PLAINFIELD, NJ — The appalling living conditions recently revealed at a Plainfield apartment complex have exposed a loophole.
When inspectors find violations, there is no deadline for when they have to come back to make sure the problem is corrected.
It’s a problem that CBS 2 investigative reporter Tim McNicholas has been puzzling over for months.
What we’re discovering is a backlog of inspections, causing violations to persist for months — from peeling paint, damaged walls, and fire escapes so rusty they’re considered safety hazards.
In May 2020, Newark firefighters rushed to 400 Irvine Turner Blvd. to save trapped tenants from a two-alarm fire that sent a child to hospital and forced 19 people temporarily from their homes.
“It was a fire, a big fire, and we almost burned out,” said tenant Letrina Newton.
So did Newton’s sister and cousin, who live one floor above her in the building.
“My apartment was fine, but Red Cross people came and put other people in a hotel and stuff,” Newton said.
Those memories are just a snapshot of why tenants are concerned about fire safety. They know what can happen.
Imagine their frustration when, last June, state housing inspectors flagged their rusty fire escapes as a life-safety violation. The New Jersey Bureau of Housing Inspection asked the building’s owner to provide evidence that he had a test done to make sure the fire escapes could support the weight of the people. And inspectors ordered the owner to repair or replace the fire escapes before August 22 last year.
“They should fix that, but it’s still not fixed,” Newton said.
The state is supposed to monitor the property to make sure the owner is resolving violations. But more than a year after that inspection, records show that the re-inspection has still not begun and the state still has no documentation of that weight test.
‘That’s creepy. That’s creepy. Like I said, my daughter and my sister brought my nephew up. I’m here on the first floor. What are they going to do?’ said Newton.
CBS New York has learned that this is just one of more than 15,000 properties in New Jersey where the deadline has passed for an owner to fix violations, but the state has not yet re-inspected to verify that the owner actually has the issues dissolved.
The state said it is dealing with a backlog of inspections due to the pandemic, so CBS New York re-inspected some of those properties.
It’s been eight months since the state visited the Okum family’s apartment in Paterson and ordered their landlord to repair the bathroom ceiling to give it an even and smooth surface.
“It’s uncomfortable,” said John Okum. “We thought they would come and do it, but no one came.”
It’s been ten months since inspectors ordered Patricia Reece’s landlord to install a peephole in her door and a handrail in her bathtub.
“And they never did?” asked McNicholas.
“No,” Reece replied.
Then there’s the Plainfield property, where the mayor said he recently discovered unsafe living conditions and condemned one of the buildings.
But records show the state had already found 235 violations there in 2021 and only re-inspected last month. State inspectors discovered 178 new violations and found that most of the old violations had not yet been resolved.
The state said it is working on adding new housing inspectors and has ramped up its inspections since the pandemic.
“We need to identify where, listen, re-inspections are happening because if you get it, maybe the re-inspection can be done in 60 days. Landlords have to comply,” said Assemblywoman Linda Carter, representing Plainfield.
But for now, there’s no deadline for how soon the state should re-inspect.
Just below some rusty fire escapes in Newark, CBS New York spoke to a man who said he worked in the building.
“Has it been worked on at all?” asked McNichiolas.
‘I’ve just started it. If you have any questions…’ the employee said.
“You said you just started working on it?” asked McNicholas.
He closed the door on McNicholas. Then a man who said he was a spokesman for Irvine Turner Apartments got in touch and said the fire escapes were due to be repaired by the end of September.
The tenants hope not to have to use it before then.
CBS New York also contacted Reece’s landlord and they said they are now finally installing her peephole and handrail.
The landlords we contacted wouldn’t agree to interviews with us, and neither would the state’s Housing Inspection Agency.
Of the 15,000 properties CBS New York has identified, about 13,000 have at least one life safety violation.