FRANKLIN TOWNSHIP - A project designed to build affordable housing in Somerset County is costing some property owners huge chunks of their life savings, an exclusive Kane In Your Corner investigation finds. The culprits: a slow economy and a redevelopment contract in which the town did not require the developer to meet specific timeframes. One man, who owns a vacant lot that he can now neither develop nor sell, is already out more than $130,000 in mortgage interest and property taxes while he waits for the redeveloper to get around to making a purchase offer.
"I'm upset because of all the time and the money," Essam Abozid says as he wipes away tears. The small piece of vacant land he purchased on Route 27 was his dream to provide his family a better future. But after discussing the project with Franklin Township officials and hiring an engineer to draw up plans, Abozid found out the town had plans of its own. In 2006, it included his lot in an affordable housing redevelopment plan, and informed Abozid his land would be turned over to a developer, Leewood N.J.
"I was numb," Abozid remembers.
But eight years later, the developer has yet to make an offer to buy Abozid's land. In that time, he's paid nearly $81,000 in mortgage interest and more than $51,000 in property taxes, a total of more than $132,000 he will never recoup, for land he will never use. The first phase of Leewood's redevelopment plan is finally underway, but Abozid's property is in Phase Three, which is at least another year off.
"I have to accept their decision," Abozid says. "OK, I accept it. But why don't they buy it? If you want the property, why don't you buy the property?"
The answer, in part, lies in the redevelopment contract Franklin Township signed with Leewood. It did not include any deadlines for the developer to purchase property. And while it required work to be "substantially complete" within four and a half years of the "commencement of construction", it never defined when construction had to start. The contract was signed in 2006; Leewood didn't break ground in 2011. Several redevelopment experts told Kane In Your Corner it was highly unusual and not wise for a municipality to sign such a vague agreement.
Kane In Your Corner asked the Franklin Township Redevelopment Authority why it had not done more to protect property owners like Essam Abozid. The agency's executive director, Mark Healey, declined to be interviewed on camera, but in a written statement blamed the construction delays on tight financing for affordable housing after the 2008 recession. "Had there been more…financing available," Healey wrote, "Leewood would have surely proceeded…at a much faster pace."
For Essam Abozid, that's little consolation.
"Nobody cares," he says. "It's just, they don't care about small people, you know?"