The Veterans Point project at The Gates at Somers Point, billed as the first permanent housing complex for veterans in the state, has collapsed in the past year, leaving a handful of veterans living in squalor.
Vehicles driven through the complex trundle over a parking lot cratered with potholes and past young men loitering in front of apartment buildings. Many of the entrances to those buildings are unlocked, allowing residents and nonresidents to come and go freely. The surveillance cameras over the doorways feed video to nowhere.
Each apartment comes with its own set of problems: cabinets are not secured to the walls, caterpillars and other insects crawl across surfaces, doors damaged by previous tenants go unrepaired, floors are warped by leaking pipes, structural cracks and water stains mar the ceilings.
Local officials were optimistic the crime-ridden complex could be rehabilitated when its Great Neck, N.Y., owners — WWW Associates LLC, the principal of which is Kenneth Weinstein — partnered in 2009 with Community Quest, the Egg Harbor Township-based nonprofit that spearheaded the project. But nearly three years later, the initial group of veterans is gone, only a few dozen of the 202 units were ever renovated and Community Quest has disavowed any further involvement, leaving behind residents who had signed leases with the complex owners.
Despite those leases, no signed contracts exist that would bind The Gates owners to the promises they made to turn the complex into a safe, veterans-only complex. Community Quest was unable to say how many veterans are still living at the complex; Weinstein did not respond to the question.
The complex owners say they were counting on housing vouchers from the Department of Veterans Affairs to assist their tenants in paying rent. However, only 60 of those vouchers are available for Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties combined.
And despite the absence of Community Quest, the owners continue to market the complex as a veterans-friendly facility even though it is Somers Point’s highest crime area, with 515 calls for service recorded in 2011.
“Come and enjoy the beautiful, comfortable lifestyle your fellow veterans are living down the Jersey Shore,” reads the complex’s website.
A dream deferred
Veterans Point started as the dream of one woman, Kerrie Kelly.
In 2006, the Community Quest senior vice president of finance and program expansion, created Home Quest, a subsidiary whose only goal was to create affordable housing for veterans and low-income families. Kelly said Veterans Point was to be the new company’s flagship, a pilot program that could be replicated across the region and the country.
According to the organization’s Form 990 tax returns, it took in $3.7 million and spent $3.6 million on programs and salaries in 2010. In addition to the Veterans Point project, it also runs job-training programs and support services for veterans and the disabled. Kelly was paid about $91,000 as fiscal director.
After working with several municipalities to find an ideal location, she settled on what was then called the Atlantis Apartments in 2009. The 202-unit complex on Shore Road had long been plagued by crime but was within walking distance of Shore Medical Center and a short drive from a VA clinic in Ventnor (now relocated to Northfield).
“I knew it was a problem property, but wouldn’t it be great if we could clean that up?” said Kelly, 52, of Absecon. “It helps the town, and the veterans, and it could’ve been a win-win for the owner because he could’ve increased the quality of his asset and improved its value.”
Kelly still keeps a file folder overflowing with correspondence, project proposals and promotional material. Its contents are the tangible remains of more than a year of working long, unpaid hours to garner the support the project needed.
The plan was to renovate the entire complex, she said. Starting with the two buildings damaged by a 2006 fire, the existing tenants would be “phased out” in favor of veterans living in newly refurbished apartments.
There were even plans — Kelly provided to The Press nonbinding memoranda of understanding she had obtained from various service organizations — for regular visits from case managers and medical technicians. Eventually, she said, there would even be a permanent office.
“I had envisioned with Weinstein an on-site office where they could meet with the guys and the VA would even come on-site and bus these guys” to the clinic or to the Wilmington, Del., hospital, she said.
Weinstein, the owner, agreed to all of this, Kelly said.
But no contract was ever drawn up.
“I met with a lawyer to see if we needed a legal document between both parties, but because there was no compensation being paid — we weren’t buying anything from him — he said it was not necessary,” she said.
In January 2010, the City Council gave the project its unanimous support. Newspaper advertisements and lawn signs started appearing in April. The first group of veterans moved into renovated units in late May.
At a meeting of the state Senate Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee that first month, organizers gushed that the Veterans Point project could help revitalize Somers Point while providing a much-needed service.
“With everyone’s help here, we expect to fill up all 202 apartments for the veterans who are coming back from overseas (and) their families,” Weinstein said at the time.
Mayor Jack Glasser, himself an Air Force veteran, said the Veterans Point project gave him hope that conditions at the complex would improve.
“I wanted to see a place where veterans can have an affordable place to go,” he said. “It could’ve been great, but the quality of life just didn’t come to fruition.”
In a recent interview, Weinstein said the project was his dream, as well. His father and partner, Leon Weinstein, is an 88-year-old World War II Army veteran.
“I was also disappointed,” he said. “I spent over $450,000 in construction and supporting these vets, and nobody cares.”
Conditions at ‘The Point’
Renee Barnes, who lives in the complex with her Vietnam-era Army veteran husband Cleveland, said she never would have come to live there without the promises of rental assistance and on-site support services.
“I feel we were bum-rushed,” she said. “I would not bring a dog here.”
For veterans who started arriving at The Gates in May 2010, the complex represented a new life in newly refurbished apartments, surrounded by neighbors who understood the lifelong injuries, the painful memories and the sleepless nights that can be part of a veteran’s life. Organizers say the original plan was to gradually fill all of the complex’s 202 units with veterans.
“We were optimistic,” said George Benner, a 63-year-old Vietnam vet who served as the complex’s veterans liaison for more than a year. “For many of us, this was our brand new start.”
That initial optimism persisted through clogged toilets, leaky plumbing and infestations of bedbugs, centipedes and mice. It suffered a fatal blow, however, when the complex’s 50-year-old boiler sputtered and died during the first winter. Benner said no action was taken until he put pressure on City Hall.
“Some didn’t have heat for 30 days; and I didn’t have any heat for nine days,” he said.
The residents were supplied with radiant heaters until a new system was installed, but when it was, they were shocked to discover they had no control over it. Residents say the thermostats — much like the security cameras and fraying new carpets — were purely aesthetic. Their climate is controlled by the management.
“Those things on the wall (thermostats) are for show,” said Christina Miller, 43, who rents an apartment with her Navy veteran husband, Christopher, and their two children. “It’s always too hot, so we have to leave the windows open.”
As veterans liaison, the go-between for incoming tenants and management, Benner was one of the first people to move into the refurbished apartments. His two-bedroom apartment had clean carpeting, a fresh coat of paint and new cabinets.
“My unit was nice,” he said. “And some of the other units people moved into were fairly decent, but as summer was winding down we had another group of vets move in (and) we started finding things.”
Benner said those things seemed minor at first: a cabinet door off its hinges, a clogged toilet, a leaky window sash, a water stain creeping across the ceiling. Every week he passed along “punch lists” of these problems to management. Every week he got an assurance it would all be fixed soon. “Soon” eventually turned into “next week” and “next month,” he said.
“For several months, there was a pile of punch lists,” he said. “People were complaining to me that things weren’t getting done.”
More problems developed.
John E. Robertson, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam, said it took nearly seven months for the complex to replace the power cord on his unit’s air conditioner. His wife, Linda, who suffers from several health conditions that make her sensitive to heat, spent part of their first summer without air conditioning.
In September, the couple discovered their unit was infested with bed bugs when Linda suffered an allergic reaction and ended up in a hospital emergency room.
Their bed and other furniture were ruined. For the last few months of their lease, John Robertson slept — or, more accurately, didn’t sleep — in a donated easy chair while his wife slept on a twin-size, plastic inflatable mattress.
“It’s really hard on my wife,” John Robertson said. “I’ve lived in some tough places — two tours in ’Nam — but I can adjust. My wife can’t.”
In January the Robertsons moved to Tennessee, which, John said, promises a better veterans health system and lower cost of living.
City and state inspection reports obtained through a Open Public Records Act request show a history of failed inspections and safety violations at The Gates.
The complex was cited for 488 violations during a September 2009 inspection by the state Department of Community Affairs Bureau of Housing Inspection, which oversees hotels and multi-family buildings with three or more units. These included an uneven and “unsafe” parking lot, sidewalks in disrepair and inadequate stormwater drainage. The complex was also cited for unsecured entryways and malfunctioning heating equipment.
A January 2010 letter to the bureau written by complex manager Marsha Grieb requested a 60-day extension for having the problems fixed, citing a number of causes for delays in remedying the violations. These included a maintenance supervisor hurt on the job, high apartment turnover, unqualified maintenance workers, late receipt of the inspection reports and a lack of funding to make necessary repairs.
“Because of the bad economy, tenants have trouble paying their rent, causing an economic hardship for us,” she wrote.
After several extensions, state inspectors deemed all of the violations abated in August 2010.
But two years after the initial inspection — last September — the state again cited the complex for 17 violations, including damaged sidewalks, inadequate drainage and a number of other violations. Under the state Hotel and Multiple Dwelling Law, the bureau is required to conduct inspections every five years, but can perform them more frequently if necessary.
The complex also has a history of failed inspections by the Somers Point Department of Construction Enforcement, which is responsible for issuing certificates of occupancy for incoming tenants.
Municipal records show that in 2011 alone 12 apartments failed to receive certificates of occupancy. Reasons have included broken appliances, faulty pilot lights, inferior carpet and tiling, leaky plumbing, malfunctioning or missing electrical ground fault interrupters, and unpaid inspection fees.
Construction and Zoning Official Jim McBrien said inspectors are at The Gates an average of three days a week. Their inspections are typically restricted to basic safety requirements — such as carbon monoxide and smoke detectors — and are not as wide-ranging as those conducted by the state.
“We usually go through the building or the apartment and make sure it would meet the minimum of property maintenance code,” he said.
However, if an inspector sees a potential problem not covered by the city’s codes, McBrien said they can, and have, contacted the state. “I’ve called up there several times and asked them to send someone,” he said.
Weinstein declined to comment about the inspection reports.
When the heat finally came on that first winter, Benner said it was unreliable because management was trying to “band-aid” the 50-year-old boiler.
And the heat produced a more insidious problem for the Millers. When it was finally turned on, Christina said, an exposed valve in her living room started to drip a steady stream of hot water on the carpet. The leak was left unattended for months, eventually warping a quarter of the floor beneath the carpet and leaving Christina concerned about the possibility of mold.
“They were supposed to come out three times to fix the leak,” she said. “Every time, they fixed the carpet and didn’t touch the pipe.”
As a result of the nonfunctioning thermostats, the Millers and several other tenants have taken to leaving their windows open all winter to combat the stifling heat indoors. Benner said that likely didn’t help the struggling boiler.
Weinstein said he did everything he could to ensure his residents had heat while new boilers were installed and there are no ongoing problems.
“This winter, people are just enjoying living there,” he said. “It’s a very sophisticated system.”
As for the thermostats, Weinstein said disconnecting them was necessary to avoid “runaway heat” to the outside.
“The tenants had no care or desire for what heat was, so that thermostats were left wherever they were (set) and they’d open up the windows,” he said. “People have no respect. They don’t pay for gas, so they leave windows open with heat running out.”
Weinstein said the complex managers work hard to ensure the apartments are in good condition. When there are delays, he said, that’s often because tenants fail to keep maintenance appointments.
Each apartment receives new carpeting and paint, and is treated for bedbugs between tenants, he said.
“We love the city of Somers Point,” he said. “Every official and inspector respects us because our word is our bond.”
‘No. 1’ nuisance
Veterans at The Gates at Somers Point also live amid drugs, prostitution and violence. The Gates has ranked “No. 1 for calls of service” for more than a decade, police Chief Michael Boyd said.
According to police statistics obtained through an Open Public Records Act request, the apartment complex accounted for nearly 29 percent of all calls the department received last year. In the past five years, that figure has fluctuated between 20 and 40 percent of the total calls annually.
Boyd, a municipal police officer for 25 years, said it wasn’t always that way.
“When I moved down to Somers Point (from Philadelphia), that was the place,” he said. “It was high-end.”
Boyd said changes in demographics — the influx of people attracted by casino employment — and management, as well as the dearth of affordable housing in mainland Atlantic County, led to the complex’s deterioration.
For two summers, in 2008 and 2009, he said the department enacted a “safe streets program,” funding overtime pay for two officers to be stationed on site every weekend to respond to calls for service in apartment buildings.
“We were successful, but ... to keep that program running costs money,” Boyd said. “It’s very expensive to designate officers to just one area, especially with a small department.”
The Veterans Point project provided a glimmer of hope that conditions at the complex would turn around.
“The city was optimistic that the apartment complex would have a turnover,” Boyd said. “And that turnover would be vets who would contribute to the area and overall to Somers Point.”
Police responded to 440 calls in 2007, 576 in 2008 and 593 in 2009 at the Shore Road apartment complex. In 2010, the first year of the project, that number dropped to 360. But last year, as the project fell apart, city police received 515 calls.
Boyd said his department enacted as a safety measure a policy that two officers must respond to any call originating from any apartment complex in the city.
“For example, two weeks ago our officers went into The Gates for a noise complaint,” he said. “Upon response, they saw two people loitering in a hallway. One was wanted on a state parole warrant and the other person had multiple warrants and was in possession of a loaded 9-millimeter handgun.”
Renee Barnes said she’s more concerned about safety than any of the other problems at the complex. She said the management wasn’t honest with them about conditions.
“Since March (2011), when I moved here, they told me and my husband it would be vets only,” she said. “They were going to get out the drug dealers, the prostitution and everything, but it got worse.”
Having moved from the Kensington section of Philadelphia, Renee Barnes said she came to Somers Point to keep her 14-year-old son away from drugs and street violence.
She soon found that the conditions here were as bad, if not worse, than those she left. Until the family can find another place to live, she sent her son — whom she declined to name for safety reasons — to live with relatives in Egg Harbor Township.
“I’m scared for my son,” she said. “My son saw a man with a knife stuck in his neck — I don’t want my son to live in this.”
Barnes, a minister-in-training at a Pleasantville church, said things got really bad in June, when someone broke into the apartment through a bedroom window while the family was out. Other intruders have rummaged through her medications.
“I put a thing up on the door, a piece of paper, and when we came back the paper was on the floor,” she said. “I know someone was in my apartment.”
Weinstein told The Press in 2010 that his company installed $30,000 worth of surveillance cameras — mounted in hallways and above doors — to improve safety as the veterans were moving in.
Kelly said she was told by Weinstein that cameras were being monitored by management and even that there was a direct feed to the Police Department downtown. That, she said, was never true.
“There were a couple incidents where we requested tape from (the) incidents, and we got different stories,” she said. “‘No, they’re not available,’ ‘It didn’t record,’ and finally they said the cameras were not working.”
Weinstein contends the cameras were always working.
“We have tapes from the day they started to prove that they were always operating,” he said. “It was possible one cell could have gone down ... but the police definitely have a couple tapes of certain instances.”
Boyd said his department has requested and received video recordings a few times, but there have been many occasions in which videos from more serious incidents were not produced.
“The problem is there’s no consistency to the recordings,” he said. “If you have a video camera, you’d hope to produce something at the end of the day no matter what the circumstances are.”
Weinstein said the complex has now “extinguished” any criminal activity.
Grieb, the complex manager, said she is not aware of any crime nuisance on the property. While some tenants may use drugs, she said, she has never received any complaints from residents.
“I’ve been here 26 years,” she said. “If it was really bad, I wouldn’t take my life in my hands.”
‘The Point’ unravels
On Jan. 1, 2011, the core membership of the Veterans Point Advisory Board, a group of local officials and veterans advocates tasked with reviewing tenant applications, resigned.
One of those members, American Veterans Post 911 Commander James Donahue, said he resigned because the owners were circumventing the board to admit tenants with criminal histories and drug problems. He said the management had committed to ensuring all tenants were honorably discharged and had none of these problems.
“(Weinstein) was going over our heads and putting in whoever he wanted,” he said. “Just dealing with him became intolerable, and we thought our reputation as vets groups was on the line.”
Community Quest followed suit late last summer.
“After a year and a half of waiting and pushing and pushing to get it done, I couldn’t in good conscience keep that program running when I had no control over the quality,” Kelly said of the decision.
Glasser, the mayor, said he was disappointed to see the project fall apart and most of the veterans leave the complex. The city has intervened in the past and will continue, he said, noting that a bed bug infestation was reported to the county last month.
Ultimately, though, it comes down to the management, he said.
“We can come over there, and I know our inspectors do on a periodic basis, but management has to be more responsive to residents’ complaints and needs,” he said. “The bottom line is it’s a quality of life issue.”
Kenneth Weinstein said he was “extremely disappointed” by recent developments. The project didn’t receive the support it needed from either Community Quest or the VA, he said.
Housing vouchers, provided through the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the VA Supported Housing (HUD-VASH) program, that could have allowed low-income veterans to move into the complex, never materialized, he said.
“We were hoping to bring those vets in and let them have some sort of job, if necessary, on the property,” he said.
Jaime Kazmarck, the HUD-VASH coordinator for the Northfield clinic, said the VA has only 60 of those vouchers at any one time for all of Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties.
Although Community Quest is no longer directly affiliated with Weinstein or The Gates, Kelly said it’s still helping to coordinate services for the remaining residents.
“We’re tied to this community,” she said. “We’re not walking away.”
Currently, Kelly said she’s focused her efforts on Tucker’s Walk, a veterans-only complex in Tuckerton planned concurrently with Veterans Point. This time, she is determined not to make the same mistake twice; the 24-unit facility will be all-new construction on a property maintained by her organization.
Kelly said Veterans Point was not a failure; it was a learning experience.
“You just never know how things will unfold,” she said. “But I keep pushing ahead.”
Christina Miller and the other tenants say they feel they were brought to the complex under false pretenses and then abandoned.
“This was a transition for us, but we’re stuck in here now,” she said. “There’s no way to get out without our credit being damaged or without them screwing us.”
If they had the money, Miller said, she would leave Veterans Point. Instead, she said, she’ll likely be forced out when her family can no longer afford the $995 per month rent.
Renee Barnes said her family is similarly trapped, paying the entirety of Cleveland’s veterans disability benefits to rent.
For now, she said she and several other tenants have made a pact that they will remain at Veterans Point until everyone is able to get away. She hopes they will be able to find a place they can all move together.
“If one person got stuck here for some reason, it’s not fair,” she said. “We’re all family. We’re all one. We don’t want to leave anyone here alone.”
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