The owner of Princeton’s only rooming house has been sued for several counts of fraud and racketeering. Sanford Zeitler, landlord at 205 Nassau Street and owner of other commercial and residential rental buildings in the area, is charged with renting two former tenants space that could not be legally used, and then evicting them and unlawfully keeping their security deposits.
Attorney and Borough Councilman Roger Martindell filed two suits in Superior Court in Trenton on April 27 on behalf of Constance Messinger and Aygul Caner. Their allegations are supported by complaints from other tenants of Mr. Zeitler who clam to have suffered similar treatment over the last 15 years. Mr. Zeitler also owns Birch Realty and Princeton Telephone Answering Service, Inc., the lawsuits allege.
“There is a pattern and practice that has been repeated by Mr. Zeitler countless times,” said Mr. Martindell. “Because it is an intentional effort to illegally take advantage of tenants by theft, it’s racketeering.”
Mr. Zeitler, who did not return telephone messages left at his office, has violated a state racketeering statute, Mr. Martindell said. “He can be forced to sell his properties and get out of the real estate rental business. His properties can be put into receivership. These are extreme remedies, but they are appropriate remedies. He has become a predator victimizing local persons who are tenants in his buildings. And I say that reluctantly, because he does provide affordable rooms.”
It was late last year that Ms. Messinger rented a room from Mr. Zeitler. She secured the rental with a deposit of nearly $2,000, including the first month’s rent. She was grateful to find a spacious room that was near her job at Smith Ace Hardware in Princeton Shopping Center.
But when Ms. Messinger arrived on the appointed move-in day, Mr. Zeitner informed her that the room was no longer available and refused to return her deposit. Desperate, she agreed to take a $150 a week, 7-by-11-foot closet he offered her, which could only be entered by crossing through a bathroom shared by eight men.
“When I initially went there, he was really nice — I mean, really nice,” she said. “But all that changed. He said, take the [second] room or leave.”
Ms. Messinger said she paid to fix up the small space, which had a foul odor carried over from the broken toilet in the adjacent bathroom. She got discounted paint and other fixtures from her employer in order to fix the bathroom, but was never reimbursed by Mr. Zeitler. Instead, she said, he raised her rent by $15 a week to pay for the work.
“I just know I had to keep giving him money,” she said. “I accepted it for what it was and I tried to make it a home. It was a horrible, horrible, horrible living situation there. But I had no way out because I had no money.”
A few months ago, Mr. Zeitler called her at work and told her to come home immediately, Ms. Messinger said. When she arrived, he was packing up her belongings in plastic garbage bags. White powder to combat bedbugs was everywhere. “He wanted me out because the Borough was coming in,” she said. “They packed my stuff, and now I’m missing a binder with all of my important papers.”
As she walked out, Borough officials were coming in to inspect, Ms. Messinger said. They told her Mr. Zeitler was responsible for finding her a place to stay. He allowed her to sleep one night in a hallway, and another in a room that was rented to someone else. Again, she asked for her security deposit. “He said ‘Sue me like everybody else,’” she said.
Mr. Zeitler, who has been targeted over bedbug infestations in the past, was cited last March and given a month to cover mattresses and box springs. He has until May 31 to obtain a certificate of treatment from an exterminator.
In 2009, Mr. Zeitler settled a court action for $55,000 filed by another female tenant at another of his buildings, after charges similar to those by Ms. Messinger were made against him.
The current suits were filed April 27 and served to Mr. Zeitner last week. He has 35 days to respond. Ms. Caner rented retail space on the first floor of 205 Nassau Street, investing thousands of dollars to improve the space, the current lawsuit alleges. She was served with a zoning violation several months later because the room was not legally authorized for use as a retail establishment.
“Mr. Zeitler has been aware of both suits, but there has been no movement in either case,” Mr. Martindell said. “So our hands were forced to take court action. Yes, we settled before. But there is something to be said for taking this all the way with RICO [New Jersey’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act] and putting him out of business.”
“I don’t think it’s right, what he’s doing,” said Ms. Messinger. “He’s taking advantage of people who are low income. He has to be stopped.”