When Ben Quiñones closed the deal on his Weehawken apartment in May of 2009, he had no idea he’d be tied up in litigation for three years in an effort to bring his home up to code.
Quinones purchased his unit, where he and his family reside, at the new 17-residence Aristocrat condominium on 48th Street.
Quiñones says he is unable to refinance, lease, or sell his home because of water damage due to alleged construction oversights and five violations cited by the N.J. Department of Community Affairs (DCA) in 2010. His frustration led him to take his story to NBC news, which aired a five-minute segment on Sept. 21.
Quiñones says that developer and contractor mistakes along with bureaucratic mishaps by the state and town have cost him and his neighbors dearly.
Quiñones said that a state agency should cover some of the damages, but the state said the building’s warranty was issued too soon.
The 2010 DCA’s online New Home Warranty Program (NHWP) guide states: “Proof of warranty coverage must be presented by the builder to the local construction official prior to the issuance of a Certificate of Occupancy [CO]. The warranty commences upon first occupancy by the owner or the date of settlement, whichever is sooner.” The warranty lasts for two years.
The NHWP will sometimes cover the damages residents have endured. But Quiñones claims that the DCA told him that the building’s warranty was issued in 2008 by the NHWP when a resident was allowed by the town to move in with a Temporary Certificate of Occupancy (TCO). This, he said, violates DCA policy and the warranty should not have been issued until he and fellow occupants were issued a permanent CO in 2009.
As a result, the state will not cover the residents’ damages.
“We want to get our money back and mortgage taken care of.” – Ben Quiñones
“It’s been an absolute nightmare,” Quiñones said. “I feel like I’m walking in a cemetery and it’s scary because I fear for my family’s life due to some of the violations. I’ve been bounced from one entity to the next and no one wants to accept responsibility. I am stuck.”
The warranty issue
A TCO was issued by the town construction official in 2008 before the building was completed, Quiñones claimed, and a CO was issued for Quiñones and the other residents who purchased their residences in 2009.
As soon as they moved in, they found water coming into their apartments through windows and the garage, Quiñones said. The residents approached Arthur Christy of AC Construction, the general contractor, but the problem was not fixed, he said. This prompted Quiñones, head of the condo association at the time, to put in a claim with the NHWP in 2010.
He said the NHWP denied his claim because the warranty that covered their particular complaint had expired, as it had begun in 2008 when the TCO was issued.
Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner stated Tuesday that the town did everything properly. He said he himself called the DCA at the time to see why the warranty was not honored, and he was told that the condo owners had missed the final deadline for a complaint appeal.
Christy said Tuesday that he believes the residents have been using the wrong forum to resolve their issues.
“It’s an unfortunate situation where they let the building fall into disrepair,” Christy said. “For whatever reason they were getting water in a couple spots, and when they tried to make repairs themselves, in my opinion, they made it worse.”
Quiñones called in the DCA in December 2010 to do a proper inspection. They found five code violations which the residents wouldn’t have been aware of had it not been for the water problems, he said. Turner confirmed this.
The DCA found the building did not have the minimum number of required exits, it did not have flashing installed in the roof area, and that its stairways were in violation of building code and were therefore a fire hazard. No fines were issued.
The NHWP is under the jurisdiction of the DCA’s Bureau of Home Owner Protection, who issued the warranty that had expired by the time the residents made their claim. But later, the DCA’s own Division of Codes and Standards cited the five violations. Quiñones finds this an unusual disparity, he said.
Appearance of conflict of interest
The residents took 48th St. LLC and AC Construction to Weehawken Municipal Court in 2011. One of the other principal owners of 48th St. LLC is Richard Barsa, Weehawken’s Director of Finance and the Board of Education President, whom Quiñones mentioned could have posed a possible conflict because of his positions in the town.
“Essentially I invested in the project, it looked nice, and the market looked good,” Barsa said in an interview Tuesday. “Unfortunately the investment didn’t exactly work out that well. There was no profit and the investment was lost when the market went down the tubes. I had no involvement with the developer.”
Turner said Tuesday that he himself called Trenton to request a change of location for the court hearings to avoid what he called the appearance of a conflict of interest.
“There is really no conflict of interest when a department head who is on the contract has no influence on the process,” he said. “But we didn’t even want the appearance of a conflict, so we requested a jurisdiction change in May.”
Deferred to Jersey City
They were deferred to Jersey City Municipal Court shortly thereafter. On Sept. 20, 2012, Judge Nesle Rodriguez told the developer beforehand that they were to come with a concrete plan outlining how the issues were to be fixed, Quiñones said.
“We’ve offered to fix what they wanted, and we’ve offered to go beyond the scope of the violations,” Christy said. “There was some confusion as to what we were supposed to do, and we’re waiting to hear back from the court. As soon as we do, we’ll file paperwork with the town for the additional permits and hopefully this will put it to bed.”
Rodriguez set a second court date for Oct. 18.
“We want to get our money back and mortgage taken care of, and we believe the town should buy the units from us for what we paid so we can leave with no mortgage so our credit is not ruined,” Quiñones said. “At this time, walking away is the only option within reach. We do not feel real action will happen until we are in Federal Court. We are nowhere near that.”
“I told them in May we’d get it done, and we’ll get it done,” Turner responded. “Court takes time, and we have done everything we can do to fast track it all. Do I understand their frustration? Absolutely. In a few years the building will be worth more. If I could afford it I’d buy an apartment myself.”
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org