By Ron Leir
The corner house at Grand Place and Stewart Ave. doesn’t really stand out in any particular way, but it’s drawn a lot of attention from neighbors – and not in a good way. Many packed the assembly chambers at last Tuesday night’s Town Council meeting to demand that the town take action to kick out its new occupants, clients of a “recovery house.”
And the town is taking steps to do just that if the building’s owner and tenant fail to comply with various building code and zoning-related violation notices.
But the new tenant insists that when the dust clears, folks will see there’ll be nothing to worry about.
Nonetheless, what irks neighbors like Joanne O’Malley, who teaches a half-block away at Roosevelt Elementary School, is that the building – vacant for most of the summer after it was sold in June – suddenly became a focus of activity, with strangers going in and out “at all hours of the night.”
Town officials said the property had been leased to Valentine House, described by its website as a “self-run, self-supported recovery” group whose mission is “to open and implement transitional homes for recovering addicts and alcoholics.” Residents “must have job income, show proof of income [and] be committed to living a sober lifestyle ….”
“I fully understand addiction is a disease,” O’Malley told the governing body Tuesday. “I have seen it in my own family. The problem is this is an unregulated organization coming in.”
Noting that the organization’s website lists “anger management” classes as one of its services, O’Malley wondered: “What if a fight breaks out and rolls out into the street when kids are going to school?”
When the former owner was still around, O’Malley said, she would invite youngsters to huddle on her sheltered porch during inclement weather. “That house has been a safe zone for our kids,” she said. But now, she said, “I’ve seen men with no shirts, tattoos lifting weights on that porch.”
Aside from O’Malley, some dozen residents expressed their concerns at Tuesday’s meeting. Among them was Carole Gualtieri, who lives next door to the house and who said that while she empathized with the occupants’ goal, “This is not the place to do it. Our children shouldn’t have to pass this house, not knowing the men in it. Get those men removed from my neighborhood!”
Responding, Mayor Alberto Santos said he, too, had concerns about the “transiency” of the residency arrangement at the house. It’s in that context, the mayor said, that the town objects to how the property is being used – which, he added, appears to be as a “rooming or boarding house, or hotel, which is not permitted in an R-1 (one-family) zone.”
And, he said, since the property owner has no certificate of occupancy for the current use, the owner “will have to go to the zoning board which determines whether a use variance should be granted.”
To that end, Kearny Assistant Construction Official Anthony Chisari has charged the owner, Jaqueline Lopes of Kearny, with “allowing single family residence to be occupied as a rooming house without having received the proper prior approvals” and with violating “conditions of the certificate of occupancy.”
Additionally, both Lopes and Valentine House were ordered to “eliminate rooming house activities immediately.”
“They have until Oct. 3 to deal with the problem,” said Town Construction Official Michael Martello, or face possible penalties totaling $8,000, at the discretion of the municipal court.
Resident Tina Torres warned that unless the town did something quickly, neighbors with children would likely “sell” their homes. And neighbor Maureen Kilduff added: “I’m not letting my children outside to play. I’m scared.”
Police Chief John Dowie, who lives near the house, said he has assigned plainclothes units to monitor the area. “Anything that happens, don’t be afraid to call [headquarters] and have it documented,” he said.
Charles Valentine, founder and director of Valentine House, which also has facilities in Lyndhurst and Montclair, told The Observer that tax records list the Kearny property as a single family dwelling and anti-addiction centers are protected by federal law prohibiting discrimination against those with a disability.
While he understands “what the neighbors are going through,” their fears are misplaced, Valentine said.
Valentine, who says he’s a licensed minister counseling people in recovery at The Life Christian Church in West Orange, said: “We run a ‘Sober House,’ people living there are going to work, volunteer their time for community service – we’re an asset to the community.”
The movement of people in and out of the house witnessed by neighbors, Valentine explained, was his staff painting walls and removing ragged carpeting to make the place more habitable. No construction work was involved, he said.
The Kearny facility allows only male clients and currently there are four staying in the six-bedroom house, Valentine said. Clients are referred from “detox, rehab, outpatient care and some respond to our website,” he said. No treatment services, including anger management, are offered onsite, he said.
Clients “pay a weekly membership fee” and they “can stay a week or for life – it’s up to them.” House rules forbid women visitors and drinking. “They get periodically tested [for alcohol],” he said, and if a client is found to have violated the rules, “they have to be out in 20 minutes.” Asked about the weightlifting episode, Valentine said that was a one-night incident and the client involved “doesn’t do it anymore.”
Valentine said that until the Kearny clients choose a “coordinator” to take charge of the house, he’ll be spending at least one night a week at the property.
Asked if he fretted about the program being displaced, Valentine said: “Given enough time, it’ll all calm down.”