The simple mention of the name "Pius" at a code-enforcement summit Tuesday night hosted by Town Councilman Mark Cuthbertson to address what the town is doing to fight crime in Huntington Station brought hisses from the crowd and almost caused an argument, as seen on the video accompanying this article.
The consensus seems to be that Donald Pius has gotten wealthy at the expense of the residents of Huntington Station.
But Pius said that he is tired of being called a slumlord and compared to Mr. Potter, the heartless slumlord who tries to persuade the bank to stop providing home loans for the working poor in the holiday classic movie "It's a Wonderful Life."
"I'm just a businessman," Pius said in an interview Monday.
Educated and employed as an electrical engineer, the 1960 Syosset High School graduate began working at Grumman, Underwriters Laboratories, Aeroflex Laboratories and Consolidated Airborne System.
"I was studying for my Master's degree at C.W. Post and I took this economics course about alternative investing. It was all about how banks work. After that I quit my job and quit college and went into real estate," he said.
He started out as a rental agent.
"Just like most other people, I had nothing to start with. I was renting properties for other landlords who are like I am now," he said. "I'm a real-estate broker. I did great there because nobody else specialized in rentals. We did. We knew all the landlords and the tenants. At times I had 13 agents working in Huntington rentals. After a while, when the property owners wanted to sell their properties they would call me first and I would buy them while they would hold the mortgages."
"I bought my first rental property in 1971 at 68 Rutgers Lane. It had two building lots and I converted it to a legal two-family and sold the building lot," he said.
To be successful in the real estate business, you have to adapt to the conditions and the market, he said. And that's exactly what he did upon learning of a new government program to help lower-income tenants pay their rent.
"I think it was about 1975 and I got a call from Angela Sutton from the Town of Huntington. She said, 'We're having a meeting with all landlords to introduce a new program.' I went and I was the only property owner there," he said. "That was the introduction of the Section 8 program. She explained how everything worked. I recognized it as an opportunity. I started buying as many houses as I could. "
A 1981 New York Times article quotes Pius as saying he purchased about one house each month to rent.
He said at his peak, he paid $750,000 in property taxes each year but he said he has sold many of the homes in recent years.
In the Section 8 program, the government pays 70 percent of the rent and the tenant has to pay 30 percent and that includes utilities.
"There are a lot of rules and regulations," he said. "It's not easy. "Probably anyone else could have done what I did, but they didn't want to put the time in and make the effort. Not everyone wants to do it. You don't sit there collecting money. I wish it were that easy. In the beginning, I was cleaning toilets, painting walls, et cetera. I couldn't afford to hire someone else do it. You do what you have to do."
Now he has a crew of five who are constantly working on or around the houses or apartments.
He said that his apartments are inspected annually by Section 8 and, if the tenant is receiving social services, by that department, as well.
"The inspectors are very strict," he said. "You have to have smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, they must be freshly painted, there can be no overcrowding, et cetera."
He said that people complain about the condition of his apartments but said that the tenants create the damage after they move in.
"When a person moves in, it's in perfect condition," he said. "It has to be. If a tenant is being evicted, they call the town and they say they're living in a slum and the town comes to take pictures of the holes in the walls and the cat pee on the carpets and the leaks and the lack of smoke detectors. This is what the tenants created. It is not like that when they move in. Believe me, the law protects the tenants not the landlord."
He bristles at suggestions that he is responsible for the crime in Huntington Station.
"Everybody assumes because I'm the landlord I bring the crime," he said. "If I didn't own the apartments and rent them someone else would. Do you think I could rent a house that was falling apart? They would be on my back in a second. They give me violations, sometimes two a week, so I have to be right on top of everything. But that's the way it is. People blame the landlord for all the ills of society. If I know a tenant is dealing drugs, how do I evict them? I don't watch them. I can't prove it. I'm not there 24/7 I'm not a policeman."
He said that all of the homes he is associated with are legal. "A lot of other people rent else illegal apartments and they don't check them. With me, they check my [certificates of occupancy] with a microscope."
He said that he doesn't own his houses personally, but rather in a limited partnership.
Two of his partnerships are Catco Associates and Community Properties.
He said he is frustrated with the Town of Huntington's new $75 registration fee for Section 8 apartments and penalties for non-compliance.
"It's just another tax," he said.
He seems to have a love-hate relationship with the town—and vice versa— and said they can be very disingenuous but said he still tries to work with them.
He said he became involved with the Huntington Station Enrichment Center at the behest of Director Delores Thompson.
"What happened was the center was located where the [Huntington Public Library's Station Branch] is now. Every year I was donating to different charities—I gave over a million to the Family Service League and half a million [dollars] to the enrichment center in mortgage receivables. That means, you're like the bank. You collect the money every month. It was worth $350,000."
"Dee Thompson told me they really wanted their own place because they were overcrowded where they were and I bought the buildings and let her move in to the present location. She was paying rent to me but using the monthly payments from the mortgage receivable," he said. "There came a point in time when the enrichment center needed money so I bought the mortgage back from them and gave them the cash to work with."
Eventually they ran out of money and couldn't pay the rent. So I said, 'Well, I'm going to have to evict you. I can't afford to just let you stay there for free.' The town asked me not to evict her and said it would pay the back rent and purchase the building. I said okay. After about four months everything was approved through the town board. They were going to buy it for a million-and-a-half [dollars]. Then one day they said, 'We changed our mind. Do what you have to do.' I proceeded with the eviction. Before that happened the town moved to the enrichment center to the Big H [Shopping Center]. I started a lawsuit again the Town of Huntington to recover the back rent of $120,000, which they had promised to pay."
It was another request from Thompson that brought the enrichment center back to its current location, he said.
"The enrichment center was located in the Big H for six to eight months, maybe a year and Dee Thompson came to me and said, 'They don't like us here and we have no signs and no one can find us and we don't want to stay. We want to go back to the other place.' I said, 'You know what? I'll donate the building to the Community Development Association and make sure you can stay there for free.'"
I went back to the town and agreed to donate the building for free, as long as the enrichment center could stay there but I said I also want the back rent you promised to pay me. I said that I would settle the rent lawsuits if they paid me $100,000, and $2,500 per month rent from the two apartments, located in the adjacent building I donated to them, would go to an annual scholarship in my name for 15 years.
The town agreed but seems to have a somewhat different version of events, he said.
"The town's position is that they bought the building from me. They didn't purchase it from me. They settled my lawsuit for the back rent and I donated the building to them."
That was three years ago and since then 15 students have been given the Don Pius Scholarship Award ago. This year the five $2,000 scholarship winners were selected out of 28 applications, but their names have not yet been announced.
Students may contact their high school guidance counselors or the Town of Huntington Department of Human Services at (631) 351-3058 to find out more about the scholarship application package.