Aug. 30, 2010— -- The Muslim imam who plans to build a controversial Islamic center near Ground Zero should first take on a smaller project, like ridding his New Jersey apartment buildings of rats and bedbugs, angry tenants told ABCNews.com.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf owns buildings across the Hudson River in several New Jersey cities, including Union City, North Bergen and Palisades Park, which he reportedly renovated with tax dollars.
Residents, many of whom are immigrants and most of whom are working-class Hispanic Catholics, say they have complained about unsanitary conditions for years. The imam, however, has done little to make repairs or exterminate vermin, they claim.
"There are bed bugs and a lot of rats," said Jane Thane, 17, who has lived at 2206 Central Ave., Union City for three years, after her former home, also owned by Rauf, burned down. "Last week we catched six rats in the apartment."
Thane said five other family members share the three bedroom apartment and many of their neighbors have been forced to throw away mattresses and linens because of bed bug infestations.
Thane said her parents have complained to the building's superintendent and Rauf's wife Daisy Khan, but nothing has ever been done.
"We call, but they don't do anything about it. The super says he can't do anything either. Sometimes they say they take care of things, but no one believes them anymore," she said. "We don't trust them."
New Jersey newspaper The Record first reported the conditions at Rauf's apartment buildings after pouring through "page after page of municipal health [that] show repeated complaints ranging from failure to pick up garbage, to rat and bedbug infestations and no heat and hot water."
The paper's investigation shows that the controversial $100 million cultural center and mosque called Park51 and slated to be built just two blocks away from Ground Zero is not the first real estate project with which the imam has been involved, but it is far and away the largest.
Ground Zero Mosque Developer Has Angry Tenants
A Columbia University-trained physicist, Rauf entered the clergy in the late 1970s around the same time he began purchasing inexpensive low-income residential properties in New Jersey. From the late 1970s through early 1990s, Rauf purchased five buildings in Union City and one each in North Bergen and Palisades Park, according to the Record.
In 1989 Union City gave him a grant of $384,000 to renovate those properties. Three years later, Hudson County granted him an addition $2 million to renovate the properties provided they continuously be used for low-income housing through 2017, according to the paper.
The projects have been plagued by complaints and financial problems. According to the Record, Rauf received public funding through powerful state politicians including Sen. Robert Mendez, former mayor of Union City, and Robert C. Janiszewski, a county executive later convicted of taking bribes.
Rauf is currently on a State Department funded tour of the Middle East.
His wife Daisy Khan, the spokeswoman for the Cordoba Initiative, the cultural organization behind Park51, told the Record that many of the problems were the fault of the tenants, but said in an email to ABCNews.com that "the vast majority of people are pleased with their homes and the service they are getting."
"Unfortunately, people make mistakes -- including those who are hired to fix and maintain the apartments and have to come back and from time to time some people just cannot be made happy," she wrote. "Even in those instances, however, the Imam instructs the people responsible for maintaining the apartment to continue to try to make all of the people satisfied. This is very important to the Imam."
While in the Mideast, Rauf has been asked about the controversial Islamic center near Ground Zero. Speaking at a Ramadan dinner in the Persian Gulf Sunday, Rauf said the uproar was partially to be blamed on conservative politicians appealing to conservative voters ahead of November's elections.
Imam Blames Politics for Ground Zero Mosque Furor
"There is no doubt that the election season has had a major impact upon the nature of the discourse," Rauf told Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National.
The development project, as well as the stabbing of Muslim cab driver in New York City, was also cited in a move by a coalition of Muslim-American groups who released a public service announcement in which Muslim Americans assert their place in America.