But John Pitta, 87, is no Louie Kritski. You know, the slum landlord played by Joe Pesce in the movie “The Super.”
Pitta, a small businessman with bills to pay, has been the owner of a 37-room boardinghouse in Perth Amboy for the past 10 years. His son Roy Pitta said his dad, currently in a rehab facility fighting an infection, is trying to do right by the building’s tenants.
But, he said, Middlesex County’s Social Services department is making it very, very hard.
(Now readers, before you start wondering: Bamboozled checked out the facility, and Middlesex County’s Bureau of Rooming and Boarding House Standards said its inspectors have never had an official complaint about the owner. Other than standard repair requests, such as to fix a cracked tile, there were no major complaints about the building, either.)
The rooming house often takes in tenants referred by the county’s Board of Social Service, Pitta said, so most of the tenants are low-income renters, many of whom receive unemployment, welfare or Social Security benefits.
“At times, when some tenants fall behind on their rent and we are forced to file for eviction, Social Services promises to pay, and although we have to wait for a few weeks, we take them at their word and do not evict the tenant, waiting instead for payment from Social Services to clear up the arrears,” said Pitta. “In many cases, Social Services thereafter also starts paying the tenant’s monthly rent, at least for a period of time.”
Roy Pitta is the first to admit his father doesn’t run a luxury place, but he said as far as rooming houses go, it’s not so bad.
“When my dad first bought it he likes to say there were more roaches than people in China, and it took him two years to get rid of them all, but he did,” Roy Pitta said.
There have been tenants with drug problems and other issues, and they’re in the process of replacing all the wall-to-wall carpeting with tile as part of a plan to rid the building of bedbugs.
Not the Waldorf. But rent includes air conditioning and cable television, and the building boasts several residents who have been there for 12 years, and one who has lived there for 20 years.
“My dad has said just because these tenants are low income it doesn’t mean they have to live like animals,” Pitta said.
When a tenant gets into financial trouble, Pitta said his dad isn’t quick to start eviction proceedings.
“He often gives his tenants a chance to catch up, or make arrangements to pay their arrears over time,” he said.
So last November, when a tenant who was referred to Pitta by Social Services fell behind on rent, Pitta started working with Social Services to see if it could help.
“For months, Social Services kept telling us that the case was still under review, but that it would probably be approved,” Pitta said.
Pitta said he and his dad were passed from one Social Services worker to another for weeks. He said that in December the workers stopped returning his and his father’s calls.
Winter ended and spring came, and the Pittas did not evict the tenant, who had already lived in the building for a couple of years. But there were bills to pay: annual property taxes of more than $27,000, an annual insurance bill of $25,000, fixed operating expenses for gas, electric and the like.
They kept leaving messages and finally, on May 2, they received a letter.
“This letter is to verify the Middlesex County Board of Social Services will pay the back rent owed in the amount of 4940.00 to avoid the eviction … Please allow 5-6 days to receive payment,” the letter said.
A week passed. Then several more weeks. No check arrived.
The Pittas started calling again, but all they reached was voice mail. No one returned their calls.
They turned to the tenant, who went to Social Services and said he was told the payment was tagged as approved in the system, but for some reason the supervisor had not ordered the check to be sent.
“If we are not paid, we will have to evict (the tenant), and my father will lose thousands of dollars which Social Services promised they would pay him,” Roy Pitta said.
Then there’s the current rent. The tenant said Social Services placed him in a work program that would help with direct-to-landlord rent payments for a period of time. The Pittas haven’t received that, either.
Bamboozled gave Social Services a call to see why there was a holdup on this already-approved payment.
We left several messages for the workers and the supervisor who had previously worked on the case, but no one returned our calls.
We then moved on to the Division of Housing & Social Services, hoping to find a higher-up who could sort through the red tape.
The message got through to Susan Murray, deputy director of the Middlesex County Board of Social Services. Murray got right on the case — with the kind of gusto and honesty Bamboozled doesn’t see often.
“This case was mishandled by staff and we are addressing those issues,” Murray said. “There were junctures starting in November where there was either a call or a visit from the tenant or the landlord, where workers could have turned this around.”
Refreshing. An admission that a mistake was made at a bureaucracy.
Murray said part of the problem was that much of the department relocated from Perth Amboy to New Brunswick, and this particular file went missing. And, simply, workers didn’t move the case up the chain of command as they should have.
Murray said she is working closely with Pitta to reconstruct the case file, and then the overdue payments will be processed.
“It’s a wake-up call to us. It was just not handled properly. We are dealing with it,” Murray said.
If there were more Susan Murrays out there, government bureaucracies wouldn’t have such a bad name.