Father, son cited for rooming house

Eyewitness News Exclusive
February 4, 2009 6:13:31 PM PST
They're already being sued for allegedly running an investment scheme in New Jersey. Now, a father and son are being cited for operating an illegal rooming house that is so dangerous, fire officials have shut it down. The action was taken after the house was flagged by the the Eyewitness News Investigators' Sarah Wallace. She has more on the story.

It was the lesser of two evils. Fire officials say they had no choice but to order the evacuation of two homes on Fourth Avenue in Newark. Both are now boarded up.

One of the homes, zoned as a two-family, was being used as an illegal rooming house. An official called it a tragedy just waiting to happen.

Within minutes of inspecting the various tenant rooms at 431 Fourth Avenue, the fire chief made his position clear.

"What's obvious is that this house isn't wired for what it's being used for," he said.

Newark officials began their investigation after we contacted them, alarmed at seeing the conditions there just days before.

Tax records we obtained show that 431is zoned as a two-family home. But in reality, it has nine different units. There are even mailboxes and locks on the different doors.

The rent payments go to Casey Properties, a Totowa-based firm owned by disbarred attorney Martin Gendel and his son Seth. We recently aired a story about them in connection with an alleged real estate scheme.

Devon McKnight and his wife say the Gendels got them to invest in a home at 429 Fourth Avenue, which is connected to 431. Tax records show that less than two weeks after the McKnight's paid $330,000 for the two-family home, the Gendels scooped up the one next door from the same seller for $200,000.

"It says what I've been saying already, that they're a bunch of crooks." Devon McKnight said.

The McKnights claim the Gendels failed to make mortgage payments repairs as promised. So the home, now in foreclosure, is riddled with safety hazards just like the rooming house next door.

Tenant Maria Aviles has a severely ill daughter. Since there's often no electricity since Casey Properties hasn't paid the utilities, Aviles says a neighbor let her run an electrical cord through a window so at least she could keep her refrigerator running.

Fire inspectors determined the entire property posed an imminant safety hazard, including the side the McKnights own and the rooming house side.

The fire inspectors were especially concerned that five family members, including four children, lived in an attic.

Previously, Martin Gendel refused to speak with us when we approached him about the investment scam allegations.

"I have no comment," he said

This time, I phoned him after fire inspectors found the potentially life-threatening hazards.

"We're out here with the fire inspectors and they've found some serious problems."

He hung up on me.

Social service agencies are helping the tenants relocate. The Gendels face possible fines for the various fire and building violations, and they face a civil lawsuit by more than a dozen investors, including the McKnights. They haven't yet filed a response.