SALISBURY — Sixteen residents are homeless today, after the town building inspector condemned a beach apartment building town officials have been unable to get the landlord to repair for about a year.
Thursday night, town officials called Jack Kitzis of Newton to town to answer for the problems at his building at 14 Ocean St., when Building Inspector David Lovering deemed it too dangerous for tenants to live in.
Lovering was called to the building Thursday night by firefighters, who had responded to a medical call from a tenant in need of help on the second floor. Upon arrival, firefighters found the staircase — the only access to second-floor units — hanging by a thread and unsafe to use.
"The Salisbury Fire Department further noticed that the broken stairs were lying on top of the home's live electrical panel," Salisbury police officer Keith Forget wrote in his incident report. "When Inspector Lovering arrived on scene, he immediately deemed the building a hazard to its tenants and condemned the multiunit home."
The electricity was turned off, and tenants were told to pack up what they could and leave immediately. Those on the second floor left via the Fire Department's ladder, because fire Chief Rick Souliotis had the stairs torn down because they were a danger to public safety.
On Thursday night, Kitzis paid for one night's lodging at a beach motel for the displaced families, but yesterday, he told tenants they would have to pay for further lodging themselves, promising to pay them back.
"Most of us are on fixed incomes, and we don't have the money to do that," displaced tenant John Murphy said yesterday. "Plus, what are the chances Kitzis will actually pay us back? He never made the repairs he said he'd make."
The town has opened its senior center to temporarily house the tenants.
"This is not a good situation; this is a tragic situation," Town Manager Neil Harrington said yesterday. "We have tried to work with the landlord for months to get him to fix all the code violations in that building, but he kept dragging his feet. This man is a slumlord, as far as I'm concerned."
This was hardly the first time Lovering, Health Inspector Jack Morris and other town officials — including the Board of Health and the Board of Selectmen — had heard about the conditions at Kitzis' buildings at 14 Ocean St. and 43 Railroad Ave. Complaints lodged by tenants go as far back as December of last year.
In May, one tenant brought her plight to a Board of Selectmen's meeting. She pleaded with the five-member panel to take action against Kitzis and require him to fix the many safety, health and building code violations in her apartment. She begged the board to do that before the building had to be condemned.
"We don't want to be displaced," Lisa LeMay, the mother of two children living in the 14 Ocean St. building told selectmen on May 24, her arm in a cast from falling down faulty stairs at the building the first week she arrived. "We're very, very low income. I'm concerned (about safety) for myself, my family and other people who live in this place. I want to make you aware. I want to put a face on this problem. We're real people; we're not well off. It took everything I had to get this place. And, I'm afraid by speaking out this will harm me."
Also in May, Kitzis was officially cited by Morris and Lovering for serious health and building code infractions, given five days from the date he received notice to get an improvement plan filed to deal with the needed repairs and pull appropriate town permits for licensed workmen to execute all the repairs needed in two apartments in 30 days, meaning the end of June. Kitzis was cited and required to repair immediately the decaying staircase, add second egresses and carbon monoxide detectors, fix windows that don't open properly, bring bathrooms and kitchen equipment up to code — including gas stoves turned off because of leaks — provide adequate heat and electrical outlets, and clean up the piles of rubbish and garbage that have accumulated in the courtyard for months.
When called in May, Kitzis said he wanted to work with the town to make the repairs. But, by mid-July, Morris found violations still mostly not fixed, Harrington said. He sent another letter, giving Kitzis until Aug. 13 to address all the issues. The further collapse of the stairs in the meantime, however, brought the situation to a head Thursday night.
"I think the only repair he made was to remove the garbage," said Board of Health Chairwoman Joanne Housianitis. "I haven't seen any other repairs made, and I walk by that building all the time."
Called yesterday for comment, Kitzis did not return the call.
Ultimately, it is the tenants who are paying the tragic cost of Kitzis' failure to fulfill his responsibility, Harrington said, who yesterday, along with Pettengill House's Tiffany Nigro, mobilized to feed and house the displaced families over the weekend.
Working with Salisbury Emergency Management director Bob Cook, Harrington opened the Hilton Center for the families for housing, and Nigro will use food at Pettengill House's food pantry to feed them.
"On Monday at 10 a.m., all town departments involved will be meeting on this issue," Harrington said. "We can see how we can stabilize conditions for these families."
Kitzis' property is only one of many substandard year-round rental apartments at the beach, something the town has worked to clean up, with its rental unit inspection ordinance, Harrington said.
"In cases like this — and there are many in town — the town has two options," Harrington said. "It can try to work with landlords to get them to fix their building, even if they drag their feet. Or we can condemn buildings outright, putting people out of their homes, and most of those involved can't afford to move other places.
"If landlords refuse to make repairs, we can take them to housing court, but that takes months and months, and these landlords bring lawyers. And, they often walk away from the buildings, allowing banks to foreclose. And when the banks foreclose, will some vice president somewhere consider making the needed repairs or will they just board the buildings up?"