By: Isaac Avilucea, The Trentonian
FLEMINGTON >> Caroline Harmon had a freakish routine. Every night, when her neighbors were sound asleep, she’d rise, retrieve a broom from her cockroach-infested kitchen and sweep the bedbugs out of her bedroom mattress inside her apartment.
Harmon, a 90-year-old woman who has arthritis in her hands and knees and a curved spine, needs a walker to get along. She can’t work, requires government assistance to pay her rent and couldn’t deal with the problem on her own. She relied on others to help her.
But for the last decade, she has been forced to live in a bed bug-infested apartment while state officials and her landlord turned a blind eye to the problem, her attorney said.
“It’s inexplicable to us why they didn’t do anything,” said attorney Patrick Whalen, who represents Harmon in a lawsuit filed in Hunterdon County Superior Court.
“I find it chilling they would do this to a 90-year-old woman,” Whalen said.
Hunter Hills Apartment owner Nicholas Rizzo didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.
Despite the horrendous conditions, Harmon paid her rent on time for the last 10 years.
The owner at the Hunter Hills Apartments, in the past a rich target for torrential crime complaints, has known about an infestation since at least 2010, according to court records. Rather than immediately getting it professionally treated, Rizzo had apartment management spray Raid in a cost-cutting effort.
Harmon shifted apartment units to try to deal with the problem but that didn’t help, either. When exterminators were finally brought in to deal with the infestation, it was too late.
Records and interviews with town officials and those intimately involved in Harmon’s case revealed her sick nightmare.
“We’ve been fighting this, literally, for years,” Whalen said. “It’s horrific.”
After trying to work with Rizzo to fix the issues, Harmon was forced into messy and protracted litigation with Rizzo and Biltmore Realty.
Court records obtained by this newspaper show this isn’t the first time Rizzo has been targeted for substandard conditions at properties he owns and manages. Previously, a Florida advocacy group went after Rizzo and his company in federal court for not following laws protecting the disabled. The discrimination lawsuit was eventually settled out of court, though the group had to ask for a court order to enforce the settlement when Rizzo welshed on terms of the agreement.
Harmon developed cellulitis — an infection causing pain, swelling and redness which can be life-threatening if left untreated — from repeated bedbug bites. She was forced to live at a rehab facility near Edison after a fall left her injured and helpless. Her apartment unit was condemned when fire officials uncovered the bedbug problem.
“This is the first I’m hearing about any bedbug problem,” Mayor Phil Greiner told The Trentonian in a phone interview. “If someone is having a public health problem, we will look into it.”
In Flemington, New Jersey, a borough in Hunterdon County with roughly 4,600 residents, Rizzo has faced stiff opposition from leaders over concerns of mismanagement at the Hunter Hills Apartments. He’s been pelted over the years by complains of excessive crime and overcrowding. At one point, the complex accounted for more than half the borough’s reported property offenses.
Fed up with the problems, borough officials contemplated forced redevelopment of the 180-unit complex, according to news reports. That was halted when Rizzo agreed to work with the borough to address the issues. Officials told The Trentonian that while they’ve seen a reduction in the number of calls to police from residents, crime remains a problem at the complex.
“It subsided a little bit,” said Jerry Rotella, the chief of police in Flemington who has been on the force for the last two decades. “It’s still one of the areas where we have to a lot of enforcement.”
Bedbugs and cockroaches are culprits police can’t arrest. To try to fix her problem, apartment management moved Harmon to another unit in 2011. Concerned about how she would move units because of her physical limitations, Harmon alerted apartment manager Scott O’Brien.
“I settled myself into a home. I made myself a comfortable house,” she said. “I set up a working office and now you’re talking about disrupting that. I told him I’m alone. I’m not physically able to handle another move. I have no relatives to help me.”
He assured her she wouldn’t have to lift a finger. Just “sit in a chair” while workers moved her belongings to the new unit, he told her. When that didn’t happen, Harmon was left stranded without her clothes or furniture. She was also without air conditioning and heat, and a water leak seeped through from the ceiling in the kitchen.
Worse, her new unit had bedbugs. She’d wake up and sweep the critters out of her bed, sometimes five to six times a night, barely sleeping because of the bites.
“I felt them biting all over my back and arms while I was in bed,” she said.
In July 2012, the landlord sent Harmon an eviction notice and accused her of causing the bedbug problem by not properly preparing her apartments for treatment.
“It’s preposterous,” Whalen said.
Whalen said the elderly woman “never imagined that at this point in her life she would be eating her meals on a folding tray table, sitting on a folding chair, and being surrounded by used, borrowed furniture with almost all of her familiar belongings infested, untreated and stored in another location.”
Roaches had come in through the plumbing and nested in the electrical wiring. The stench of toasted roaches became the queasy and overpoweringly familiar aroma inside the elderly woman’s apartment.
Hundreds invaded the toaster where Harmon prepared some of her meals.
Because of the uncontained infestation, Harmon has pretty much lost everything she owned and accumulated over the year. Cherished photos with sentimental value were thrown out, along with her furniture and clothes, as the bedbugs overtook her apartment. Her car was towed away from the property despite protestations by her attorney, who tried to get a judge to issue an injunction preventing apartment management from getting rid of Harmon’s belongings.
HIDING THE PROBLEM
While The Trentonian did not find evidence of other residents complaining about an infestation, pest experts believe it’s implausible to think the creeper crawlers haven’t spread to other units. It’s more likely people have lived with the problem or complained directly to apartment management without involving borough health inspectors.
Hidden away, the bedbug infestation was discovered only because the fire department responded to Harmon’s unit after she fell.
In Harmon’s apartment alone, the bedbug infestation was so bad the borough issued an unsafe structure notice, which The Trentonian obtained through a records request, mandating the unit be vacated and remain unoccupied until “proof of extermination of infestation and sanitization” was provided to the borough.
When outside experts inspected Harmon’s unit, they found more than 3,000 bed bugs “in different stages” and another 3,000 eggs in Harmon’s apartment.
That happened in April.
Still, Rizzo continued mooching money off the state for the vacant apartment for another two months. Harmon received help from the Department of Community Affairs to pay the $790 rent for her dingy place at Hunter Hills.
A DCA spokesperson, when contacted by The Trentonian for comment, said Harmon stopped receiving assistance in June, when she was terminated from the program. Her apartment had last been inspected by DCA officials in April 2016, the spokesperson said. They apparently didn’t raise a stink about the living conditions. The spokesperson said Harmon cancelled three inspection appointments this year. Her unit was dinged in 2015 because of tension in a window but passed when it was re-inspected.
“They’ve never once told me that she missed appointments or cancelled appointments,” Whalen said. “They are absolutely liars. They know it’s not gonna look good that they paid thousands in taxpayer money for a condemned apartment.”
Whalen said he’s been writing to DCA “for years” asking them to help Harmon. He remembered having a frank conversation with his elderly and infirm client.
“If you stay any longer, you’re gonna die,” he told her.
The spokesperson didn’t address why DCA wasn’t more involved in helping Harmon, one of 11 DCA-funded tenants at Hunter Hills.
Whalen said Harmon was removed from her apartment the day after her birthday, the same day DCA was supposed to inspect the unit.
“‘What a birthday gift.’ That’s exactly what she said,” Whalen said.
While in the hospital recovering, Harmon was notified she was being evicted for not paying her rent. That incensed her attorney.
“To evict her while she’s in the hospital, who does that?” Whalen said.
Rizzo, who has had issues managing other properties, may have been good at keeping things under wraps at the New Jersey apartment complex. The Trentonian requested all unsafe notices issued to the complex over the years but was told Harmon’s was the only one on file.
In the thick of his problems with the borough in 2014, Rizzo’s property manager told the Hunterdon County Democrat then-Mayor Erica Edwards raised concerns about crime and overcrowding because she was anti-Latino.
“There’s growing concern that the borough’s real motivation has something to do with the Hispanic population,” said Vincent Scordley, the owner’s son-in-law. “That’s the feedback that we’re starting to get and that we’re starting to feel.”
Edwards shot back that Rizzo was trying to deflect attention from the real issues.
The borough council adopted a resolution directing the planning board to conduct a study to determine whether the complex met state criteria declaring it an “area in need of redevelopment,” the Democrat reported. Officials contended over a 16-month span Hunter Hills accounted for 54 percent of rental property crime even though it had a fraction of the rental properties in the borough.
“The township was ready to close him down,” Whalen said. “Somehow, he dodged that bullet.”
Rizzio implemented more rigorous background checks for prospective tenants to nip at the problem. Rotella said the problem got better.
“Are we there as frequently as we were three or four years ago? No,” he said. “But we’re still responding there.”
Wherever Rizzo has properties, he’s had problems. In 1999, Rizzo was taken to court by Advocates for the Disabled, which sued Biltmore Realty, the same company involved in Harmon’s litigation, on behalf of Ernst Rosenkrantz. The group contended Rizzo violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. As part of a settlement, he was required to make certain accommodations, such as removing barriers, at a shopping center he owned and operated in Hialeah Gardens.
The lawsuit settled out of court, but the group had to go back before a judge to enforce the agreement when Rizzo didn’t comply with a timeline to make the structural alterations.
Avilucea has covered courts, crime and coaching kerfuffles in New Mexico, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey. He prides himself on covering First Amendment issues and was honored for helping fight against a Connecticut judge’s prior restraint injunction while he worked at the Connecticut Law Tribune. Reach the author at email@example.com .