Why Apartment Tenants Should Vote Democrats For Change

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Elizabeth apartment dwellers should strongly consider voting “Democrats For Change” in the up-coming election to offset the anti-tenant, pro-landlord history of the Bollwage Administration in Elizabeth and of the superior court in Boss Lesniak’s Union County.

A recent case involving the Hayes House apartments is a tale of two cities: one law in Caldwell, NJ prohibiting a capital-improvement surcharge for replacement windows and air-conditioner chiller and another law in Elizabeth giving a landlord a surcharge for the same items.

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The Elizabeth Rent Control Board September 19, 2007 rejected a Hayes House request for a surcharge to pay for replacements to the 45-year-old windows in the 150 units of the ten-story apartment as well as a replacement for an air conditioner chiller.

But, on April 17, 2008, Superior Court Walter R. Barisonek ruled “the board based on their findings was arbitrary and capricious, both as to the windows and as to the chiller” and approved the surcharge. In reaching his decision, the judge said two appeals-court cases, the 1977 Green Acres of Verona Incorporated v.Verona, and the 1991 Tenants Association V. Georgian Gardens were “instructive” in interpreting the Elizabeth ordinance definition of capital improvements.

Neither Verona nor West Orange had ordinances restricting what could be claimed as capital improvements. Caldwell and Elizabeth have similar rental ordinances restricting what a landlord can claim as a capital improvement.

In a September 12, 2006 ruling, a NJ appeals court in Carlyle Towers v. Caldwell Rent Review Board over-ruled a lower superior court and reaffirmed the local board’s denial of a surcharge for new windows as well as a cooling tower and air-conditioning chiller.

With respect to the Green Acres and Georgian Gardens cases, the appeals court said: “We do not find those cases to be entirely apposite (suitable or pertinent).” Because these two cases did not involve ordinances with restrictions on capital improvements “those decisions cannot be accorded the weight given to them by the trial court.”

The appeals court added: “Although the term major capital improvement has a generally recognized meaning, we have been cited nothing to suggest that such meaning cannot be narrowed, as here, by a duly enacted and otherwise unassailable ordinance.”

The result is apparently one state law for apartment tenants in Caldwell and another for apartment tenants in Elizabeth for almost exactly matching cases.

The landlord’s attorney in both the Carlyle Towers and Hayes House cases was Gary D. Gordon of the West Orange law firm of Feinstein, Raiss, Kelin & Booker. On its website, the firm boasts of having a “department that is staffed with full-time personnel devoted entirely to ensuring the timely filing, processing and follow-up of eviction matters. We are equipped to handle evictions for any size property.”

For reasons perhaps known only to himself, Mr. Gordon thought he could win a case in Union County that was almost an exact match for a case he had lost earlier on appeal in a neighboring county to the north.

Union County boss Sen. Ray Lesniak and Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage are desperately trying to encourage the building of condos in the mid-town area that resembles a bombed-out war zone. Lesniak’s nephew, Dan Devanney, is executive director of the Elizabeth Development Corporation. By paying “capital-improvement” surcharges, apartment tenants, many of whom are senior citizens, would be paying for improvements to make the building more ready for conversion to condos the seniors could not afford.

The Hayes House landlord installed the new windows and chiller in December 2005. In a curious time progression, two tenants with questionable authority in October 2006 dispersed to tenants the approximately $13,000 in the Hayes House Tenants Association treasury. The landlord filed for the surcharge in May 2007.  Hayes House tenants were left with no financial means to hire a lawyer to appeal the April 17, 2008 Barisonek oral opinion. The 45-day limit for an appeal expired by the time money was raised for a transcript of the oral opinion.

Tenants were notified of the judge’s decision May 22, 2008 when they were told of a rent increase to pay for the surcharge. (Hayes House tenants filled the city-council chambers for the September 19, 2007 Rental Board meeting.  However, the rental-board attorney stated in an August 13, 2008 letter that there was no obligation to inform the tenants earlier because the Hayes House Tenants Association “did not file an appearance at the Board’s meeting.”)

Hayes House tenants by necessity then focused efforts on having the city of Elizabeth appeal the decision and then on the reassignment of the rental-board attorney, who stated in writing August 13, 2008 that he had always believed the board’s September, 2007 decision he had supposedly defended in the superior court  “was incorrect.”

A petition signed by 79 tenants was sent to Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage asking that the attorney be reassigned to other duties.  In a December 2, 2008 letter, City Attorney William Holzapfel noted that the (rental) board had not directed any further action be taken. “Therefore, the attorney will not be reassigned.”

Help was also sought from the office of Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, until mid-2008 an assistant counsel to NJ Governor Corzine and a one-time employee of Sen. Raymond Lesniak. Her office email acknowledged the request and supporting documents had been received. A resident of Hayes House at the time, Quijano also verbally acknowledged her office was working on the request. A response to the request has yet to be received.

As Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra said in 2009 the average citizen doesn’t stand a chance in New Jersey.

Walter Andrews
Elizabeth


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