After the Flood: Questionable Practices Plague City's Buyout Plans
Monday, December 3, 2012 • 2:47pm
PATERSON, NJ – Daniel Pagan’s house at 17 Watson Street took a beating in the flooding after Hurricane Irene last year. The Passaic River filled his basement and rose well into his first-floor living room, causing $60,000 worth of damage, he said. Pagan and his family had to relocate for months until repairs could be made.
No wonder Pagan’s house was one of 141 properties on nine streets in Paterson’s Northside that city officials designated as part of a flood zone targeted for possible acquisition using $5.7 million in federal buyout funds.
But when Paterson officials picked 33 properties from among those 141, Pagan’s home did not make the list. The houses on each side of his – at 15 Watson and 19 Watson – were picked. They are both less than four feet away form his. “I don’t understand,’’ said Pagan.
A PatersonPress.com investigation – based on documents obtained through Open Public Records Act requests and interviews with more than 15 1st Ward residents and property owners - uncovered questionable practices, inconsistencies and apparent flaws in the process that municipal officials have followed for using the precious federal buyout funds. Among the findings:
- City officials decided to acquire properties that are farther from the river than others that were not picked. Twenty-two properties in the flood zone were not picked even though they are closer to the river than those that were selected on the same block. This is the case on five of the streets – Bergen, E. Holsman, Hillman, N. 1st and Watson - where buyouts are taking place. Only on Amity were all the properties closest to the river picked for acquisition.
- Twelve of the 33 properties targeted for purchase are vacant land, while six others are boarded up and look abandoned. Meanwhile, 66 occupied houses within the flood zone where hundreds of people had to evacuate during Irene are not on the list for acquisition.
- In canvassing the neighborhood, PatersonPress.com found six property owners among the 141 in flood zone who said they would have liked to sell their land, but they said the city never notified them about the potential buyouts. City council members and community leaders also said they know of homeowners in the flood zone whom the city did not contact.
Two weeks ago, PatersonPress.com asked City Business Administrator Charles Thomas and Community Development Director Lanisha Makle for information about the criteria and the process Paterson used to pick the 33 properties that would be purchased using the federal buyout funds. They have not yet responded, despite several follow-up requests.
In response to an Open Public Records Act request earlier this year, Paterson officials provided PatersonPress.com with a copy of the city’s 67-page application for federal buyout funding. But the application had the addresses of the 33 selected properties redacted, or blacked out. In fact, the application also blacked out Makle’s name as the “point of contact” for the program as well as her office phone number.
PatersonPress.com obtained an unmarked copy of the application by filing public records requests with other government entities.
City council members say they have asked Mayor Jeffrey Jones’ administration for information about the buyouts and have not received it.
“I really don’t understand what they’re doing,’’ said City Council President Anthony Davis, who represents the 1st Ward where the buyouts are taking place. “It’s crazy. People’s properties and people’s properties and people’s lives are at stake. I don’t think it’s being run fair and right.’’
“When you have a limited amount of funds available to effectuate the buyouts, it would seem to me that you would have a rating system in place to ensure the process is going to be effective,’’ said Councilman Kenneth Morris, chairman of the community development committee.
During the next few months, an appraisal company hired by the city is supposed to help municipal officials figure out exactly how much money to offer the people who own properties targeted for the buyouts. Depending on those numbers, and the ensuing negotiations, the list of properties the city ultimately purchases using the $5.7 million in the federal money could change.
Not all of the $5.7 million will goes towards the purchases, officials said. Some will be used for demolition, debris removal and the restoration of the site, officials said.
Earlier this year, a spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is providing the buyout money, said the decisions on which flood-prone properties to purchase are left to local governments.
“Those that want to come in, you invite them in,’’ said Mayor Jeffrey Jones when asked about the process for picking properties for flood buyouts. “It’s not a clear process.’’
Jones said part of the difficulty in making the decisions is that the amount of money available so far is far less than what is needed. Jones said Makle, whose community development office is overseeing the buyout program, struggled trying to stretch the money as much as possible. “We want to help to help as many people get out of the flood zone that we can,’’ Jones said.
When asked whether objective criteria were used to pick the 33 properties, Jones said he would check with his staff. “I’m not arguing with you that the process could raise questions,’’ the mayor said.
In some cases, property owners asked for “unreasonable” prices, Jones said. In others, they were not interested in selling, he added. Moreover, the mayor said there may be more properties added to the acquisition list as additional funding becomes available. “No one is looking at this as being a one-time thing,’’ said Jones.
Paterson also has been allocated $2.1 million for buyouts from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Thomas and Makle did not respond when asked if the city has picked which properties to buy using that money.
The city council president said the buyout situation highlighted problems involving Paterson’s community development department. “I don’t know who to blame other than the community development department,’’ said Davis. “If we had a competent team in there, things like this wouldn’t happen.’’
Even before last year’s historic floods, the neighborhood where the buyouts are taking place faced challenges. Crime has been a problem on surrounding streets. Some properties already had been vacant or abandoned. Homeowners have been paying property taxes on assessments that far exceeded the market values for their land.
For many folks, the Irene disaster was the last straw. “I want to get out of the area because of all the flooding,’’ said Cesar Rivera, who has owned 20 Watson Street for about two decades. All of the possessions on the first floor of his home were destroyed in the 2011 deluge, he said.
The city listed Rivera’s property among the 141 that are in the flood buyout area, but it was not included in the 33 picked for purchase. Two houses directly across the street from his are on the list of 33. Rivera said he definitely would have looked to sell his land if the city made an offer.
Andre Rodriguez owns a garage at 14 Bergen Street that also was on the list of 141. Two properties up the street from his – at 16 and 18 Bergen Street, which are both farther from the river than is his – are on the acquisition list.
“It’s very weird what’s happening,’’ said Rodriguez. “Why are they doing what they’re doing?’’
Across the street, Rodriguez also owns 13 and 15 Bergen Street, two more properties picked for the target zone but not selected for acquisition. On that side, once again, land that’s farther from the river from Rodriguez’ properties - at 17 and 19-21 Bergen Street - is on the purchase land.
Rodriguez does own a vacant storage lot at 12 Bergen Street that’s on the acquisition list. He said he’s not sure how the city decided to buy that one, but not his others.
Rodriguez, who lives up the street from his garage, said he’s worried that the neighborhood will get worse when the buyouts occur, leaving more land vacant. “What’s going to happen? You’re going to have more people coming here taking drugs,’’ he said.
N. Bridge Street had nine properties among the 141 within the target zone. None of them were picked for purchase. Three landowners on N. Bridge Street said they were never contacted by the city about the program.
“I never heard nothing from them,’’ said 72-year-old Geraldine Anthony, who owns 11 N. Bridge Street. She said she has lived in the neighborhood for three decades but would consider leaving if she had the change.
“It was awful,’’ she said of the Irene flooding.
Pernell Long said he is part owner of the land on N. Bridge Street that’s closest to the river, the bar called the Blue Palace and the adjacent lot. He said the bar had more than $100,000 in damage in the Irene floods.
“Everybody wants to sell,’’ Long said. “It ain’t no good here.’’
But Long, whose property is in among the 141 in the target area, said he hasn’t heard from the city about the buyout program.
The Rev. James Staton, pastor of the Church of God and Saints of Christ in the 1st Ward, said city government has done a poor job getting the word out about the buyout money Staton said he was attending a community meeting in the 1st Ward earlier this year when he learned of another meeting going on that same night about the buyouts.
Staton said he went to the buyout meeting and learned that property owners had until the next day to submit applications to be part of the program. Staton said he alerted some people in the area and five of them handed in applications. “Most folks didn’t know,’’ said Staton, who is also president of the 1st Ward Community Development Corporation.
Thomas and Makle did not respond to questions about what measures the city took to notify property owners in the flood area about the buyout program. Some officials said they believed the city posted a notice about the buyout meetings in local newspapers and on local access cable television. The mayor also said he thinks notices were mailed out.
“That’s possible,’’ Jones said when told a number of property owners said they were never notified. “We don’t know who got the notices.’’
Staton also argued that the city should have given priority to homeowners who live at the properties and not included so many absentee landlords among those picked for purchase.
A PatersonPress.com review of city property records found that more than two thirds of the owners whose land was picked for flood acquisition listed Paterson addresses. Others were from Nebraska, Nyack, Ramsey, Hopatcong, Ringwood and Totowa.
The number of vacant and abandoned properties included in the proposed buyouts also has come under criticism.
“It’s doesn’t make sense to use the money for vacant property when you’ve got people still living there,’’ said Staton. “Why are those people being left behind?’’
Jones said vacant properties were considered “easy grabs” and were some of main targets of the community development department. “You go for the easy grabs because you’re under the impression there may be more money coming,’’ Jones said.
But Morris questioned the wisdom of targeting vacant land. “To effectutate what?’’ the councilman said. “Why use your limited funding on that when you have other vulnerable property where people are still living?’’
In fact, the city’s own application to FEMA highlight’s the importance of acquiring inhabited structures.
“The most effective way of mitigating the risk to life and property from the flooding that plagues the Northside area of Paterson's 1st ward is to remove the structures that are exposed to the risk,’’ says the application. “The Passaic County Multihazard Mitigation Plan places a high priority on property acquisition providing the projects are cost effective and funding is available to fund such projects.
“In the long term, property acquisition seems to be the most feasible solution as it reduces the need for emergency services in the area during times of flooding,’’ continues the application, “property owners and renters would not have their lives interrupted due to the high levels of water and their inability to enter their homes and the structures in question would not be exposed to the large volumes of water that may in the long run cause extensive damage to the structure's integrity.’’
“The other alternatives continue to leave people in harm's way, therefore the City of Paterson is choosing to use property acquisition as its way of mitigating the vulnerability of this area to flooding, thereby reducing the cost for recovery and repairs in this area which will be a savings to the taxpayers.’’
The 33 properties picked for acquisition are:
Amity Street: 1-5, 2-4, 4-6 and 7
Bergen Street: 10, 12, 16, 17, 18, 19-21
E. Holsman Street: 128, 130, 138, 139, 143, 155-157
Hillman Street: 11, 12-14, 13, 15, 16, 18
N. 1st Street: 204, 211, 213, 218, 220, 222-226
Watson Street: 5-7, 6, 10, 15, 19
The properties among the 141 in the flood zone that were not picked are:
Amity Street: 8-10, 9, 11-13, 12, 15, 16
Bergen Street: 1-11, 2-8, 13, 14, 15, 20, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26-28, 27, 28-30, 29-31,32, 33-41, 34-36, 38, 40
E. Holsman Street: 129-131, 132, 133, 134, 135 , 136, 137, 140-142, 141, 144-146, 145-147, 147-149, 148-154, and 151-153
Hillman Street: 3-9, 6-10, 17, 19-21, 20, 22, 23-25, 24, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33-35, 24, 36, 37, 38, 39 40-42
North Main Street: 171, 191, 193, 195, 196, 196-198, 197, 199, 200, 201, 202, 203, 205, 206, 207, 208, 209, 210, 212, 214, 215-221, 216
Watson Street: 2-4, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14-16, 17, 20, 21, 21-23, 22, 23, 24
North Bridge Street: 4, 6, 8, 10-12, 14, 16, 31, 33, 34-36
Presidential Boulevard: 216-218