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SCHENECTADY : Bedbugs have tenants, landlords at odds
Policy splits responsibility by location
February 9, 2014
BY KATHLEEN MOORE Gazette Reporter
Tenants and landlords are struggling with a city policy that divides responsibility for bedbugs.
If only one apartment is affected, the tenant must pay all the costs for extermination, Building Inspector Eric Shilling said. But if bedbugs are found anywhere else — even in a hallway — the landlord is responsible for the entire bill.
Extermination isn’t cheap. Exterminators who spray must often return three or more times. Those who use heat often can eliminate the bugs in one day, but the service costs more.
At Superior Bedbug Service, owner Chris Wild said it would cost $850 to treat the typical onebedroom apartment.
Tenants have been stunned by the prices. “That’s a lot of money,” said Deb Rembert, the leader of a citywide tenant organization.
She said many tenants would not be able to pay it. Landlords said they don’t think the tenants can pay, either.
“There’s no tenant who can pay that,” said Chris Morris, leader of Schenectady Landlords Influencing Change. “He [Shilling] can say that, but get it to happen? Like blood from a stone.”
Other landlords said they worry tenants are moving out to avoid the bedbugs and unwittingly bringing them to other units. That spreads the problem further.
The longer they wait, the harder and more expensive it is to exterminate the bugs, according to Wild.
“They spread like wildfire,” he said. “If you get it soon, you can get it all. If you have a zillion bedbugs, it’s really hard.”
In those cases, he said, exterminators generally have to return for more treatments.
Both Morris and Shilling said tenants are to blame for most bedbugs.
“By and large, the people we are talking about are people who are not so careful about their surroundings,” Morris said.
Bedbugs are widespread in the Northeast — even hiding in library books, hotel rooms and upscale homes. Morris acknowledged that was true.
“But how many of them go to hotels?” she said.
Shilling said he came up with the rule because many tenants called to complain their landlords wouldn’t pay for extermination.
“We had to do something, and it was common sense, knowing people do bring furniture in from stray places, they visit places that might not be the cleanest,” he said.
Experts agree the two best ways to prevent bedbugs are to never bring in furniture from the curb and to wrap boxsprings and mattresses with special bags. The bags can be purchased from Amazon for $8.
SLIC advises landlords to ban furniture scavenging, according to its sample lease. But Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo said anti-bedbug bags might be the long-term solution.
She suggested landlords be required to have bags on hand to get their rental certificate. The bags prevent infestations by stopping bedbugs from climbing up a bed to feast on an unmoving human.
If bugs are already in the mattress, they will die after the mattress is enclosed by the bag for a year, as long as rips are immediately covered with duct tape, according to New York City health officials.
Perazzo said landlords might see the cost of a few bags as an investment.
“It would prevent or contain an infestation,” she said.
Wild has found his own way of negotiating the argument over who will pay for extermination.
“The tenant never has any money. The landlord needs to protect their asset. Eventually, they’re going to move out, and the landlord is going to be stuck with the bill anyway,” he said. “I always try to get people to split it.”
Morris agreed. Rather than living with bedbugs, she said, tenants should explain the situation to their landlord.
“It seems to me if there was a decent relationship between the tenant and the landlord, at least [the cost] should be discussed,” she said. “Maybe it could be shared.”
BY MICHAEL GORMLEY The Associated Press
The winless Giants aren’t the only New Yorkers having a tough fall.
A report out Wednesday by a national tax watch group put New York in the cellar among states when comparing the complexity of tax codes and tax rates. The national Tax Foundation ranked New York at 50th, behind New Jersey and California. New York’s individual income tax ranking was 49th.
The business group Unshackle Upstate says the ranking is further evidence that bold, broad-based tax relief is needed for families and businesses.
“We must take bold steps to improve our job-killing tax climate,” said Brian Sampson of Unshackle Upstate. “A stronger economy starts with lower taxes, and the Tax Foundation’s report shows that we’ve got work to do.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has established two tax commissions that will recommend ways to simplify the tax law and cut taxes.
Cuomo and the Legislature have extended an income tax surcharge on top earners and a business tax that together have generated more than $2 billion in additional tax revenue annually since 2010. That election year, Cuomo and legislators promised no new taxes.
Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said the Tax Foundation’s conclusions conflict with other performance measures.
He said the state unemployment rate is 6.9 percent, which is under the national rate of 7.3 percent, and Forbes magazine recently ranked New York 21st among states in comparing business climates.
“Over the last three years, New York State has added more than 300,000 private-sector jobs, received a positive outlook from Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s (credit rating services), reduced barriers and lowered taxes for businesses and put the state on secure fiscal footing,” Azzopardi said.
City hired new housing inspector but has seen no increase in fees paid
BY KATHLEEN MOORE Gazette Reporter Reach Gazette reporter Kathleen Moore at 395-3120 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Building Inspector Eric Shilling’s promises of sky-high revenue from rental certificates have fallen short, the City Council learned Wednesday.
He had hoped to raise $402,000, and the City Council added a housing inspector to help him meet that revenue goal, at a cost of $37,000 in salary plus benefi ts.
The actual amount of money raised so far was not released, but it was about the same as last year’s $115,000.
He’s projecting to raise $150,000 next year, or $35,000 more than 2012, still not enough to cover the inspector’s salary.
Shilling said getting landlords to cooperate with rental inspections will take years. He is now hoping to get 35 percent of the city’s landlords to comply by the end of next year, up from 20 percent now.
“We really want to push that up in years to come,” he said. “That’s going to keep us busy.”
While inspections will improve the housing stock, he added, it won’t be easy for the department to inspect every apartment in the city.
“It’s going to tax the resources,” he said.
And that might spell an end to the neighborhood code sweeps.
The department does 12 sweeps over the course of the warmer months each year, but Shilling said they aren’t finding serious violations.
Inspectors mostly give out “scrape and paint” notices, he said. But because they spend days on the sweeps and then going back to reinspect, valuable time is consumed in the process.
“It takes an enormous amount of time for low-priority issues,” Shilling said. “I’d rather focus that activity on high-priority issues.” He wants to focus on large apartment buildings.
“That’s where your problems are,” he said.
He described one large building in the Stockade neighborhood that had nine blocked exits, creating a hazard to residents in the event of a fi re.
Inspectors discovered the situation when a complaint about a different issue brought them to the site.
They left with pages of code violations, Shilling said.
The owner is working with code officers to resolve the problems, he added.
“The fact is that we have thousands of these units that were never addressed,” he said.
Mayor Gary McCarthy added that he is pleased with Shilling’s performance, despite the low rental certifi cate revenue.
“Eric has really done a great job,” he said. “We’re not stopping. It may take us longer than people would like.”
He added that until revenues increase, he can’t add inspectors to the department.
“Eric would like to staff it at a higher level [but we] have to match it to the resources,” he said.
Shilling noted that inspectors brought in $217,000 in 2012 in vacant building fees, mainly by fi nding vacant buildings and ordering their owners to pay up.
That work continued this year, he said.
The council will hold a public hearing on the budget at 7 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall. Before the meeting, the council will hold a review session at 5 p.m. to go over part of the general services budget.
BY KATHLEEN MOORE Gazette Reporter
A landlord facing up to $100,000 in fines for violating Schenectady’s rental certificate law is challenging the law’s constitutionality in court.
The law requires landlords to submit to an inspection of every apartment before they are rented. Many landlords have complained the law is an unreasonable search, which is barred by the U.S. Constitution. But the last landlord to make that argument in court was facing severe code violations, and the judge ruled against him in state Supreme Court in Schenectady County.
This case is different, though. Mohammed Hafez owns several properties in Bellevue, which he says are so well-kept they cannot be distinguished from the owner-occupied houses around them. No code violations have been cited against them.
If he had told the city he was renting them out and demanded code enforcers get a warrant before entering his premises, he might have become the fi rst landlord in the city to win permission to rent without an inspection.
Deputy Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico said if the city could not prove in court it needed a warrant because of code violations in Hafez’s buildings, Hafez would have been allowed to rent without inspections. But Hafez didn’t ask for permission.
In the same type of search that caught hundreds of other landlords, the city found Hafez was renting apartments by researching property deeds and tax bills. Then code enforcers sent him a letter: Follow the inspection law, or face a daily fine for fl outing it.
Hafez refused. In court, city attorneys said they want a $100,000 fi ne.
Hafez could have agreed to inspections to avoid the fine, but he said he wanted to fight the law — all the way, if necessary, to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. Hafez’s attorney, Glen Brownell, said he explained the cost, and Hafez still wanted to go forward.
“I told him it all comes down to how much you want to spend to prove a principle,” Brownell said.
Now Brownell is filing motions regarding the constitutionality of the law. It will likely be months before a trial date is set. His arguments center around the inspection.
In response to other court rulings, the city wrote its law with the provision that inspectors would get a search warrant if a landlord refused to let them in. Brownell said he’s waiting to see if inspectors actually get a warrant.
Falotico said landlords have the right to tell code enforcement to get a warrant, rather than submitting to an inspection. But they can’t rent their apartments until the inspectors get a warrant or are denied one in court.
“Most people don’t want to wait for the amount of time that takes. They would prefer to get tenants in there and start making money,” he said.
Brownell said that would backfire on the city. If the inspectors can’t prove there are code violations in the apartment, he said, no judge will give them a warrant.
Falotico said city inspectors are usually “prepared for any contingency” and could argue their case in court. Some violations can be seen from the exterior, and tenants often report violations to the city.
But he agreed the inspectors would be denied if they have no evidence of code violations.
“In order to get a warrant, we’d have to show there are code violations in that building,” he said.
If the city can’t get a warrant, he added, the landlord can start renting the apartment.
“If we can’t get it, that’s how it is,” he said.
But the key is that landlords must wait until then.
“They cannot put tenants in that property until we’ve had an opportunity to apply for that warrant,” he said.
Hafez rented his apartments without telling the city to get a warrant. Falotico thinks that will sink Hafez in court.
“The allegations [regarding constitutionality] don’t affect what he’s in court for now,” Falotico said. “Landlords want to rent first, and that you cannot do.”
Landlords’ group eyes form as new standard
BY KATHLEEN MOORE Gazette Reporter
A new lease that bans barbecuing, forces tenants to pay for pest removal and asks invasive questions may become the new standard lease in Schenectady.
The group Schenectady Landlords Infl uencing Change has been working on a standard lease, which all of its members could use. The initial goal was to get members to use a lease at all, but it grew into a six-page document designed to protect landlords and minimize their costs.
SLIC organizer Chris Morris said the lease was stricter than most landlords would consider necessary — and that was a good thing.
“You can always back off on them if individual things come up,” she said. “Once they do something, it’s really difficult to turn it around.”
Some landlords spend months going through eviction court hearings over issues that could have been avoided by banning certain activity from the start. Morris has argued that clear rules are the bedrock of a good tenant-landlord relationship. RENTERS’ GROUP SURPRISED
But the leader of Schenectady’s new tenant group, Deb Rembert, was stunned by some of the stricter provisions.
If a landlord promises that a unit will be ready by a certain date, and it is not, the tenant can’t break the lease, according to the terms set out in the document. They can only walk away if the unit still isn’t ready 30 days later.
“The landlord already broke the lease,” Rembert said in disbelief. “They can’t do that. If that tenant says, ‘OK, I’m going to look somewhere else,’ they should be able to do that.”
Landlord Mitch Goldstein, who was instrumental in writing the lease, said landlords should be protected from losing a tenant because of an emergency.
A fair solution would be to send a tenant to a motel and split the bill, he said.
“He knows he’s going to be liable for damages,” Goldstein added. “It doesn’t need to say that in the lease.”
But 30 days is a long time to wait. Rembert said the landlord should instead return the tenant’s security deposit and first month’s rent so that the tenant could find another apartment. ‘DISCOUNT’ PROVISION
The proposed lease also hides the true cost of the apartment.
At a recent meeting about the lease, SLIC attorney Sarah Green encouraged landlords to write down a rent that was several hundred dollars higher than it actually is, while offering tenants a “discount” to the actual rent if they pay before the fifth of the month. Landlords would advertise the unit at the discounted price.
The higher amount could be used by the landlord to maximize the amount of money they could get from the tenant if they have to evict, Green said.
Judges don’t like large late-payment fees, but they will approve the payment of the non-discounted rent, she explained.
Such legal maneuverings made Rembert decide that tenants need an attorney.
“I think that’s dishonest,” she said. “We need a lawyer. Now they have a lawyer, and we need one to counteract some of what the landlord group does.”
Morris called the rent discount a “tactic” and said she eliminated it from her leases long ago.
“I took that out. I wanted to be able to state the rent,” she said. PEST POLICY AT ISSUE
The lease also forces tenants to take on a responsibility that the state requires of landlords. If pests invade after the first week, the tenant must pay for pest-removal services, even though state law says pest control is the landlord’s responsibility.
Schenectady Homeownership Coordinator Ahmad Yusufi said tenants should cross out that section when signing the lease and get help from an attorney.
But Rembert said she doubted landlords would let her change a lease.
“I’m pretty sure if tenants don’t sign this, landlords will say, ‘You can’t habitate in our premises,’ ” she said.
If they do sign, they might have to go to court to find out who has to pay for pest control.
City Deputy Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico said the landlord might still have to pay. In general, he said, a lease can’t supersede state law. He wasn’t sure how a judge would rule on the matter, though.
Logistically, the provision could also be complicated. Many pestcontrol services only offer yearlong contracts, creating problems in cases where the tenant’s lease expires before their contract. In those cases, tenants could wind up paying for pest control months after moving out.
Rembert said most tenants would not be able to afford a service anyway.
“That means they will be living with pests for the duration of their time in that apartment,” she said.
But Morris argued vehemently in favor of the provision, saying tenants cause most infestations.
“One would assume, if something of that nature is there, it’s because of something they’re doing,” she said. NO BARBECUE, BABYSITTING
The lease also prohibits some common activities, including barbecuing. The lease forbids tenants from storing a barbecue grill, even though many units have backyards large enough to operate a grill safely.
That prohibition doesn’t violate state law, Yusufi said.
“But personally, I don’t think tenants should be prevented,” he said. “The landlord should not take the tenant’s rights away to enjoy the property he is paying for.”
Goldstein said that although he will use the standard lease with his tenants, he would never stop a tenant from barbecuing.
“If somebody says, ‘I want a barbecue,’ you just cross it out,” he said. “If someone wants to barbecue, I’m not going to have any objection, zero. But some landlords, they have had experiences where the barbecue has been an issue.”
The lease also requires tenants to pay for carpet cleaning once a year and bans all business activity — including babysitting. That would keep small business activity from “getting out of control,” Morris said.
But Rembert said many tenants have side businesses — selling crafts on Etsy or occasional babysitting — and shouldn’t be prohibited.
“I don’t think the landlord should have that kind of power,” she said, “as long as it’s not damaging the property. However, the landlord should make it clear, if your business gets out of hand, I’m going to have to ask you to refrain. Let the tenant and the landlord agree on that, and then the tenant can sign something to that effect.” CREDIT CARD NUMBERS
With the lease comes a standard application SLIC has also proposed for all of its members. The application asks renters to list a credit card number, the expiration date of the card, the name on the card and the security number on the back.
Goldstein said he asks for the credit card information so he can recoup unpaid rent or payment for damages after a tenant leaves.
“It’s a self-protection measure. Often someone will leave and monies will be owed,” he said. “If you have a credit card number, you have a chance to make yourself whole.”
But an unauthorized credit card charge sounds a lot like stealing, Rembert said.
“To jack the tenant up, that’s wrong,” she said, adding that the landlord should use the security deposit to cover damages or unpaid rent.
Landlords would also take a huge risk by keeping credit card information, Yusufi said. If someone broke into their files and used the cards, the landlord would be responsible.
“The tenant can suffer identify theft,” he said, adding that tenants could sue the landlord for damages. TENANTS’ PAST LAWSUITS
The application also asks renters if they have ever been sued or sued a person or corporation. Those questions are listed in the same box with questions about bankruptcy and felony convictions. The intent was to find out whether tenants regularly sued landlords, Goldstein said.
“That would be important to know about,” he said.
But Rembert worried a tenant might be rejected for an apartment because of a long-ago lawsuit.
“It can become a prejudice against us. They will then decide they won’t have you on their property,” she said.
Overall, she said, she was dismayed by the proposed standard lease and application.
“The landlords are having way too much power,” she said. “Now that they have an attorney, that’s going to be a step up for them and a step down for the tenants.”
She wants to raise funds for a tenants’ group attorney, with hope the two groups’ attorneys could meet and hammer out the “best lease” for both sides.
“We should collaborate,” she said. “Some of the landlords are just what we say: slumlords. And that will give them too much power.” ‘A STARTING POINT’
Goldstein argued the lease is just a starting point.
“It is a strong lease,” he said, explaining that “you just throw in everything, including the kitchen sink, even if it sounds silly.”
Then landlords can make accommodations with each individual tenant. They don’t just enforce the letter of the law, he said.
“There is also the spirit. Landlords are people, and they are dealing with people,” he said.
The landlord group, SLIC, will next meet on Sept. 3 at 6:30 p.m. in the Price Chopper Community Room.
The tenant group, STAMP, will next meet Sept. 19 at 6:30 p.m. in the McChesney Room at the main branch of the Schenectady County Public Library.
BY KATHLEEN MOORE Gazette Reporter Reach Gazette reporter Kathleen Moore at 395-3120 or email@example.com.
Schenectady’s landlords received strongly worded advice from their own attorney Tuesday: Follow the rental inspection law.
At a meeting of Schenectady Landlords Influencing Change, attorney Sarah Green told them that a member of the group had been fined $100,000 for renting apartments without first getting them inspected.
Another Schenectady landlord was fined nearly $400,000, she said.
The room hushed as she listed the fi nes.
“They were penalized severely,” she said. “The ongoing fi nes, they are daily accruing fi nes. There’s interest and penalties on top of them.”
And, she added, landlords who refuse to get their properties inspected are making the entire organization look bad.
She said the city would offer a “more welcoming attitude” to SLIC “if we can say all of our group are in compliance.”
At issue is not just the cost of inspections — $50 per apartment — but also the specific items checked by the inspectors.
Some landlords complain that the inspections are subjective, with no clear delineation between a minor problem and a code violation. They recently pushed for a list of inspection items, but the checklist they got included items like “windows,” with no description of what window-related items would be grounds for failing an inspection.
Some landlords also said that inspectors are harder on some people than others and treat some people unfairly.
But, Green said, SLIC can’t complain about inspections when members of the group are breaking the inspection law altogether.
“I think that if we are in compliance as a group, then when a violation comes up that doesn’t seem to be quite supported [by evidence], we will have an opportunity to talk with [Building Inspection Eric] Shilling, with the other code enforcers, and have that violation removed,” she said. “They’re not going to be as receptive to you as if you had been in compliance.” She added that they should just do it.
“You may not love it. You do it because you need to do it,” she said. “This is just a cost of business that is going to have to be absorbed.” Some landlords spoke up in support, saying that they have had no trouble with their inspections when they treated the inspectors with respect.
But one landlord objected, saying that he was stymied when he went to City Hall to ask for an inspection.
He was told he had to provide proof of property insurance, a requirement he balked at because, he said, it wasn’t a state law.
Green told him it was a city law to prevent “another rotting building” abandoned by its owners after a fi re.
He was not persuaded.
Landlord Mitch Goldstein urged the group to record every inspection with their cellphones. That, he said, could help the landlords prove their case against inspections.
“Just as inspectors require landlords comply with their demands, SLIC suggests all inspectors be held to high standards,” he said.
He asked landlords to upload their audio recordings to a SLIC website (currently under development ) so that SLIC could compile evidence proving that inspections were capricious and subjective.
BY KATHLEEN MOORE
A landlord who rented out units
with broken windows, leaky ceilings
and holes in the walls was
fi ned $85,400 for code violations
Landlord Edward Kahn was
found guilty of 254 code violations
at 33 Swan St. after a two-day
trial before City Court Judge Mark
Deputy Corporation Counsel
Carl Falotico, who prosecuted the
case, said the large fi ne sent a “clear
message” to landlords.
“The city of Schenectady takes
prosecutions of building code cases
seriously and we will ensure that
those responsible for the violations
are held accountable,” he said.
Kahn attempted in court to prove
that he was no longer the owner of
the building, presenting a deed that
showed him passing ownership to
Ana A. Acosta on Jan. 18, 2012.
Inspectors fi rst cited the building
in February 2012.
Blanchfi eld noted in his written
decision that the deed was not fi led
with the county clerk until June 4,
2012. He also noted that inspector
Heidi Pashley testifi ed that Kahn
was present at almost all of her
site visits, used his own keys to
unlock apartments, paid a $500
fi ne and communicated with the
Codes Department to schedule an
Pashley also provided photographs
of broken windows, garbage
strewn throughout the yard and a
deteriorated interior ceiling.
She testifi ed that she observed
leaking ceilings in the second-fl oor
rear apartment, as well as holes in
the walls and fl oors, and an unattached
bathroom vanity in the fi rst
fl oor rear apartment. She said she
also saw holes under the kitchen
and bathroom sinks and a leaking
ceiling in a rear enclosed porch.
Kahn continued to rent out the
apartments despite a year of code
violations, Blanchfi eld wrote.
Pashley also testifi ed that she
caught him building a deck without
a permit in May, 2012. But Blanchfi
eld said she couldn’t prove that
he had begun work before she arrived,
and acquitted Kahn on those
Blanchfi eld acquitted Kahn of 100
code violations, saying that Pashley
could not prove beyond a reasonable
doubt that there were holes
in walls and ceilings from Feb. 1
to May 10, 2012. But he wrote that
Pashley was able to prove, through
photographs, that the conditions
existed from May 17 through June
Pashley said the problems were
fi nally corrected, after multiple inspections,
in January 2013.
Blanchfi eld convicted Kahn on
118 counts of having broken windows;
100 counts of leaving garbage
in open areas; 18 counts of allowing
holes in interior walls and fl oors;
and 18 counts of general code violations.
The garbage counts turned out to
be the most expensive. Under city
code guidelines for fi nes, Kahn was
charged $500 a day for the garbage,
and only $100 a day for the broken
windows and other code violations.
He must pay the city by July 31.
Kahn could not be reached for
comment for this story.
Reach Gazette reporter
Kathleen Moore at 395-3120 or
City to send tickets that include fines
Sunday, April 28, 2013
By Kathleen Moore (Contact)
SCHENECTADY — Sending letters to landlords has not led to a deluge of owners signing up for property inspections.
It’s been more like a trickle.
Out of the first 100 letters, 20 percent of the landlords have agreed to let city inspectors look at their rental property. The other 80 percent have ignored the letters altogether.
On Wednesday, they’ll be sent a ticket with fines for each apartment that they have rented without a rental inspection.
Building Inspector Eric Shilling is hoping the tickets will persuade more landlords to open their doors.
“We’ll see if those are motivational,” he said.
If that doesn’t work, he will go to court to ask for search warrants.
He is determined to inspect every occupied apartment in the city.
“That’s our obligation,” he said. “This cannot be ignored. There is life safety at risk here.”
He could also enact a stiffer penalty: issuing an order to vacate the rental building.
If he can’t inspect the apartments, he said, he could take that route.
“We’d have to consider the apartment unsafe, and at that point any occupation is illegal and we’d have to vacate the building,” he said. “Then they lose everything.”
He’s urging landlords to just let him inspect instead. The inspections cost $50.
“Is that [order to vacate] worth $50? That’s what they’re weighing, I guess,” he said.
Landlord Mohammed Hafez was stunned to hear that Shilling was willing to go to such lengths.
“I don’t know why they’re going through all this,” he said. “Why can’t they just take care of the outside?”
He said the inspections were intended simply to collect money for the cash-strapped city. He decried it as harassment.
“We don’t pose any serious or immediate threat to the tenants,” he said. “Because if we do, they would call the city. They would call and complain.”
Building inspectors disagreed, citing the number of fires in the city. They said inspections could ensure that wiring systems were safe and that the buildings were structurally sound.
They said that was particularly important with Schenectady’s old housing stock.
Shilling emphasized that landlords who agree will not be penalized for ignoring the inspection law until now.
“We gave everybody the opportunity, at no penalty, to go ahead and do this,” he said.
Landlords will only be ticketed if they do not schedule an inspection within 30 days of receiving their letter.
Inspectors started the enforcement effort by researching owners of property on Union Street; next month, another 200 owners will be notified by letter that they must get their properties inspected.