Empty Promise

by Eliana Johnson
Cory Booker’s hypocrisy on vacant property.

Until March, Cory Booker owned an abandoned home on Newark’s Court Street. When I visited it last week, there was a “No Loitering” sign above the door and barbed wire looped over the fence. Through a hole, an overgrown backyard littered with glass bottles and other trash was visible from the sidewalk. Advertisements for a restoration and cleaning service were posted in the boarded-up windows.

During his tenure as mayor of Newark, Booker has spoken out against the neglected properties that litter the city, and in August 2011, he signed into law an ordinance requiring landowners to register vacant properties with the city’s Office of Rent Control. The mayor himself, however, failed to register the Court Street house, according to Maria Hernandez in Newark’s rent-control office. The ordinance required those who owned vacant property at the time of the law’s passage to register it by August 31, 2011, with the penalty for noncompliance being a fine between $500 and $1,000. “Every day that a violation continues shall constitute a separate and distinct offense,” the ordinance reads.

Public records show that after purchasing the home for $175,000 in December 2009, Booker sold it in March of this year to Newark Now, the charity he founded in 2003, for $1. The mayor “looks forward to seeing it utilized by community partners working to make Newark a better place,” Booker spokesman James Allen tells National Review Online. Asked about the mayor’s failure to comply with his own ordinance, Allen provided no comment. Newark Now president and CEO Lavar Young, who did not return National Review Online’s request for comment, told the Newark Star-Ledger that the charity is currently in negotiations to sell the house.

Under the ordinance, Newark Now had 30 days to register the property with the city, but it has also failed to do so, Hernandez says. “It behooves them to register the property because I am getting ready to target those who are not registered,” she tells me. 

Booker is in the midst of a campaign for the U.S. Senate and holds a commanding lead over his Republican challenger, Steve Lonegan. “As mayor, Cory Booker has fought for seven years to improve Newark neighborhoods,” Booker campaign spokesman Kevin Griffis tells National Review Online, citing Booker’s use of federal resources to “purchase and rehabilitate hundreds of foreclosed and abandoned homes and apartments in targeted Newark neighborhoods throughout the city” and development of a “multi-faceted initiative to address the effects of the foreclosure crisis.” Griffis adds, “Efforts to denigrate this work, or the mayor’s donation of a house he owned to one of Newark’s best-known and most effective charities, are unfortunate.”

Lonegan, a former mayor of Bogota, N.J., held a press conference outside of the abandoned home on Tuesday but was drowned out by shouting, reportedly from men associated with a charity founded by Booker.

When Booker passed the Vacant Property Ordinance two years ago, he emphasized the dangers posed to city residents by properties like the one he left to deteriorate on Court Street. “Abandoned and neglected properties, if left unaddressed, can create public safety and health concerns for our residents,” he said at the time. “Externally, their presence falsely exhibits a lack of care and pride in Newark’s communities, creating eyesores in our neighborhoods and imposing unfair burdens on neighborhood residents. The Vacant Property Ordinance is just one more tool in our toolbox to hold owners of blighting abandoned properties accountable for their actions — and inactions.”

His concern was not new. According to the Newark Star-Ledger, Booker in 2008 formed a Demolition Task Force and set aside $1.25 million to demolish 49 abandoned buildings in the city. “This is about ridding our city of these havens for crime, violence, fires and all the kind of things that have gone on around them,” he said before driving a bulldozer into a crumbling home.

Booker’s Court Street property brought similar dangers to the neighborhood where it is located. The New York Post reported on Tuesday that a fire at the home last March left neighbors irate, and according to the Bergen Record, those living nearby have complained about squatters who have taken up residence inside.

The Vacant Property Ordinance requires the owners of an abandoned building to secure it against unauthorized entry and affix a sign indicating the name, address, and telephone number of the owner or an authorized agent as well as the person responsible for the day-to-day supervision and management of the building, until the building is “again legally occupied or demolished or until repair or rehabilitation of the building is complete.” It cites the “severe harm to the health, safety and general welfare of the community, including diminution of neighboring property values, increased risk of fire, and potential increases in criminal activity and public health risk” posed by abandoned properties. The initial cost for registering vacant property is $500, with the fee climbing to $5,000 after the second annual renewal.

Booker’s campaign, through spokesman Kevin Griffis, told the Bergen Record that the mayor bought the Court Street building with the intention of renovating it and moving in, but found a lower-cost option on nearby Longworth Street. Public records show that Booker purchased the home at 19 Longworth Street for $171,000 in October 2011, nearly two years after he closed on the Court Street house. The home was in foreclosure and put up for auction by HSBC Bank; its value plummeted after the previous occupant was murdered in the front driveway and HSBC took ownership of the property. Records indicate it sold for nearly $300,000 in 2004 and then for $450,000 the following year.

Booker currently lives in a third residence and plans to move to Longworth Street “soon,” according to Griffis. That home is not listed on Booker’s Senate financial-disclosure report under section IIIB, which requires the candidate to list interests with a value exceeding $1,000.

— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.