Housing Auction Fails to Stimulate Housing Reform

April 4th, 2008

This week, Lakewood committeemen lost another opportunity to regulate the health and safety of those seeking shelter in the township.

On April 2, Deputy Mayor Marc (Meir) Lichtenstein officiated over the auction of Lakewood homes formerly owned by real estate investor Solomon Dwek. Most of the properties were rental homes.

Despite his conflict of interest as a real estate investor, developer and property manager, Lichtenstein participated in a committee vote last year to defeat a proposed ordinance that would have required an annual inspection of all rental properties, including Dwek homes.

In advertisements for the auction, interested parties were advised to contact "Meir" at MSL Management for further information.

Lichtenstein identifies himself on personal legal documents under his given name of Marc, while identifying himself on all township legal documents as Meir.

According to the Asbury Park Press, the bankruptcy court paid Lichtenstein $30,000 to organize the auction of Dwek's Lakewood properties.

An auction listing sheet distributed to the public noted each rental home with an asterisk next to the listing. Most of the 56 homes advertised for auction were asterisked.

At 4 p.m., a reporter for NJ News & Views attended the auction of Dwek's Lakewood homes at the Ramada Inn, a hotel and convention center located in Toms River. The auction started at 1 p.m.

Despite a large crowd of attendees, bank after bank took back home after home because no one offered the opening bid.

The banks' loss is tenants' gain.

According to a media report, a large number of Dwek homes are in disrepair. In order for new owners to repair such properties, tenants living in them would have to be evicted.

Many Lakewood residents are already homeless. At the February 28 committee meeting, Jeff Golub, Chairman of the Lakewood Industrial Commission, said he recently put out a fire that ignited the clothes of a homeless woman living in the woods of Lakewood Industrial Park.

The industrial park is located in the township's Urban Enterprise Zone (UEZ).

Golub said he had responded to previous calls for help after other fires were accidentally ignited on private property in the heavily wooded area.

"Dan Jesel (head of Jesel Valvetrain) called me a year ago to complain about fires on his property," Golub told committeemen.

On February 14, real estate investor David Lichtenstein closed title on the Jesel building at 1985 Cedarbridge Avenue for $16 million. Jesel will lease a portion of the retrofitted building.

Committeeman Lichtenstein has denied he is related to David Lichtenstein, but confirmed he has a business relationship with him. Both men are real estate investors, developers and property managers.

P. G. Waxman, who helped broker the deal, confirmed that David Lichtenstein will relocate his companies, The Lightstone Group and American Shelter Corporation, in the Jesel building.

Last year, a Lightstone executive made a presentation for UEZ funding to build or rehabilitate an existing building in the industrial park as a new company headquarters.

Waxman said Lichtenstein's current headquarters at 326 Third Street is for sale.

The county confirmed that a 2003 construction lien still encumbers 326 Third Street. The construction lien was issued for non-payment of the balance due for installation of flooring in the former residential home's basement.

With the transfer of title, Dan Jesel's concern over propane fires started by homeless living in the woods around his building will now become David Lichtenstein's concern.

Golub said the fires on private property are everybody's concern.

"Right now, (the homeless living in the woods) are a liability to the (entire Lakewood) community," he said. "I see a need for a (homeless shelter)."

Others do not agree with his view of the homeless.

Reverend Stephen Brigham, who distributes the propane tanks to homeless living in the woods, organized a protest in Town Square last month. Homeless residents set up tents on public property to draw media attention to their living conditions.

Other homeless have received public attention they did not seek.

According to advocate George Watson, homeless vagrants for years have trespassed onto Greenwood Cemetery and vandalized the cemetery office for material to build housing in the woods behind it. Watson said police removed the makeshift structures.

Township inspectors cannot as easily regulate rental properties.

Last year, Lakewood landlords negotiated a settlement to their lawsuit against the township, which must now provide advance notice of an inspection.

Inspectors only visit a home if a complaint is filed against its owner.

In 2007, landlords also used their political influence to defeat a proposed ordinance that would have required an annual inspection of all Lakewood rental properties, including those owned by Dwek.

Resident Gerri Ballwanz proposed at the March 13 committee meeting that Dwek's properties be used as affordable housing. The committee did not respond to her suggestion.

Three affordable housing developments are either planned or under construction on undeveloped land formerly owned by the township. Advocates have criticized the affordable housing initiative because the proposed sites are located on environmentally sensitive land.

Although the township committee adopted an ordinance years ago that regulates rents and although the committee appoints members to a rent control board, there is no way to regulate rental apartments being operated out of residents' homes unless they are registered with the township.

The committee legalized basement apartments by ordinance in 2005. The ordinance the committee did not adopt in 2007 would have ensured the safety of tenants living in apartments operated out of homes, as well as the rents they pay.

As Lakewood grows into a city, residents that work there should also be able to afford to live there. Regulating rents in single family homes around town as well as the conditions under which they are operated as a business would improve the quality of life for everyone.

The township also needs to regulate the distribution of propane tanks that do not have necessary safeguards.

Propane is usually pressurized liquefied petroleum gas. Piped throughout a home, propane can run appliances and provide heat. However, propane is so flammable that an open flame, sparks or a carelessly tossed cigarette near the storage cylinder could create a fire hazard. Since propane gas is heavier than air, it does not dissipate quickly. Leaks can also collect in invisible, highly flammable pools.

Gases vented by propane tanks are cold enough to cause frostbite to unprotected skin.

Regulated propane cylinders are constructed to vent pressure in the event of a fire, but unsecured cylinders could take off like a rocket under the force of the venting gas.

In 2006, the township issued permits for the installation of three 500-pound bulk propane storage cylinders around the 80,000-square-foot former Jamesway building, which was undergoing renovations. A month later, a tractor trailer parked at the neighboring supermarket went into drive, made a U-turn, accelerated and crashed into the southern wall of the Jamesway.

The driver told police he found no one in the vehicle.

The out-of-control truck did not collapse the Jamesway roof and did not hit any of the propane cylinders. If it had, close proximity of neighboring businesses and residential apartments in the area would have resulted in extensive loss of life and property, as well as contamination of the adjacent Metedeconk River, which Brick residents use for drinking water.

Lakewood police did not investigate the incident as suspicious, but sources have alleged it was not an accident.

Misuse of propane has also been reported at a rental home on Holly Street that is owned by developer Mark Engel.

Last year, inspectors found more than 10 men at a time living in the residence. The men did not pay their monthly utility bill. Unable to heat the house, the men illegally tapped into a natural gas line. In order to cook, the men used a washing machine hose to connect a barbeque propane tank to the kitchen stove, which a Lakewood code enforcement officer told neighbors could have blown up half their block.

Used properly, propane is not a problem. Lakewood's problem is an unregulated housing market that does not ensure the public safety. Members of the governing body could have, should have taken steps to regulate such conditions, not help redistribute the problem to someone else.

Rental housing is a business. The committee's failure to properly regulate business only contributes to the increasing number of the township's homeless, who in turn affect commerce in town.

Golub urged the committee to take action soon.

"I don't know what your fix is, but (the problem) needs to be cleaned up," he said.