Camden women's hopes to own houses for $1 come to end

Wanda Matias, who rented a unit at Camden Townhouses for 18 years, said of the $1 deal: "It seemed realand not real." She said an attorney told her last summer: "It looks good."
Wanda Matias, who rented a unit at Camden Townhouses for 18 years, said of the $1 deal: "It seemed realand not real." She said an attorney told her last summer: "It looks good." (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 16, 2013

For Wanda Matias, a longtime Camden resident, it was just a sheet of paper worth 75 cents.

To a Philadelphia lawyer, it was a legal document that could change the lives of tenants like her.

For 18 years, Matias rented a unit at Camden Townhouses. Agreements signed in 1992 by Roizman Development Inc., the owner of Camden Townhouses, had allowed the company to purchase and rehabilitate 91 properties in the Lanning Square and Bergen Square neighborhoods.

The agreements stated that after 15 years, Roizman would sell the homes for $1 to the tenants or to the city.

"It seemed real and not real," Matias, 49, said Wednesday.

And it never came to pass.

In 2011, she joined a group of tenants, all minority women, in a lawsuit against Roizman and the state, saying they were denied the right to buy the homes under the 1992 agreements.

But a federal judge tossed out the case in September.

"The court finds as a matter of law that the plaintiffs did not have a contractual right to ownership of their rental units," U.S. District Judge Jerome Simandle wrote.

At least two of the women, reached this week, did not know the case had been dismissed.

"Wow," said Shelley McCullough, one of the original Camden Townhouses tenants, who has since purchased a home in the Cramer Hill section of the city. "I had no idea."

Matias said that when she last spoke to one of the attorneys on the case last summer, he said, "It looks good." But when she called again late last year, she said, she never heard back.

One of the plaintiffs' attorneys, Geoffrey V. Seay of Philadelphia, said Friday that he could not comment on his communication with the women without their permission. He said he was not planning to appeal.

Roizman, of Lafayette Hill, signed agreements with the city and state in 1992 to pay $175,000 to buy 91 units - including 41 single-family houses - in the area just south of Cooper University Hospital and rehabilitate them.

The agreement between Roizman and the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Financing Agency (HFMA) covered financing and deed restrictions. It said Roizman would collect U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-subsidized rent and, 15 years later, sell the homes for $1 each to qualified low-income tenants.

But its agreement with the Camden Redevelopment Agency (CRA) was worded a bit differently. It said that after the mortgage was paid off, Roizman had the option to sell each home for $1 back to the agency. The agency then would transfer the properties to an association that it would form. It is unclear from the documents whether that transfer also would have yielded $1 homes for the tenants.

CRA executive director Saundra Ross Johnson was out of the office this week. Her assistant, Carla Rhodes, said she was not familiar with the case.

Roizman attorney Leon Sokol said his client always wanted the $1 sales to go through "if all other players involved agreed to it."

"Roizman offered to sell all 91 properties to the CRA for $1 but they didn't want them," Sokol said.

Roizman also owns the 175-unit Broadway Townhouses. It bought the properties for both projects in the early 1990s with various loans and a 15-year tax abatement.

This week, a spokeswoman for the Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the HFMA, said $2 million of the Camden Townhouse loan was never paid back.

If the $1 sale had gone through, Sokol contended, the tenants would have inherited the developer's debt to the state.

When The Inquirer wrote about the dollar-home situation two years ago, the charitable Cooper Foundation stepped in to try to help.

The foundation held meetings with key players, including Roizman, and worked to get the East Camden-based nonprofit St. Joseph's Carpenter Society to take over the properties and help transfer them to qualified tenants, said foundation chief executive officer Susan Bass-Levin.

But those talks froze once the lawsuit was filed.

"There was nothing we could do," Bass-Levin said this week. "In this instance, the lawsuit worked against the tenants."

Even if a lawsuit hadn't been filed, said Matias, she wasn't optimistic.

The $1 deal was never written on her 1992 lease. It wasn't until she heard about it on the grapevine seven years later that she went to City Hall and paid 75 cents for a photocopy of one of the two agreements, which she later gave to her attorney.

"He was so sure we were going to get something," a $1 house or at least some compensation.

But that was dashed by the judge's order.


Contact Claudia Vargas

at 856-779-3917, cvargas@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," at www.philly.com/camden_flow.

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