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Two Lawsuits Filed Against Princeton Landlord

Two plaintiffs allege Sandford Zeitler has a pattern of renting space that can not be legally used, then evicting tenants and keeping their security deposits.

 

Constance Messinger was thrilled to rent a room at 205 Nassau Street late last year. It was close to her job and she paid nearly $2,000 as a security deposit and first month’s rent.

But she said things turned sour the day she arrived to move in.

Landlord Sanford Zeitler told her the room was no longer available. She asked for her security deposit back, but says Zeitler refused.

Instead, he offered a $600-per month 7-foot by 11-foot closet in the back of a bathroom used by eight men, she said.

“He said take the room or you leave,” Messinger said. Without money or options, she agreed to take the room.

Four months later she said was forced to leave after learning the room was an illegal rental and the building infested with bedbugs.

She said Zeitler refused to help her or refund her security deposit.

“He said ‘Sue me like everyone else,’” Messinger said.

Now Princeton attorney Roger Martindell has done just that, filing two lawsuits in Superior Court in Trenton on April 27, alleging that defendent Zeitler, owner of 205 Nassau Street and other commercial and residential rental buildings in and around Princeton, Birch Realty Co. and Princeton Telephone Answering Service, Inc. deliberately rented to Messinger and another defendant space that could not be legally used, then evicted them and kept their security deposits.  

Birch Realthy and Princeton Telephone Answering Service are owned and/or controlled by Zeitler, the suits allege.

Besides Messinger, Martindell filed suit on behalf of Aygul Caner, a tenant who rented retail space on the first floor of 205 Nassau Street. She invested thousands of dollars into improving the space, only to be served with a zoning violation several months later because the space was not legally authorized for retail use.

Both suits were served on Zeitler on Wednesday, May 9 and he now has 35 days to respond, although Martindell said Zeitler has been aware of the issues for months.

“Ms. Caner and Ms. Messinger are not just seeking money damages for their losses,” said Martindell, who is also a member of Princeton Borough Council. “They are seeking to put Mr. Zeitler out of business, as they are entitled to do under New Jersey’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, because it is clear that he regularly engages in the deliberate abuse of tenants every year.”

Zeitler was working in an office at 205 Nassau Street on Friday, May 11, but declined to comment on the lawsuits or allegations against him. 

According to court documents, Caner and Messinger’s allegations are supported by complaints received from 12 other Zeitler tenants who suffered similar treatment over 15 years.  

In 2009, Martindell represented another former Zeitler tenant, Alicia Barrita, under similar circumstances. Zeitler paid $55,000 to settle that case, Martindell said.

The building at 205 Nassau Street is the only legal rooming house in Princeton Borough. In recent years, inspections by state and municipal fire, health and housing authorities have resulted in multiple violations to Zeitler, including fire safety hazards and bedbug infestations.

“When Mr. Zeitler stole Mrs. Messinger’s money and relegated her to the bathroom closet, he violated the local zoning code, the State fire and housing code, and common human decency,” Martindell said.

Messinger said the room she lived in behind the bathroom was hot and only fit an inflatable twin air mattress and a few belongings, but she tried to make the best of it despite the stench of urine and feces coming from the broken toilet in the next room.

She said she helped secure discounted paint and fixtures from her employer at Smith’s Ace Hardware for bathroom repairs, but claims Zeitler never reimbursed her and instead raised her rent by $15 per week to pay for the work.

“I accepted it for what it was and I tried to make it a home for me,” Messinger said. “It was a horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible living situation there. I hated it there, but I had no way out because I had no money.”

She remembers the day in April when Zeitler called her at work and told her to come home right away. When she arrived at 205 Nassau Street, the Zeitler was packing her belongings into large black bags. White powder was everywhere, and Messinger later learned it was for bedbugs.

Borough officials were walking into 205 Nassau Street as Messinger walked out. They told her the landlord was responsible for helping her find a place to stay. Zeitler let her sleep one night in the building’s hallway and another night in a room rented to someone else.

The next day she had to leave. She has since found temporary housing.

While the RICO statute is most commonly used to in cases involving organized crime, Martindell said it is covers any intentional effort to illegally take property of tenants by theft.

“We believe that in this case RICO is an appropriate charge and the RICO remedies are appropriate to put Mr. Zeitler out of business because he has become a predator victimizing local persons who are tenants in his buildings. “

Steven A Martin May 14, 2012 at 12:39 PM
I rented a room at that location for a year in 2003. Sandy is a nice, chummy guy until he sees an opportunity to extort some major cash from you. The place is a dump yet he'll withhold the security when you leave and then sue for fictitious damages. I had to leave before the lease ended and although he could easily find another tenant he demanded six months rent. Avoid this sleaze.
Caralien May 14, 2012 at 02:45 PM
This is that same building that had the bedbug infestation which other papers over the past few years, right? Whenever we see the "for rent" signs, which have been constant since we moved here in 2008, we have sighed for the poor people who are going to have to lose at least thousands in medical bills, cleaning, and replacement of their furniture & clothing because of people like this. Sad that the town can't shut this sleaze bag down with numerous violations, year after year.
Caralien May 14, 2012 at 02:46 PM
*which other papers, such as US1, have covered over
Conrad C. May 14, 2012 at 04:04 PM
This building is well known among locals and even the local police. Why has this been allowed to go on for so long? For years people have been talking about this place. Stories about what goes on there, the type of people who live there, criminal activity, landlord issues etc. As soon as I moved to Princeton several years ago I heard about this building and heard various stories of what goes on there. The issues run far deeper than just a bad landlord. The various articles about this story also fail to mention that Mr. Martindell is a borough councilman.
Steven A Martin May 14, 2012 at 04:04 PM
Caralien, He's been at this racket for years (I moved in in 2003). He seemed like a great guy, we and the other tenants would often hang out with him. One day a former tenant came in and was so angry he almost assaulted him. He brushed it off as a "misunderstanding". Over time I heard more stories about his misdeeds, and then he did it to me when I told him on was moving out.
Conrad C. May 14, 2012 at 04:11 PM
Princeton also has issues with a lot more rental properties than just this one. There is a high concentration of rental properties here and low enforcement of rental issues. Renters have nowhere local to turn. There are many absentee landlords, some which do not even live int his country. Unregistered rental units that everyone knows about. Landlords raising rents to push out tenants who complain about getting basic repairs done. Repairs that require permits being done without those permits. Properties in various states of disrepair. When I lived in a neighboring town there was a board for such issues and a serious issue that I had with a rental at the time was handled within a couple of months, not years. I've approaches several borough politicians about housing issues and most reacted as if I broke some sort of code of silence by even suggesting it. Last town I lived in started a crackdown on illegal rentals and property issues along with quality of life issues related to that. I once called in a property on my street in Princeton I was concerned with and the woman answering the phone at borough hall literally laughed at me.
Greta Cuyler (Editor) May 14, 2012 at 05:38 PM
Conrad, that was my omission about Roger Martindell also being a member of Borough Council, I have added it into the article.
Greta Cuyler (Editor) May 14, 2012 at 05:41 PM
My understanding is that part of the issue is there no one entity that oversees rooming house properties like this one. The Princeton health department covers health issues (including bedbugs), the fire department covers some fire codes but it's the State Dept. of Community Affairs that oversees boarding houses like this one. Different agencies can sometimes mean a less organized effort.
EYStaats May 14, 2012 at 11:05 PM
Many years ago I rented retail space from Sandy. A tenant on floor above felt she was being charged for more than her electricity and asked if she minded if she could turn off my meter. Silly me! I didn't realize it was in the basement to which I had no access. She turned off said meter and the entire building went dark. Enlightenment. A court case ensued. Zeitler claimed he had a verbal agreement. I agreed to pay for the electric and he would pay for the OIL HEAT. Guess what? We heated with GAS. THERE WAS NO OIL HEAT. He's incorrigible. Best of luck !
goyderi merops May 15, 2012 at 02:35 PM
the borough's rent registration board should have records going back to at least 1983/4 that document the multiple violations this landlord has on his various properties; perhaps the township has similar records. as a specialist in cheating tenants, he's an expert, deeply experienced and perverse in the delight of figuring out how to defeat the safeguards to make society a fair one. when he is finally fined for violating the codes society lives by, it's just a cost of doing business. he continues. surely enough pain has been spread by this individual to bring the full force of law to bear. some years ago he was involved in a phone tapping trial, either a state or federal court handled that. goyderi
Edna Levy Shalev August 05, 2012 at 02:15 AM
I needed a room so I can start work after 3 years of being unemployed, and found a room at that address. I had no choice as I needed the space for only three months until my tenants in a condo I own in Plainsboro move out. I took the place from June 1 to end if August. I was suspicious first when mr. Zeitler refused to give me a copy of the lease. Telling him I needed to provide copies for my accountant, lawyer and real estate agents, he gave me the lease and I scanned it with my iPhone. He had no choice. He made tiny "receipts" of the rent and deposit money, out of pieces of paper he tore up from a blank paper. His "office" is di messy with piles of paper I am not sure if he could ever find anything there. He took from me a minth snd a half dposir fie a three months lease. U had a bad feeling when I saw in billboards on Nassar street someone scribble "crook" and "beware if landlord" on his For Lease notices. I tok a coue if photos of those. The time is now to pay the last rent checj($850) but I have a sneaky suspicion he won't release the deposit. I am thInking of turning to a lawyer and give him the rent check to keep am until I get my deposit back. The room dies gave bedbugs ($10 for a can if spray). The bathtub has a load if mold. So did the shower curtain but I hit a cheap plastic curtain in the dollar store. I am allergic to mold. The windows have plastic instead if glass, there are spaces in the wood all over, the windows have no screens and are ancient and filthy.
Adam Epstein January 30, 2013 at 11:57 PM
I rented a room at 205 Nassau Street in Autum 1989, when I was a student visiting Princeton, and it was already as bad as some of the posts describe. In my room, the window was painted shut, and it shattered when I tried to open it. Sandy told me that I had to replace it myself. I walked halfway across town with a pane of glass, which slipped out of my hands and broke as I was trying to open the property's front door. I had to buy another, and the second time Sandy - mensch that he was - arranged for some assistant to prop the door open for me. The bathroom down the hall was locked much of the time - there was a large group living in one of the rooms. And as I recall, one of the other rooms had a burned out door. I found out later on that a colleague, also a student then, had not much earlier taken Sandy to court.

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