Tenants of The Castle in East Orange announced Wednesday they filed two lawsuits against the building’s owners and property managers over the conditions there. (Sophie Nieto-Munoz for NJ Monitor)
When the elevator at The Castle apartment building in East Orange broke for two months, Denise Right climbed to the roof to reach a wing where the elevator worked.
Clara Evans’ kitchen in her ninth-floor apartment is covered in black mold, forcing the family to eat fast food several times a week.
And Erica Coleman, president of the tenants association, said a leak led a large piece of sheetrock to fall on her head, leaving her with a concussion and potential nerve damage.
“I love the building, I love the community, I love how beautiful it is. But for that to happen in your home, you feel violated and just totally disrespected,” she said. “Since 2018 I’ve had inspectors coming and writing up violations, but nothing has been fixed. It’s deplorable.”
The tenants association filed two lawsuits Wednesday against the owners of The Castle, a nearly 100-year-old building in East Orange, citing the deteriorating conditions that affect residents’ health and safety. Rutgers Law School’s housing justice and tenant solidarity clinic represents the 20 tenants.
Greg Baltz, co-director of the housing clinic, said it’s “easy to see the financial upside” for owners of the building, located just blocks away from a quick train ride to New York City, if its current residents left for housing elsewhere.
“That property would be even more valuable if it were empty of its rent-controlled tenants. The largest obstacle to the landlords’ profits are the organized tenants who are willing to fight to stay in their homes,” he said.
The first lawsuit seeks a court-appointed receiver to take over management and dedicate rent collection to necessary repairs. The second lawsuit seeks compensation for damages, unlivable conditions, discrimination against tenants with disabilities, and local ordinance violations.
The tenants also allege the owners are attempting to push them out of their spacious apartments to convert them into smaller units with higher rent. Nearly half of the 44 units are vacant, and some repairs have been needed for several years, the tenants said.
According to the complaints, the city planning board denied the building owners’ redevelopment plans for the property in April 2022 over numerous ongoing and overdue violations.
“It’s gentrification. You see all these big apartments going up after old places get torn up. They want to get in on the game,” said Patricia Castillos, who has lived at The Castle since 2018.
The Weiss Group, a management company that took over about six months ago, did not respond to a request for comment. On its website, the group calls The Castle apartments “graciously designed for comfortable living” with elevators that “will whisk you to your new oasis.”
Previous management groups like OneWall and Premier, also named in the lawsuits, did not respond to requests for comment. Ron Kutas, listed as owner of the building, also did not respond.
Evans relocated from New York City to East Orange in September 2019, looking for a quiet place to move her family, including six children. She fell in love with the town and the building’s advertised amenities — rooftop grills, a soon-to-come fitness center, and secure parking.
Her eldest son fell ill and became a quadriplegic in the fall of 2020, Evans said. After months in the hospital, officials offered to send him home with a live-in nurse. But when inspectors came to her home, Evans said, they didn’t even make it past the living room before deciding the living conditions weren’t up to standards.
Her 4-year-old also began showing symptoms of breathing issues, which doctors attributed to mold in the home. He’s already taking three medications daily, she said, and sleeps in a cot in the living room where there’s more airflow.
Eventually, Evans took her family to live in hotels for as long as their savings allowed, and they lived off of takeout and fast food to save money. They had to return to the apartment after a few months when their savings ran out, she said. They still avoid cooking in the kitchen, which is infested with black mold. She buys new dishes monthly, fearful that the mold is seeping into what’s in her cabinets.
“I think they’ll scream if they see another french fry,” Evans said. “You just want what’s best for your kids.”
She doesn’t sleep in her own bedroom because its bathroom is covered with black mold. Even if they clean it, she said, it comes back a week or two later because there is little ventilation in the home.
The few times the property manager did send someone, they only poured bleach on the walls, said Lamont Jackson, her husband. Another time, they painted over the mold.
“With mold, you have to fix it from the inside. You can’t just throw bleach over it and try to clean it up,” he said. “When we turn the showers on and the steam starts developing, it gets right back like this.”
If the landlord made timely repairs, Evans said, her son would be home. She sees him just a few times a week and said he’s fallen into a deep depression without his siblings and family nearby. He’s currently at Phoenix Hospital in New York, and despite not being able to speak, Evans said she knows he wants to come home.
“Three years later, all we want is for him to come home. But he’s on a ventilator, and we can barely breathe, so how is he supposed to — what choices do we have?” she said, her voice trailing off. “He’s my glue, he’s my everything, and he’s struggling because he don’t have his family with him.”
Other residents told stories of missing doctors’ appointments because the elevators weren’t working. Several recounted walking across the slippery roof to catch the functioning elevator in the other wing. They say they’re scared of slipping but otherwise feel trapped in the building. Every resident complained they reached out to the landlord about repairs only to be ignored.
Ibrahim Ahmed lives on the third floor. He’s proud when he walks into his beautifully decorated apartment, but his demeanor changes to one of defeat when he reaches the bathroom.
Almost the entire ceiling has fallen down, exposing old pipes, odd smells, and random leaks that drip throughout the day. The walls are peeling off and stained with water, despite being multiple layers of paint.
“I don’t feel comfortable here. This is my home, and I cannot be comfortable in my home,” he said. “It is so beautiful, but they will not fix the repairs. They just want us out of here.”
Ahmed pays about $3,600 for his four-bedroom, three-bathroom apartment. But only one bathroom and three bedrooms are usable for his family, he said.
“The landlord, he ignores me. He tells me to fix it, but I don’t know what to do with all this. The whole bathroom is collapsed. I don’t know how to fix that,” he said, gesturing to the giant hole in the ceiling. “Nobody takes care of us, and that is not right.”
The two lawsuits were filed in state Superior Court in Essex County and lay out the state of disrepair in the 11-story building.
Among the allegations:
- There are leaks in the lobby, staircases, and inside apartments, leading to flooding and collapsing ceilings.
- The elevators stop working, including one that has been broken since 2018. The suit also claims “numerous plaintiffs” have been trapped in an elevator.
- There is insufficient heat, forcing tenants to buy space heaters for their homes.
- Running water shuts off multiple times a week without notice.
- There is a lack of security, including no lighting by the entrance, a door that malfunctions and locks people out, and side doors that have no locks.
- Building management has refused to install a wheelchair ramp.
- There is no access to the parking garage as of July 14, despite the city’s street regulations not allowing tenants to park on the street overnight.
In the complaint, the tenants also allege that the property owners are hiking rent in excess of city code and violating security deposit laws.
Complaints to the city have resulted in inspections and over 500 citations for violations to the building owners, the suits state. All the fines have been paid, city officials said Wednesday, despite little work being done to fix it.
In the last two years alone, the landlords were cited 123 times for failure to keep dwellings in clean and sanctuary condition, and another 237 times for failure to keep walls, ceilings, bathtubs, and other interiors clean, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit emphasizes that the property owners are not just violating city and state laws, but also the lease agreements they had tenants sign.
Some tenants also claim violations under the state Law Against Discrimination and the federal Fair Housing Act for refusing to accommodate tenants using wheelchairs or with mobility issues.
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