Inquirer Editorial: A promise is a promise

Posted: January 07, 2011

City and state officials must find a way to fulfill a promise made 18 years ago to sell some Camden residents their homes at a bargain price if they faithfully paid their rent.

Naturally, the residents jumped at the chance to own a piece of real estate in a city where decent and affordable housing can be hard to come by. But uncertainty surrounding the agreement made in 1992, plus some bureaucratic foot-dragging, have unfairly left the tenants in limbo.

Developer Israel Roizman purchased 91 housing units scattered in 65 single-family and multifamily dwellings in the Bergen Square and Lanning Square neighborhoods for $175,000. His deed came from the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency.

In a separate agreement with the city, Roizman promised to sell the Camden Townhomes units to the tenants after 15 years - for the stunning price of $1 each.

It was a deal that seemed too good to be true, and unfortunately, unless the tenants find a champion, it will be just that - a lie.

Roizman has not lived up to his end of the deal, which included $8.5 million in public financing for rehabilitation of the homes. He says unresolved issues have complicated the process of turning them over to tenants.

Tenants like Carolyn Bethea are justifiably angry. They believed they had a chance at the American dream of home ownership. Instead, they're in a nightmare. In fact, Bethea was evicted last month from the apartment where she had lived for 18 years.

But the city and the state signed off on this deal. They have an obligation to find a solution. Both have been less than helpful so far in finding an answer.

The New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency promised to help during the Corzine administration, but it hasn't. The city only recently promised to conduct a legal review to see if the sales can be completed.

The homes are located within the new "university" zoning district, which includes sites for Camden's biggest development project in years - a $139 million medical school under construction by Rowan University and Cooper University Hospital.

Keenly interested is the hospital's board chairman, South Jersey power-broker George Norcross, who has announced an effort to bring all the stakeholders to the table to devise a solution.

Norcross has the right idea. But because Cooper has a big stake in the outcome, others must be as involved to ensure the best interest of the renters is protected.

There are a lot of details that must be worked out, including how the properties would be legally transferred to the tenants and who is going to pay a $5.1 million mortgage payment that Roizman owes the state. Flexibility will be required to find answers.

No one knows how the tenants will handle home ownership and its associated costs. But they deserve a chance to find out. Give them what was promised.