”

Barash said tenants are encouraged to place work orders for maintenance issues, but residents say the company has been slow to respond, and when there is a response, repairs are often haphazard.