Longtime South Jersey rooming house is for sale, leaving its residents in limbo

A longtime rooming house in the heart of Haddon Heights is on the market, and local residents — including people who call the facility home — are concerned about its future.

“I would love to see somebody buy and keep it just like it is,” said owner Joseph Duffin, 71, who posted a hand-lettered “for sale” sign late last month outside his property at Eighth and Station Avenues. The asking price is $800,000.

Due to his age, Duffin said, he also is selling two other rooming houses, one on Park Avenue in Pennsauken and the other on Haddonfield Road in Cherry Hill.

When current resident John Donnelly considered renting a room in the Haddon Heights house, he remembers Duffin telling him to “take the place, you’ll have it forever.”

“But who knows what a [new owner] is going to do with it,” said Donnelly, 69, who has lived there for four years.

“I’m sure we’ll be out of here,” he said. “It goes to show you, nothing lasts forever.”

The house at 802 Station Ave. was built about 1900 on nearly half an acre of prime real estate as the private residence of Camden woolen mill magnate J. Walter Levering. By the 1930s, it had become known as the Haddon Hall Sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, said historian and former Haddon Heights library director Robert Hunter.

Haddon Hall operated as a nursing home in the 1950s and ‘60s and was purchased in 1968 by Theresa Abate, who lived there and rented rooms to single adults. New Jersey licensed the property as a rooming house in 1982, and Duffin bought it in 1990.

Back then, a single room cost $65 a week, or $260 a month. Weekly rentals are no longer offered, and monthly rates now run from $550 to $685 for single rooms with a bed, dresser, microwave, and refrigerator. Bathrooms are shared, except in the two conventional one-bedroom apartments in the building. Those go for $900 a month. Altogether, 14 units are available for rent.

“Over the years, hundreds of people have lived here,” said Duffin, a father of 11 and grandfather of 10. He grew up the second oldest of 13 children in Haddonfield and named the rooms at Station Avenue after his siblings.

“Some of the people who live here are old, some are hurting, some just have no family or friends in the area,” Duffin said.

“Some have no problems, except that they’re poor.”

Rooming houses once were common across the country, particularly in urban areas, said housing advocate Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Center for Community Progress in Flint, Mich.

“Rooming houses, boarding homes, and other SROs (single room occupancy buildings) were a critically important part of the American housing supply since the 19th century or earlier, but by the 1970s, they were disappearing,” he said. “It’s a shame.”

Mallach noted that modern zoning codes typically forbid SROs. Rising property values and redevelopment pressures also are taking a toll on the supply even amid a crisis of homelessness and rising public interest in ”tiny houses” and communal living arrangements of all sorts.

Philadelphia City Council member-at-large Derek S. Green has introduced a bill that would legalize SROs in all neighborhoods zoned for multifamily and commercial uses.

SROs are currently limited to high-density districts in Center City and near university campuses in Philly. Expanding the availability would encourage production of affordable housing for city residents and “not just more student housing,“ Green told governing.com.

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The Haddon Heights facility predates the borough’s 1974 zoning regulations and could continue operating as a rooming house if it were sold, borough officials said. The most recent state inspection report, filed last September, listed several dozen minor violations, as well as bedbug and roach infestation in some rooms that required immediate attention.

Information about rooming houses statewide was not immediately available, a spokesperson for the state Department of Community Affairs said.

“We’ve lost a lot of rooming houses in New Jersey, and there are people who are experiencing homelessness because of a lack of those kinds of options at the very bottom of the housing market,” said Adam Gordon, executive director of the Fair Share Housing Center, a statewide advocacy organization.

“There is an overall shortage of housing, which puts pressure on rents,” he said. “Forms of housing that are more affordable, such as mobile home parks, are being bought and redeveloped for luxury housing.”

Said Duffin: “If we had thousands of rooming houses, we could get homeless people off the street. We could give them a shot at something.”

Although some in Haddon Heights refer to the Station Avenue house as “Heartbreak Hotel”— a nickname residents dislike — the borough generally has accepted its presence.

“I’ve known that house forever for what it is, but it has never once come on my radar,” Mayor Zachary Houck said.

The lush grounds are well-tended, and Duffin keeps the Japanese maples he’s planted there trimmed like topiaries.

“The owner obviously cares about it, and if a new owner is just as attentive, the borough would welcome it,” Houck said. “We’re a community for everybody.”

Hunter, a longtime borough resident, also said he’s glad the rooming house is part of life in the prosperous Camden County suburb known for meticulously maintained homes, wide streets, and abundant greenery.

“When you know people who live in the rooming house,” he said, “it keeps you from just being in the bubble of Haddon Heights.”

Station Avenue cafe owner Joseph Gentile, who cofounded Heights in Progress (HIP), the parent of the borough’s Sunday farmers market, said he is “fine with the house” as it exists.

“But you never know what new management is going to do,” he said.

A retired teacher who lives in Moorestown, Duffin collects vintage furniture — some of which is on display in his houses — and has repurposed an ambulance into a “work truck” loaded with tools and supplies for maintaining his properties.

“Haddon Heights has been good to me over the years,” he said. “The people in charge, the police, and especially the neighbors have been very, very nice, and tolerant of what sometimes happens.

“We’ve had overdoses here. There is sadness here. When people call it ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ that really does explain a lot.”

Robert Everson, 64, who has lived at the Haddon Heights house since 2016, doesn’t care for the Heartbreak Hotel nickname. “I’m on disability, and it’s the cheapest place around,” he said.

“I’m comfortable here,” he added. “I hope I can stay until I put in for senior housing, but there’s a six-year wait in this town.

“I’m also confident that something will come along. It always has.”