Local residents discovered through print and televised news reports last week that the imam at the center of the controversy over the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque near the former World Trade Center site lives in Hudson County and is a property owner here.
According to The Record, which spawned many spinoff reports quoting the paper, and the Hudson Reporter’s own searches of property records, Imam Feisal A. Rauf, a North Bergen resident, owns four properties in Union City, and one in North Bergen. There are numerous allegations the Union City properties have not been well-kept over the past several years.
Some of his tenants have claimed his alleged failures as a landlord are relevant to his role as an imam in lower Manhattan, and the allegations have added a new negative twist to the controversy over the proposed cultural center and mosque.
His wife and spokeswoman, Daisy Khan, did not return several calls and emails for comment last week.
After a siege of media attention, residents at the buildings owned by Rauf, 61, in Union City were weary of cameras and news trucks.
At 2206 Central Ave., those willing to talk withheld their names for fear of repercussions.
“It’s horrible,” said one resident who has lived in the building for 23 years. “It’s a mess in this building. The owner doesn’t do anything.”
He added that the superintendent of the building is “a good guy,” but things don’t get done because of a lack of cooperation from the owner.
“It’s a mess in this building. The owner doesn’t do anything.”—Resident of 2206 Central Ave.
The resident said he does not know the owner of the building and never heard the name until news reports last week.
One woman said she pays her rent to a man named “Adolfo” but does not know his last name.
Residents said it can take upwards of six months for their issues to be resolved. They said their current problems include rats and bedbugs.
Union City cracks down on neglected properties
Union City spokesman Mark Albiez confirmed last week that Rauf still owns properties in Union City with multiple health violations, including some within the last few years.
Albiez said city records indicate almost every complaint received by the city has been addressed, sometimes by municipal agencies.
“We have a strict policy that says landlords absolutely must take care of the needs of the tenants,” said Albiez. “We’ve handled every accusation seriously and we continue to encourage residents to call our office if there are any violations or incidents that need to be addressed.”
Albiez said a letter was sent this week to residents of 2206 Central Ave., one of the buildings owned by Rauf, to give them the information they need in order to file a complaint about any problems.
Similar letters are scheduled to go out to other buildings, including the three others owned by Rauf, over the next few days.
Residents are also encouraged to call the mayor’s office at (201) 348-5755 to report problems or bring them to one of the mobile mayor’s office hours. The next one is scheduled to take place on 44th Street between Bergenline Avenue and Kennedy Boulevard on Sept. 8 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Additionally, over the next few weeks, Union City will create a Quality of Life Task Force, comprised of representatives from the building department, health department, public safety and fire officials, and the mayor’s office, to address the “15 worst buildings in the city.” He predicted Rauf’s Union City buildings will be among them.
“The purpose of the task force will be to send the message to landlords that if they’re not in compliance with regulations there will be consequences,” said Albiez.
Alleged mortgage fraud, housing funds
According to The Record, Rauf met with U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) when he was mayor in Union City, and also requested the help of former Hudson County Executive Robert C. Janiszewski around 1991. After falling on tough financial times, he allegedly made a pitch to them for state funds to renovate three of his properties.
He reportedly received $80,000 in city funds, $384,000 from the Union City’s Community Development Agency, $1.3 million in construction loans from the Hudson County’s affordable-housing trust fund, and $630,900 from the state.
Phone calls and emails to Menendez’s office asking for comment were not returned.
The Central Avenue property also had its problems. Rauf’s one time business partner James Cockinos sued him in 2008, alleging fraud, according to his Attorney Richard Rosa.
According to Rosa, 14 years ago Rauf received a $250,000 mortgage for the building from Cockinos, which he paid dutifully for 11 years. The suit alleged that without telling Cockinos, Rauf transferred ownership to Sage Developments and obtained a $650,000 mortgage on the same building. Then after the building was damaged by a fire, Rauf and Khan stopped making payments and Cockinos tried to foreclose on the property, only to learn the building’s ownership had changed.
Rosa said that due to a fire, the couple was no longer able to pay the mortgage. He said it was an honest mistake that a bank’s title search would have discovered, if it had been done. The two parties settled out of court.
North Bergen home The Record claimed that “records” beginning from thirty years ago indicate Rauf owned an apartment in North Bergen, as well as Palisades Park. It is unclear if he still owns either, since numerous property searches under his name did not return any hits.
Along with The Reporter, North Bergen Township Administrator Christopher Pianese and the North Bergen Health Office completed numerous searches. The only North Bergen properties under Rauf’s name are a home on 78th Street, and several properties listed under companies Rauf’s attorney confirmed that he owns. Neither municipal office could find any complaints against Rauf.
One neighbor, who preferred to speak without attribution, said that Rauf does live there, but that he travels a lot and that his wife is there more often.
“I talk to his wife when she is usually gardening and stuff and it’s ‘hi, how are you,’” said neighbor Betsy Gueria, who said she didn’t know anything about the imam or the controversial development.
No one was home at the house when the Reporter visited it on Wednesday evening.
According to The Record, Rauf studied physics at Columbia University during the late 1960s before earning a master’s degree in plasma physics at Stevens University in Hoboken. He then focused on religious aspirations and became a “popular” leader of a New York City mosque. After the 9/11 attacks he became a moderate Muslim voice and conducted training and speeches for the FBI and State Department.
According to reports on Aug. 31, Rauf was expected to return from a U.S. State Department-funded Middle East Tour soon to deal with the controversy at home.
Tricia Tirella may be reached at TriciaT@hudsonreporter.com.