‘Imminent Danger,’ Years of Inaction on Camden Properties

For a quarter-century, Cramer Hill neighbors have pleaded with Camden to take action at a ramshackle row house owned by the city.

Open to the elements, the second floor of the house at 930 N. 19th St. collapsed years ago. Debris from the first and second floors fell into the garage, filling it to the ceiling.

But the city of Camden never made repairs or demolished the crumbling home, lowering neighborhood property values for years and endangering neighbors whose houses share its walls.

The open, second-floor windows showed bricks and wood dangling. Mortar eroded, leaving a jagged 6-foot fault line of listing backwall bricks on the alley side of 930.

Nearby residents often heard bricks falling during rainstorms or in high winds.

Riddled with holes and sagging, the dilapidated porch roof for years tugged at the home next door, 932, where Maria Molina and her family have lived for 26 years.

Despite complaints from the advocacy group Camden Churches Organized for People and neighbors such as Molina, the city had done nothing to stabilize or demolish what remains of a hazardous shell – until Monday.

That morning, five weeks after the Courier-Post began investigating the conditions of six city-owned properties on North 19th Street and a week after a reporter asked the mayor’s office about 930, utility connections were marked out, the gas line disconnected.

Workers surveyed the property, put up a fence and posted a demolition sign later that day. Camden-based W. Hargrove Demolition delivered a Dumpster to the site before 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Work on the emergency demolitionbegan four hours later. By Wednesday afternoon, most of the building was down.

Failure to respond

Why did the city resort to an emergency demolition after owning the building for 25 years?

Typical demolitions take between 45 to 90 days due to permits and bidding laws, but emergency declarations allow a city to move forward in just days.

The city has not responded to repeated requests for the contract – a public document – or an explanation.

But neighbors, such as Molina, her son, Edwin Velez, and Gary Hardman, who has lived on the 900 block longer than anyone else, say the emergency demolition is due to the Courier-Post’s inquiries.

The fact that 930 long posed a hazard is clear. An order to vacate was posted on the building May 22, 2010.

The building was designated an “imminent danger” – one that could “reasonably be expected to cause death or serious physical harm” – on Nov. 18, 2010.

Yet the city failed for years to take action.

“I’ve been here for more than 25 years and the city never does nothing,” said Molina, who works on the trauma floor at Cooper University Hospital.

As late as Monday afternoon, Robert Corrales, a spokesman for Mayor Dana L. Redd, would not say the building at 930 was coming down. He did concede the property was on the city’s demolition list.

The city did not respond to requests for its demolition list, but Corrales wrote in an email, “That property is slated to be demolished.

“But please know that just because it has a sticker on the property does not mean it has to be demolished right away. If the construction official deems it unsafe to enter/occupy, the building can be boarded up until structural issues are fixed.

“If a vacant/abandoned structure is in such a terrible state that it needs to come down immediately because it poses an immediate danger,” Corrales continued, “then the construction official can call for an emergency demolition (meaning it must be demolished immediately).

“A good majority of the abandoned properties can be stabilized and/or boarded up for future rehabilitation.”

Manny Delgado, who runs the Cramer Hill Redevelopment Corp. at the corner of 19th St., has a simple explanation for why the city has dragged its feet on dangerous and blighted city-owned buildings.

“There’s too little money and too many buildings. That’s what happens if you let it go that long,” said Delgado, whose offices are adjacent to North 19th Street.

A microcosm

In many ways, the 900 block of North 19th Street in Cramer Hill is a typical Camden row house block, reflecting the city’s intractable problems with poverty and depopulation.

A microcosm of the city routinely called the poorest in America, the 900 block of North 19th Street sits just off commercial River Avenue, with a former junkyard and the Pavonia rail yard bounding the other end of the block.

The block is lined with 39 homes, each just 14 feet wide, with red brick, two stories, a patch of lawn facing the street, and an unpaved and rutted alleyway in back.

One home on the 900 block is bank-owned and vacant. Another vacant structure on the street has been up for sale for years without a buyer; the demand for older residential real estate in the city at market prices is almost nil.

There is a gap on one side of the street, where 923 once stood. The empty lot that remains is owned by the Camden Redevelopment Agency, an extension of city government that answers to the mayor.

The home was demolished by Hargrove in 2007, according to neighbor Gary Hardman, after it was declared a danger.

Much of it had fallen in on itself by the time the building was cleared, said Hardman, who has lived on the street all of his 58 years.

Six of the homes on the block are abandoned; each is owned by the city.

The city acquired 930 in 1988. The other five abandoned homes have been owned for the past three years by the Camden Redevelopment Agency.

‘A nightmare’

The poorly secured vacant homes have attracted squatters; one family now renting on the street squatted for years in two different vacant homes owned by the redevelopment agency.

The vacant homes also served as drug houses.

“It was a nightmare,” recalled Hardman, who repeatedly called authorities before the block was rid of active drug dealing.

Saundra Ross Johnson, executive director of the CRA, declined to respond to about a dozen questions concerning the agency’s city properties and the five on North 19th.

Instead, she emailed a statement: “The Camden Redevelopment Agency is working closely with the city on the demolition strategy, which certainly includes the concerns of the Cramer Hill residents.

“We will be happy to share the strategy upon its completion …”

At least two of the five agency-owned homes on the 900 block are without roofs. The conditions of the other three are unclear.

Andres Rivera and his wife, Isolina, have lived at 917 for about 40 years. The roof came down next door at 915 six years ago.

“I complained at City Hall,” Rivera recalled. “Every time I went, I was told to see a different person. And every time it was a different story.

“At first, they said there was no money. Then I gave up,” added Rivera, who has had bricks from the neighboring property fall on his house.

The home at 936 has been without a roof for years, according to neighbors, including Juana Placencia. The roof was already gone when she moved next door five years ago.

Being without a roof means 915 and 936 should long ago have been declared imminent dangers, subject to swift repair or demolition, according to a prominent legal expert.

Such a declaration is not a judgment call, but should be automatic, according to Robert J. Mongeluzzi, a pre-eminent construction attorney.

State construction codes say any building without a roof is an “imminent danger,” a designation that means the compromised building must be either “removed, or made safe and secure,” said Mongeluzzi, who is based in Philadelphia.

The lawyer, who viewed a series of photos of homes on the street, said there’s no question 930 should have been demolished years ago, and 936 should have been declared an imminent danger.

“Without question, it is falling apart.”

And while 936 and 915 are owned by the redevelopment agency, that does not absolve the city from responsibility.

“The city could move on these properties, if it wanted to. They have a responsibility like every other owner,” Mongeluzzi said.

“Who should be following the law but the government itself?”

Legal precedent

While cities are usually immune from lawsuits for failing to act, there’s nothing indemnifying Camden for failing to enforce state regulations that require it to secure or demolish abandoned and unsafe homes.

In fact, a 1994 legal precedent holds the city responsible for its failings.

There are several ironies at work in that precedent: The ruling was established in Camden.

The city and its employees were left without legal immunity because a judge found Camden had repeatedly failed to take action.

Thomas R. Knoche, a city planner who testified as an expert witness against the city in that precedent-setting case, said last week little has changed.

“It’s been a very sloppy process, very inconsistent,” observed Knoche, a city resident.

“Cities that are serious about turning things around usually do this first – demolish abandoned buildings. It is a classic thing that Camden city government has failed to do.”

‘Need to triage’

The city’s failing is very real for Placencia, who shares a wall with 936, and hears bricks falling.

“Sometimes it feels as if the house will fall,” she said through an interpreter.

Out of fear during storms, she moves her 2-year-old daughter, Arisleida, away from a bedroom facing 936. A tree grows from a remnant corner of the roof in the rear of 936.

Another larger tree shoots out of its open second-floor window.

Placencia, who cleans Moorestown schools, has water in her basement she blames on the condition of 936.

Bricks have fallen from that house while her nieces and nephews played outside.

Mongeluzzi said in a poor city like Camden, the abandoned housing problem is an issue of utilizing limited funds.

“I’m not suggesting this is an easy decision, but the city has a legal responsibility,” he said. “They need to triage and make critical choices.”

“A building without a roof is imminently dangerous. The only question is the time when it will fall.”

Allan Mallach, an abandoned housing expert with the Brookings Institute think tank, said “the threshold issue is, the city doesn’t have the money” to tackle its decades-old abandoned housing problem on an adequate scale, “and the state is not helping.”

After years of doing nothing, the city has this year bonded $8 million to begin taking down properties, but Mallach, who wrote New Jersey’s Abandoned Properties Rehabilitation Act, believes the city might realistically need tens of millions more to clear blighted buildings.

The exact cost depends on the number of abandoned homes. Camden estimates 3,200, according to Corrales, but he admitted for the first time the city does not have a firm number.

Delgado said part of the problem with getting an accurate count of abandoned buildings is there is no central master list: Each city department that deals with property has a different list.

Corrales said the city estimates Camden directly owns about 260 abandoned buildings.

He did not respond when asked how many more abandoned homes are held by its development agency.

So far, about a third of the abandoned homes – privately and publicly owned – meet the requirement for demolition, according to Corrales.

The city plans to demolish at least 500 abandoned properties by year’s end, he added. That would eat up at least $7.5 million – if each demolition is trouble free.

But in reality, the costs of demolition vary wildly, starting at about $15,000 for a simple demolition, a cost that can skyrocket when asbestos, lead, paint, oil tanks, communal walls, joined roofs and patios are involved.

Rehabbing rather than demolishing small row homes is likely to cost about $100,000 or more per home, far above the market.

Camden row homes tend to be valued at about a quarter to a third of that amount, and there is no market in the city for homes without subsidized prices, according to Mallach.

That makes demolition the far cheaper option for blighted homes, especially since many potential home buyers – even at subsidized prices – cannot qualify for mortgages, he added.

“They are in a terrible dilemma,” Mallach said of Camden officials. “As a city, you should not be a slumlord and you have a responsibility to protect your citizens. But the city does not have the resources.

“But the cost of not doing anything makes all of the city’s other problems harder to solve. It is a bind. I don’t doubt they can do it better, but given their resources, they can’t do it right.”

Called to cut services at 930 N. 19th St. before it was demolished, a utility worker said, “There are hundreds – if not thousands – of streets like this one in Camden lined with abandoned homes.”

Related Practice Areas

Ready for a free confidential case evaluation?

Contact us TODAY. Timing is critical for your case.