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Ajamian v. Township of North Bergen

Decided: August 30, 1968.


Lynch, J.s.c.


[103 NJSuper Page 64] Plaintiffs Aram Ajamian and Bertha Hoffman,*fn1 in the amended complaint filed in this action in

lieu of prerogative writ, allege that they are the "owners" of a tenement house known as No. 2525 Hudson Boulevard, in North Bergen Township, New Jersey. They seek a review of the action of defendant township, through defendant, Muss, its acting building inspector, when, on November 9, 1966, he served an order upon plaintiff Aram Ajamian directing that the said tenement house be vacated within a period of 24 hours for the reason that it was "unfit for human habitation or occupany." It is further alleged that pursuant to said order defendant township, through its officials, evicted the tenants from the building. No hearing was afforded plaintiff by defendant's officials.

Plaintiff claims that the action of defendants was illegal and unconstitutional because: (a) he was never afforded a hearing before their action in vacating the building and therefore was denied due process of law; (b) that under section 10 of the North Bergen Building Code and the National Building Code, which was adopted by defendant township, he was entitled to such a hearing; (c) the National Building Code applies only to buildings erected after its

adoption on February 16, 1966, and the subject building was constructed many years before, and (d) there were in fact no violations of any law or ordinance of defendant township.

Defendants' contentions may be summarized as follows: (a) plaintiffs are not the "owners" of the building in question; (b) the condition of the building, as revealed by several inspections by its various officials, was a "public nuisance" which, under the township's "police power," it had the right to abate summarily and without hearing; (c) since the National Building Code adopted by defendant (section 107) afforded plaintiffs an appeal to the board of appeal from any action of the building inspector, an opportunity for a hearing was thereby afforded, and since such appeal was not taken, any right to a hearing was waived, and (d) in any event, such a hearing has been afforded before this court, which heard the testimony of the several township officials who made the inspections of the building, as well as testimony on behalf of plaintiffs.

When the matter came on for trial, defendants persisted in their contention, as asserted in their answer, that plaintiffs were not "owners" of the property and therefore had no status to assert violation of rights herein. After the taking of some testimony the matter was adjourned to permit plaintiff Aram Ajamian to establish title. Finally, he conceded that Bertha Hoffman was not an owner of the property. Defendants produced a title searcher who testified that nowhere in the record title was Aram Ajamian revealed as an owner. The latter, however, made two alternative contentions. He said the property had been owned by his brother Harry Ajamian (whose name did not appear in the chain of title), who died intestate in 1954, leaving six sisters and brothers, of whom Aram was one. Therefore, it was said by plaintiff, he was the owner of a one-sixth interest by descent. Inconsistently and alternatively, he contended that he held several unrecorded deeds from the record owners and that he owned the property in his own name. He produced said deeds, dated at various times in the last several years, but on which

the acknowledgment, oddly, was taken on June 20 and 21, 1968, during the period in which the trial herein was interrupted, as above mentioned, to permit plaintiff to establish his ownership.

The proofs offered by plaintiff in support of his claim of title are not persuasive. However, for several years defendant township, in its efforts to correct the conditions existing in the building, had treated Aram Ajamian as owner, had filed a complaint in the municipal court against him wherein he was found guilty as owner and fined $100, and the notice to vacate of November 9, 1966 was served upon him. In addition, it is uncontradicted that Aram Ajamian has been acting at least as agent for the record owners and has collected the rents on the property for several years. The court therefore holds that defendant township is estopped to deny that plaintiff has sufficient status to prosecute this suit.

Evidence was taken before the court on four trial days. The testimony supports the following findings of facts, which are hereby made.

The premises involved consist of a six-family tenement house. The rents charged ranged from $90 per month for the basement apartment, to $125 per month for an apartment on the first floor, although there is some testimony by plaintiff Aram Ajamian that the rents were paid on a weekly basis. In any event, those rents approximated $615 per month.

On July 8, 1966 defendant Muss, then acting building inspector, accompanied by Health Officer Mc Closkey, Electrical Inspector Bruno and Plumbing Inspector Easton, examined the premises. The basement apartment, part of which had a concrete floor, smelled from human and animal waste, with droppings on the floor. A young girl was eating at a table on which roaches crawled. The toilet was covered with human excretion and the sink was taped "as though to stop a leak." As a photograph in evidence reveals, the metal ceiling in the kitchen was torn open in several places, exposing

the wooden lath beneath. Rat droppings were under the kitchen stove. This basement apartment was adjacent to the boiler room, which was filled with pieces of furniture, debris and wooden boxes. From it came the stench of "old human waste." The doorway from the boiler room to the apartment was propped up with a piece of wood. A metal fire door was jammed open and was not operable. In a "filthy" bed the mother of the family lay ill. The door from her bedroom to the hallway was missing, a blanket being stretched across the opening in its stead. This basement and its apartment may be described as "filthy," as the photographs in evidence reveal.

The building had many children in it. On the front stoop a wooden post holding up the roof was missing. If one leaned against the remnant of the column, the post would fall down upon anyone who might happen to be beneath it.

In the rear was a garage. Down to its roof came the fire escapes. The east face of the garage tilted out of plumb and eventually fell down. Its rear wall had been struck by cars, was also out of line, and had a good-sized crack in it. Later on, this was partially repaired. In the north alleyway the risers on the side stairs had broken away, rendering it unsafe to use.

In the "Morrison" apartment on the first floor (rent $125 per month) there was a leak over the kitchen sink and paint and paper peeled off the wall over the stove and sinks. In the bedroom the floor was rotted around the radiators, probably from water leaks. The ceilings were a "checkerboard" of cracks, all over. The toilet was "covered with excreta" and the smell from the basement permeated to this floor above.

On the stairway leading to the second floor the handrail of the bannister was broken, so that it was "shaky" if weight was put upon it. In place of rails the bannister, rope was woven back and forth, and as one moved on the steps he could feel them deflect under the weight.

In the "McLaughlin" apartment on the second floor a section of the ceiling had come down over the kitchen sink, exposing three to four feet of wooden lath. The ceiling was still wet and part of it had "bellied."

The stairway to the third floor was "better" than that to the second. The fire escape ladder to the roof was "quite shaky." If a hand were put to it, it would vibrate but not fall down.

Electrical Inspector Bruno testified that 30-ampere fuses had been used in the meter board. They had "blown," indicating either a short circuit or overloaded circuit. These fuses were oversize. The risers to the apartments could carry only 15 amperes. Thus, the use of 30-ampere fuses allowed the overload, permitting the insulation in the wires to "bake to a crisp." "Zip chord" outlets were used, some loose and some nailed to the baseboards. They were frayed and, in some cases, their insulation was broken. Each apartment showed more appliance load than the wiring could carry on an overloaded fuse. At the cellar steps there was an open outlet box, with wiring exposed, which could be reached by any of the children in the building with possible fatal results. All of these conditions presented conditions hazardous to fire.

The foregoing conditions on July 8, 1966, described by Building Inspector Muss, were corroborated by the testimony of the Plumbing and Sanitary Inspector Easton and Bruno. After the inspection defendant township's officials conferred with plaintiff. He pleaded for time to correct the conditions. On July 8, 1966 Health Officer Mc Closkey, referring to "our oral agreement," wrote to plaintiff ordering him to vacate the basement and first-floor apartments as being in violation of the North Bergen Sanitary Code, article 13, section 4. This order was ignored. In August new inspections were made, but the conditions remained the same. On August 15, 1966 Inspector Muss wrote to plaintiff demanding that the building be vacated as "unfit for human habitation." This was not complied with. Another letter was sent by Muss on August 16, with particular reference to the garage wall

which he demanded be removed and rebuilt, and that the alley steps and front porch be repaired. Ultimately, the garage wall was repaired, but not rebuilt. Nothing appears to have been done to the alley steps. Through August other inspections were made. Conditions remained the same, but plaintiff asked for more time to take care of the building. Finally, a complaint was filed in the municipal court, returnable October 31, and plaintiff was fined $100. He asked for a permit to "repair" the garage. It was refused for two reasons: (a) "repair" was not sufficient, rebuilding was necessary (in a short time the garage collapsed), and (b) plaintiff ...

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