Lax security, ignored rules put student tenants at risk
Around 8 o’clock on a Sunday evening in September, a student of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts heard a knock on the door of her Allston apartment. She opened it, but no one was there.
“Did you hear someone knock?’’’ she asked her roommate, an 18-year-old Fisher College student who had just stumbled groggily out of bed.
Suddenly, the door flew open and a man with a bandanna over his face burst into the fourth-floor apartment. Brandishing a knife, he ordered the stunned women to lie on the floor. He piled a sewing machine and other heavy objects on top of them, to make them lie still. At knifepoint, he repeatedly raped them, then bound them with extension cords and fled.
“I was so afraid he was going to kill us, and I just prayed to get us through this,’’ the MFA school student, 23 at the time, later told a social worker.
The rapes occurred six years ago but remain a brutal and relevant reminder of the potential hazards that student tenants can face — and not because Boston is an especially dangerous town.
Just days before the crime at 1325 Commonwealth Ave., the Fisher student had complained to the real estate agent who showed her the $2,100-a-month apartment about a blatant security lapse in the building, according to court documents.
A cellar door facing the street was tied open with electrical wire day and night. It’s still unclear how the rapist got into the five-story brick apartment building, but this was one all-too-obvious possibility.
‘I don’t think that people understand that it’s not just a cleanliness issue, that it’s actually a safety issue.’ - Former Fisher College student, raped by an intruder in 2008, as was her roommate
Here was another: Tenants in the building, including the MFA school student the evening of the attacks, sometimes buzzed in visitors without knowing who they were because the intercom was broken.
Nine days after the rapes — long after police officers raced to the building and ambulances took the terrified women to the hospital — a security consultant hired by a lawyer for the victims photographed the cellar door. It was still tied open, and a Sam Adams beer cap was wedged into the locking mechanism. The intercom was also still broken.
Nothing had been done.
It could serve as the corporate motto for some of the city’s landlords who cater to college students. Nothing is done. Or it is done too late.
In this case, the landlords were among the city’s busiest: the brothers Syroos and Sieon Sanieoff. They and the owner of Boston’s Best Realty, the agency that helped the students find the apartment, recently settled a lawsuit by the women for a total of $900,000, according to the victims’ lawyer, Alan Cantor. Boston’s Best Realty rents a storefront office from Syroos Sanieoff near the building and markets many of the brothers’ units.
The women said they hope the settlement deters landlords from negligence and serves as a lesson for student tenants not to settle for dingy, poorly maintained apartments just because they feel they have no choice.
“I don’t think that people understand that it’s not just a cleanliness issue, that it’s actually a safety issue,’’ the former Fisher College student, who now lives in New York’s Westchester County told the Globe.
But if stacks of case files at Boston Housing Court are any guide, the settlement seems unlikely to change the ways of the Sanieoff brothers. Syroos Sanieoff is one of the city’s more incorrigible violators of the state’s sanitary code, and continued to generate complaints after the rapes.
The brothers, who emigrated from Iran a generation ago, belong to a sprawling family that owns and leases hundreds of apartments in the college neighborhoods of Allston, Brighton, and Fenway. A third brother, Parviz Sanieoff, who sued Syroos and Sieon in 2007 in a business dispute, testified in another suit several years later that he had nine brothers and one sister.
Like Anwar N. Faisal, another major landlord who caters to students in Boston, members of the Sanieoff family have repeatedly flouted rental housing regulations, and made a fortune doing so. And, like Faisal, they can operate with routine disregard for their tenants and state laws because the city is ill-equipped to rein them in.
Over the past decade, Syroos Sanieoff has been a defendant in about 70 criminal cases in Boston Housing Court, among the most of city landlords, for problems ranging from bedbug infestations to failing to provide heat and hot water. All the cases appeared to have been closed after Sanieoff fixed the violations.
In a brief telephone interview, Sanieoff, who lives in Brookline, acknowledged that the Suffolk Superior Court lawsuit stemming from the rapes ended with a cash settlement but declined to discuss it further. He and his brother Sieon sold the apartment building in 2011 for $4.2 million.
As for the raft of Housing Court cases, he said he thought he was named as a defendant in only one or two a year and dismissed the severity of the violations. “Most of the cases are mice or roaches outside the building,’’ he said.
But the security lapses that may have let the rapist enter 1325 Commonwealth Ave. three weeks after the roommates moved in were hardly anomalous for buildings he owned or managed.
Since 1999, city inspectors have cited him at least 19 times for apartment doors and exterior doors that failed to lock and for broken buzzer and intercom systems, according to court records.
Kathryn Weinberg, who rented a $1,250-a-month apartment at 1027 Commonwealth Ave. in September 2011 as a graduate student, knows all too well about doors that don’t lock. The building is owned by Sieon Sanieoff and two other family members and managed by Syroos, according to city and court records.
Almost immediately after moving in, Weinberg noticed that a homeless man reeking of alcohol often slept in the lobby between the unlocked front doors of the building and the locked inside doors. That was worrisome enough, Weinberg said. But the lock on the inside doors often broke, and she would see the man sleeping elsewhere in the building.
One day, she said, she opened her second-floor apartment door to leave. He was asleep at her doorstep.
“I had to step over him to get out of my apartment,’’ she recalled. “There’s something alarming when you’re a single woman to have a full-grown drunk man passed out in front of your doorway.’’
Then there is the case of Matthew Fickett, a young architect who said he hired Boston’s Best Realty to help him find a $1,250-a-month apartment at 80 Gordon St. He lived there from September 2009 through August 2011.
Fickett said he repeatedly complained to Sanieoff and then to the city about a variety of infuriating problems — a lack of heat and hot water, a stove with two broken burners, a water leak coming through the ceiling. And another thing: the lobby door didn’t lock.
One day, Fickett recalled, he encountered a repairman in the lobby. “Did you know that a homeless person has been living in the furnace room?’’ Fickett recalled him asking.
Weinberg and Fickett were never injured by intruders. The two roommates at 1325 Commonwealth Ave., a building renowned as the home of Aerosmith in the early 1970s, weren’t so lucky.
When the young women arrived on Sept. 1, 2008, they said, it was obvious that the landlord had not maintained Apartment 41 or cleaned it beforehand. The stove and dishwasher were filthy. Cans of food were left in the refrigerator. There was hair in the bathroom tub. A kitchen window couldn’t be opened.
The Fisher student’s stepfather surveyed the graffiti-covered elevator and dirty apartment on move-in day and scolded her for picking the place, she recalled.
“My response to him was, ‘Well this is what you get here. This is what I can afford,’ ’’ she recalled.
The roommates listed 19 things they wanted cleaned and fixed on an “apartment condition statement’’ and gave it to Michael Chau, the real estate agent who had referred them to the unit, according to the suit. A cleaning crew came over.
Both women mistakenly inferred that Boston’s Best Realty, whose president signed the lease with them, managed the building. The Fisher student said she never heard the name Sanieoff until well after the attacks.
This is an all-too-common misapprehension among young tenants who find apartments through real estate firms. Students typically pay the firms a month’s rent as a fee. They often call the agents shortly after they move in about problems in apartments. Tenants customarily have 15 days to provide a list of deficiencies or risk being charged for repairs when the lease ends.
Two or three weeks after move-in day, the Fisher student called Chau about the open cellar door, she recalled in a deposition.
Chau, who declined requests for an interview, said in his own deposition that he did not remember anyone telling him about it, “but even if they did, I would have referred them back to the landlord.’’
Richard P. Mazzocca, the lawyer for Dakota Enterprises Inc., which does business as Boston’s Best Realty, told the Globe that the company was merely the rental agent for the apartment and not involved in building maintenance or security.
Syroos Sanieoff, who was the landlord, said in a deposition that a laborer he hired to repair bricks tied open the cellar door so he could move materials in and out. Tenants could have called him about security concerns, he added, because he had posted the name and phone number of the building owner on a sign in the lobby, as legally required.
In fact, the sign listed the prior owner of the building, Sanieoff would later admit under oath. This, too, was no anomaly for buildings he owned or managed. The city cited him at least seven times from 2002 to 2009 for failing to have such signs in the lobby, according to Housing Court records.
Following the attacks, the victims withdrew from school and were reimbursed their tuition, they said. They got a decidedly different reception, they said, when they went to Boston’s Best Realty and told an employee they had been raped and were breaking their lease and wanted all their money refunded.
“They laughed in our face,’’ the Fisher student recalled.
The Museum of Fine Arts student, who lives on Long Island now, said, “They showed absolutely no concern for what happened. . . . We were really shocked.’’
Another lawyer for Boston’s Best Realty, Frank L. Fragomeni Jr., denied that anyone laughed off the women’s request. The company “did feel empathy for the young ladies but did and does not in any way feel or believe it was responsible for the events that occurred,’’ he said in an e-mail, adding that the suit was settled with no admission of liability.
The Sanieoff brothers settled the suit for $775,000, Boston’s Best Realty for $125,000, according to the victims’ lawyer. Fragomeni said Boston’s Best Realty didn’t want to settle but its insurer insisted on paying to avoid further litigation costs.
Michael R. Murphy, a lawyer for Syroos Sanieoff, said in an e-mail that the landlord has “great sympathy for the victims’’ and there have been “no findings linking the condition of the property with the commission of the crime.’’
As for the many complaints against Sanieoff at Boston Housing Court, Murphy wrote that as with “almost every substantial landlord, he has received complaints from time to time from municipal inspectional service departments which are processed through the Housing Courts.’’ Sanieoff resolved all the complaints and has only received three in the past 16 months, he added.
The Globe is not identifying the women because they were victims of sexual assault.
The alleged rapist, Marcos A. Colono, was charged in December 2010 based on a DNA sample from one of the women that matched evidence taken from the scene of a violent home invasion in Cambridge. His trial on the rapes is scheduled for June 16.
Both women, who had to take medication to prevent HIV as a precaution after the rapes and have suffered since from depression and anxiety, plan to return to Boston to testify.
“Using that word’’ — rape — “there are so many different scenarios in which it can occur,’’ the former Fisher student said. “And the fact that we were in our own home, and this was an entry into our home is a whole ’nother level. We were not walking in an alley at 3 in the morning. We were doing everything right.’’