The housing situation for the residents who live above the Clam Broth House restaurant is as unsettled as the cracked and bulging building they were forced to leave.
While they are now spending their own money to stay in a local hotel, it has come to light that there is documentation that residents' concerns about the building's structural flaws existed well before the city forced them to evacuate their homes Wednesday, May 7.
Except for a brief period to gather personal items, the residents have not been allowed in their apartments since they left.
The Clam Broth House is a Hoboken landmark, with its famous huge neon lit finger pointing to the entrance. The restaurant and bar has been open in Hoboken since 1899 and served dockworkers in its heyday. But the structural integrity of this historic vestige has become corrupted and a portion of the building has buckled, causing cracks to open and bricks to bulge out of the side of the building.
The building contains the Clam Broth House restaurant, Boo Boo's Bar, the Cadillac Bar, and 11 residential units.
Now the residents of the building are saying that they alerted the landlord to the condition of the building multiple times. They have taken him to court to gain "emergence relocation assistance" for the "irreparable harm" they have sustained.
Additionally, Mayor David Roberts has pledged to loan the displaced residents city funds while the city goes after the landlord, but not all are pleased with the overture.
According to Cathy Cardillo, the attorney for the residents, the burden of proof for emergency relocation assistance is that the damage was not the result of a sudden incident but rather was predictable and foreseeable, and the city and the landlord did not react to repeated requests for repairs.
She added that pictures and documents dating back to 1995, show that the flaws have been present for years and the owners and city construction officials were aware of them. Because they did nothing, she argues, they owe compensation to the tenants of the building.
On Jan. 30 of this year, Andrew Oyer, who is now a former tenant, wrote to Al Arezzo, the city's construction code official, stating, "We are respectfully requesting a city inspection of 40 Newark St. and the construction occurring on the ground and basement levels at the Cadillac Bar at the same address. We are concerned that building in serious disrepair, has been damaged by the current construction, and is in danger of a partial or total collapse. I consider this matter to be urgent."
Oyer added in the letter that the building's shift has become so noticeable that the building began to tilt forward, and many doors no longer close.
"The building also has a 'forward lean' which can be felt by walking the hallways," read the letter. "I have resided at this address for the last two and a half years and have noticed a change in the leveling of the floor."
Current resident Eric Mearns said the landlord, Arthur Pelaez, who has owned the residential units in the building for 25 years, knew of the state of the building.
He added that since he has moved in a little over six months ago there have been "big problems" with the building. He said the roof leaks when it rains or snows, the building's heat rarely works, and "the building has shifted so you can't open many of the doors."
Mearns said, "It's obvious that there hasn't been any significant maintenance to the building in the past 25 years."
Taken to court
On Monday, Cardillo and 10 plaintiffs went to Hudson County Superior Court Judge Arthur D'Italia in an attempt to obtain "emergency relocation assistance" to offset the costs of moving else where.
D'Italia told the residents that the Superior Court does not have the authority to grant the tenants' request for temporary relocation assistance until the state authority hears their case. The tenants have requested money to offset the almost $100 per night they are spending on Jersey City hotel rooms.
The Red Cross had paid for three nights for the residents and the city paid for four nights, but that assistance ran out on Wednesday May 14.
"If my understanding is correct, what you are asking from me is final judgment," D'Italia said. He added that it would be improper to award damages to a plaintiff before the defendant has an opportunity to present his case before the Department of Community Affairs (DCA), which is the state department responsible for making "summary judgment" on whether the building's owners and city inspectors failed to act on letters and other documentation stating the building structure was dangerously breached.
D'Italia said that until those findings by the state are released, the court can not rule for or against the tenants in the matter of temporary relief. "There is no propensity of law that I'm aware of that allows you to get money in advance and then pay it back if you were to eventually lose," he said.
The judge's ruling puts the tenants in a sticky situation, because if the tenants sign a lease or a mortgage at a new residence, they legally can no longer pursue money for relocation assistance, said Cardillo.
But without relocation assistance to pay for the hotel, it is difficult for them to continue to pay the daily cost of a room.
Cardillo said the situation is precarious. "It's a real shame," she said about Judge D'Italia's ruling, which she said she respectfully disagrees with. "We're not asking for emergency assistance for nothing," she said. "For these tenants, this is an emergency, and the city and the owners have an obligation to them."
She added that if the matter is not expedited, it could take months or even up to a year for the DCA to make a final ruling.
Cardillo said that there are still avenues available to the tenants. She said the next step is to request that the city expedites the process and allows her to take the case directly to an administrative court judge to request compensatory aid for the tenants.
Roberts promises aid
In a late development, Mayor David Roberts said that he and the city will support the tenants by giving $4,000 to each family or round up $28,000 for the seven displaced households while the building undergoes repairs.
"From the first time that I read Judge D'Italia's ruling, I have made it very clear to our directors that we are going to stand behind those tenants," said Roberts Wednesday. "We are going to do everything possible that is allowed by New Jersey State law to assist these families. It's the least we can do as a municipal government."
Cardillo said Friday morning that the tenants are appreciative of the city and Roberts' pledge. "The tenants are extremely grateful and applaud what the mayor is doing on their behalf," she said.
She added that even though the city has come through with aid, the tenants are still pursuing their legal options. "The suit is still there," said Cardillo, adding that she and her clients have had problems with the landlord on issues such as setting a date when the tenants would be allowed in their apartments to get their possessions and finding out how long repairs are going to take. She said until these and other issues are resolved, it is proper to keep all legal avenues open to her clients.
According to the mayor's spokesperson, Bill Campbell, the funds will come from the city's coffers, but the city will, in turn, attempt to receive reimbursement from Pelaez or the company that holds the insurance policy on the building.
Pelaez's attorney, John J. Curley, said Friday that mayor's offer is "helpful to the tenants" and said that the city does not have a legal responsibility to make such a gesture. But he would not comment the on the mayor's claim that the city will pursue the landlord or the insurance company for repayment. He said he can not comment because there is already a claim before the insurance company and he has "no intention of jeopardizing the status of that claim."
According to Campbell, the money will come out a "public assistance trust fund" the city has set aside for "special circumstances" such as relief for fire and flood victims, and paying for burying indigent persons. Campbell added that there is "sufficient funds" in the account to pay $4,000 to the seven households of the Clam Broth property.
As of Friday morning, he added the aid has not been given out. He said the tenants must fill out an application with the legal department and the checks will be cut "as soon as possible."
Finger taken down
For over a hundred years, the large finger pointing to the Clam Broth House Restaurant has been one of Hoboken's most recognizable landmarks.
Residents were evacuated May 7, and the finger has been taken down, according to the building's landlord Arthur Pelaez, for safekeeping by a fully insured company.
According to Pelaez, who went before the Historic Preservation Commission Monday, the finger will be stored at a warehouse until the restaurant is ready to reopen.
According to his architect, much of the building's façade will most certainly have to be replaced and the stability of the building's interior is still to be determined.
Pelaez's architect added that every attempt will be made to restore the façade to its historical appearance.