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City to send tickets that include fines

Sunday, April 28, 2013

By Kathleen Moore (Contact)
Gazette Reporter

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.”

Fire concerns

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.

Housing issues concern tenants

Monday, April 22, 2013

By Kathleen Moore (Contact)
Gazette Reporter

SCHENECTADY — First there was a landlords association. Now, tenants are organizing.

The group’s first meeting is at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the McChesney Room of the Central Library.

Organizer Deborah Rembert called for tenants to attend “to stand up and make a change with slum landlords in our community.”

The tenants’ voices were all but silent during the months-long negotiation of new apartment inspection rules. Tenants didn’t speak at the public hearings or hold private meetings with city officials, as the landlords did.

Landlords in the Schenectady Landlords Influencing Change group argued that inspections should not be required at all. But Rembert said the tenants would likely support inspections.

“I think that we should get very serious about the inspections of these properties,” she said. “No one wants to live in dilapidated, infested housing. They want to have housing that is safe, and suitable for their children.”

But she added that most tenants don’t think the apartment inspection law is particularly relevant to their lives. Most tenants have never lived in an apartment that was inspected by the city.

“It’s a joke,” Rembert said of the program.

Still, she said she doesn’t entirely blame the landlords who rent out buildings in disrepair.

Some common ground

She attended a SLIC meeting and came away with some sympathy.

“They don’t have adequate money,” she said. “Landlords are saying, ‘I’d like to fix my place but because I have to pay so much in taxes, it takes away from my income.’ ”

Still, she said, something must be done.

“People are getting injured in houses like that. You hear about all these fires,” she said.

She wants tenants to brainstorm ideas on how to work with landlords to improve housing.

Her idea is to get the city to offer matching grants to landlords.

“Give them an incentive. If you do this, we’ll match whatever you have to try to better your property,” she said.

She also wants to link tenants and landlords.

“We have to work together,” she said. “Most of them seemed to really care. They want to be better landlords. Those landlords want to work with the tenants but they don’t know how to do it.”

Meeting sought

Landlord group organizer Chris Morris said she’s eager to meet with a tenants group so they could collaborate.

She wants tenants to learn not only their rights, but also their responsibilities.

The first one: insist on a lease.

That way, tenants know what they’re supposed to do.

“If I leave my garbage here, I’m going to get called on it,” Morris said. “Expect that you’re going to be held accountable.”

She also wants landlords to be more careful about who they accept as a tenant.

“I’m saying to the landlords, you need to talk to them, interview them, do a background check,” she said.

She wants to tell tenants that landlords might refuse them.

“We’re going to be paying attention to people who are being evicted. Your past will follow you,” she said. “You’re judged by what you’ve done and by the company you keep.”

She also said it would be helpful for tenants to understand fully the rules of any rent subsidy, such as Section 8 inspection rules or when payments occur.

Too often, she said, tenants give landlords misinformation because they don’t understand the intricate rules of whatever program is helping them.

But she added that tenants should also look at landlords and their apartments carefully before deciding where to live.

“It’s important for a tenant to know what they’re getting into, to look at the situation carefully,” she said.

April 5, 2013
BY KATHLEEN MOORE Gazette Reporter
The crackdown on apartment inspections has begun.
Using public documents, city building inspectors have made a list of properties likely to be rented out. Starting with the Union Street area, they sent out 120 letters this week to the owners of those properties. In each letter, they told the owner to register as a landlord and have their apartments inspected within 30 days.
Landlords were taken aback, even though city officials have warned for six months they would crack down on landlords who flout the apartment inspection law. Robert Burgess, who got a letter for an apartment he owns off Broadway, said he didn’t think many landlords would let inspectors onto their property.
“It’s not realistic,” he said.
He also questioned why he got a letter. Code enforcer Mel Bailor said the letters focused on the Union Street area, but Burgess got a letter for a house on the other side of the city, on Fourth Street.
Burgess was one of several landlords who criticized the inspection law at recent City Council meetings, speaking during privilege of the floor with other members of Schenectady Landlords Infl uencing Change. He said he isn’t sure whether he will let city workers inspect his apartments.
“I’m thinking about my options,” he said.
He could hire an attorney and challenge the law. Another landlord, Andrew Wisoff, tried that in 2007 and lost, but he also faced serious code violations, which hurt his case.
Last year, in Wisoff’s fi nal appeal, the inspection program was declared constitutional by state Supreme Court in Schenectady County. Judge Vito C. Caruso said Schenectady’s law was clearly constitutional.
“Schenectady’s ordinance expressly provides that where consent is refused, the inspection is undertaken pursuant to warrant,” he wrote in his decision.
To get the warrant, city offi cials must show they have reason to believe the unit is a rental. Code enforcers struggled with that in the past, overstepping the bounds of the law by opening mailboxes to look at mail.
But they were retrained after they lost some cases in court because of their actions. This time, city officials determined what properties were rentals by perusing public records. They looked at every house classified as a two family or more on the assessment roll, and pulled up STAR exemptions to see if the owner was claiming the house as a primary residence.
They also used deeds and property tax data to determine who owned the building, then crossreferenced the addresses with their inspection certificates to see which owners weren’t having the units inspected. They also checked to see if owners of properties they didn’t live at had registered as landlords.
They quickly found 120 landlords that weren’t following the city’s laws, said Bailor, who is running the crackdown.
“There’s buildings we haven’t been in since way before the [inspection ] program started,” he said. “Safety is the major concern.”
He wants to check each building’s electrical system, water and sewer pipes, structural integrity and smoke alarms.
“So that whole area will be up to code. There won’t be any major [electrical] fires or water breaks,” he said. “Believe me, we’ve seen it all.”
In recent years, an apartment building’s walls collapsed suddenly from a longstanding structural failure and another building was rented despite exterior walls with large holes.
In several cases, apartment buildings have burned down because of unsafe wiring. And every winter, some tenants report their furnaces aren’t working — a serious safety issue.
Bailor plans to speak at a Schenectady Landlords Influencing Change meeting, in hopes of persuading landlords to submit to inspections.
“If we can all work together and get this thing in compliance — it’s based on the safety of the tenants,” he said.
He has spoken to a few landlords already about the crackdown. He characterized them as willing to comply.
“They were open to it., and to the fact that, ‘OK, you’re not just targeting me,’ ” he said. “We’re not. We’re doing the whole city.”
The next area to get letters will be Van Vranken Avenue, he said, followed by State Street.
By the end of the year, he hopes to get to “the little side streets” that might be missed as city offi – cials focus on the main corridors of the city.

BY KATHLEEN MOORE Gazette Reporter
Dozens of commercial properties taken through foreclosure will be sold at auction instead of going through the contractor rehab program, Mayor Gary McCarthy said.
“They’re really commercial properties, multi-family residences, that don’t fi t into the goal of owner-occupied property,” Mc-Carthy said.
The city will sell 30 to 50 properties through Collar City Auctions by late April or early May, Zoning Offi cer Steve Strichman said. Bidders will submit proposals, with a minimum bid and specifi c repair work required.
The City Council will approve each sale, and buyers will pay the city while also paying a fee to Collar City Auctions for facilitating the process. The auction house is not charging the city for its services.
Meanwhile, contractors are still waiting to bid on houses they can rehab and quickly flip for a profit. That part of the project was supposed to begin last year.
It got off to a slow start, with the fi rst few buyers purchasing buildings for themselves rather than rehabbing them to resell. But Building Inspector Eric Shilling said the fi rst fi ve to seven true rehabs will be put up for bid this month, and should be rehabbed quickly.
Contractors will be able to walk through those houses at an April 21 city-wide open house, Shilling said. Then they can bid on them, with the lowest bid winning the rehab project. Contractors don’t get paid until the house sells.
Shilling said rolling out the project turned out to be much more complicated than he expected. He needed to get “conceptual approval” from all levels of city government before accepting bids, he said. Otherwise, he said, contractors would get bogged down in bureaucracy.
“They’re not used to the [City Council] committee cycle and going back multiple times. They’re able to act very, very quickly,” he said. “I need conceptual approval so this thing could move at private sector speed.”
Some contractors might bid on a project because it can fit between two other projects, and would back out if the project is delayed, he said.
“Then we lose that contractor. We need to keep pace with their scheduling needs,” he said.
Now he believes contractors will be able to speed through the process, which includes bidding on a house, getting approval from the City Council and picking up the building permits needed to start work.
He’s enthusiastic about selling other property through Collar City Auctions as well. Some “distressed” residences will be auctioned off in the future, he said, adding that those houses wouldn’t work for the contractor program because the contractor wouldn’t make a profit. But a landlord willing to “put a lot of sweat equity into them” might consider it a good deal, he said.
“We came to realize as we dug deeper and deeper into this … we have to present a host of options and avenues,” he said.

Partial Daily Gazette article April 2, 2013 …

In other business, the council decided to press ahead with the proposed amendments to the rental inspection law, rather than making the changes proposed by some landlords.

The inspection checklist is now the publicly available, which fulfills the council’s last objection on the issue.

They also learned that the tenants’ names, listed on the inspection certificates, are not available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act.

That relieved their concerns that a victim of domestic abuse could be found by an abuser through FOIA.

City workers also said they wanted the names of every tenant, including children, so that they could be sure of finding every resident during a fire.

Porterfield proposed a compromise in which only the children’s names and genders were listed, but Building Inspector Eric Shilling said that would lead to confusion if a child had friends over when a fire broke out.

“It’s very important that it’s not just a 16-year-old we’re looking for, it’s Bill,” he said.

Perazzo said she was ready to approve the measure.

“I think there’s a lot of things we can look at, but this sets a benchmark,” she said.

Erikson added, “What we have here is better than what we have on the books currently. We’re making progress. We’re moving in the right direction.”

The council will vote next Monday.

Sch’dy landlord is misinformed about rental inspection law

Re Mohamed A. Hafez’ March 24
letter, “La-la-land” another name for
Schenectady”: I found it interesting that
according to this letter writer’s statements,
rental unit inspections are illegal
per the U.S. Supreme Court.
As a former Virginia resident for 11
years, that state is apparently violating
this requirement, as every rental unit
in Virginia must be inspected prior to
being leased.
In fact, the letter writer is incorrect:
The 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision,
Camara v. Municipal Court, 387 U.S. 523
(1967), had nothing to do with the legality
of a city/town/county rental inspection
law as it relates to the landlord; that
case dealt directly with a tenant being
held on criminal charges for failure to
allow the rental inspectors access to the
apartment.
The Supreme Court stated that the
tenant had no legal reasoning to allow
the inspectors in without a warrant,
per the Fourth Amendment. The entire
rental inspection process was not,
however, thrown out and made illegal,
just that one portion.
There is also no judicial decision that
I can fi nd that occurred in 1981, stating
that these inspections in New York are
illegal. In fact, the New York State Uniform
Fire Prevention and Building Code
discusses inspections; in 2007 the code
was amended only regarding inspections
of one- and two-family homes;
inspections of larger dwellings are
certainly allowed.
In fact, this entire discussion is silly.
After having done a cursory Internet
search and having lived in other states,
rental inspections should be mandatory
by every state and municipality.
I am rather appalled that Virginia, the
state I left that is in the bottom of many
categories that New York is in the top
of (literacy, education, wages, etc), is
ahead of a few landlords in Schenectady.
New York is supposed to be a progressive
state. Virginia? Not so much.
But they’ve got the city of Schenectady
by leaps and bounds when it comes to
rental inspection. Sad.
The only reason I can think of for a
landlord not wanting a city inspector
to check a unit is not money (consider
it a cost of doing business), but that the
unit is not up to code and the landlord is
afraid of being found out. Well, upgrade
your unit or get out of the business if
you cannot abide by the law.
This discussion needs to be over so
the city of Schenectady can stop being
a laughingstock.
STACEY SHINSKE
Glenville

March 26, 2013
Landlords seek changes in proposed fees
BY KATHLEEN MOORE Gazette Reporter
The Schenectady City Council took another stab at amending the rental inspection system Monday, but tabled the issue in the face of vehement opposition from landlords.
Council members said they hope to vote on amendments to the existing inspection law in two weeks.
Still up for debate is whether the council should lower the inspection fee. Currently it is $50 per unit, every time a tenant moves out, and $25 for re-inspection if the unit fails on the fi rst inspection.
City officials proposed a new payment structure for buildings with at least six units, in which they would pay one lump sum per year based on the number of units on the property. But landlords said it would wind up costing them more than $50 per unit unless they have very high turnover.
Council members didn’t propose a lower fee, but landlords continued to press for one Monday.
They had asked for the fee to be $25 per unit. Since the council didn’t accept that idea, landlord Bharath Arjoon suggested $40 per unit, with free re-inspections.
“Let us have something,” he pleaded. “Please reconsider that. I don’t think what we are asking is unreasonable.”
Chris Morris, who organized the landlord group Schenectady Landlords Influencing Change, said the group needs a lower fee to persuade other landlords to get inspections. The inspections are scheduled only when a landlord calls the city to ask for one, and fewer than 20 percent of the city’s landlords do so. The rest are theoretically not allowed to rent their apartments, but they do anyway.
Morris said the group could get some of those landlords to cooperate — with a lower fee.
“We feel strongly that the city needs to provide more incentives for us to work with,” she said. “We’re with you. Let us play the game and see how high we can score.”
City Council members had previously said they might consider lowering the fee for good landlords in a few years if inspections increased. But Morris told them not to wait.
“We want to act now… but we need the tools,” she said. “We need you, but honestly and frankly, you need us.” TENANT PRIVACY
Another landlord said the law should be changed to keep tenants’ names private, because those escaping domestic violence do not want to be found by their former partners.
Councilman Carl Erikson said he would support an exception in the law that allowed tenants names to be hidden under those circumstances.
Landlords also objected to the fact that city officials had not yet made public the inspection checklist.
Erikson said he wanted to give out copies of the checklist when the amendments are passed.
He did not say whether he would support a fee change, but acknowledged the group’s efforts.
“They’re fierce negotiators,” he said.
Still, he said he wanted to fi nish the amendments soon.
“We need to move forward with something that’s better than what we have now. That’s progress,” he said.

‘La-la land’ another
name for Schenectady
Schenectady is beating a dead horse
with its rental inspection law, and landlords
live in the United States — not in
“la-la land,” as claimed in the Gazette’s
March 16 editorial.
In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled
that, despite a city claiming that these
inspections are for health and safety
conditions, warrantless inspections of
rental units are unconstitutional and
violate landlords’ Fourth Amendment
rights. Since 1981, New York courts
have consistently ruled that cities and
towns cannot compel landlords to submit
to inspecting their rental units, and
cannot penalize landlords for refusing
to do so.
The Schenectady rental law discriminates
between its landlords, as
it does not require the inspection of
rented single-family homes, owneroccupied
two-family houses or properties
rented to Section 8 tenants. The
law, however, is targeting a group of
landlords, requiring the search of their
tenants’ bedrooms and closets, making
public their insurance records and their
tenants’ names, all in violation of the
landlords’ and tenants’ privacy rights.
Schenectady was built for over
100,000 residents and has plenty of
housing for the 64,000 people living
here now. Furthermore, the city is continuously
issuing permits to builders
who are building new apartments.
Potential tenants have many apartments
to choose from, but the city is
ironically assuming that tenants have
no choice but to live in substandard
conditions.
MOHAMED A. HAFEZ
Schenectady
The writer is a landlord.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

By Kathleen Moore (Contact)
Gazette Reporter

SCHENECTADY — After much debate, the City Council is poised to approve new rental inspection rules that give the landlords almost none of the provisions they had requested.

Under the final draft of the legislation, the fee for inspections won’t be reduced. The inspections will still be done once a year — or even more frequently — rather than once every three years as the landlords had requested.

There will be no performance-critique form to allow landlords to report on the demeanor of their inspector. And owner-occupied apartment buildings will continue to be inspected if there are more than two units.

Landlords had argued that three-unit buildings — one of the most common configurations in the city — should also be exempt if the landlord lives there.

“Yes, I’m disappointed,” said landlord Mohammed Hafez. “We asked for so many things. We were hoping they would compromise on a few. I personally don’t feel we got some compromises from the city.”

But the city did fulfill some requests, and Deputy Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico offered a carrot: In two or three years, if landlords comply with the inspection rules, the city might let good landlords go two or three years between inspections.

“If we get to a point where there’s not a lot of issues, we can talk about it,” Falotico said.

Building Inspector Eric Shilling added that he would be willing to cut back on inspections for landlords who built up a good record over the next two or three years. “Your homes are violation-free and you move quickly when there is a violation,” he said.

Hafez wasn’t impressed by the offer. He wanted the carrot now.

But Shilling said that until he has years of reliable history on a landlord, he must inspect regularly. “A lot can happen to a property in two or three years, especially with health-safety issues,” he said.

He added that he also wants to create a “preferred landlord” program, in which landlords with good inspection records earn a sticker that can help them get good tenants.

Also, under the final draft of the legislation, landlords will be allowed to do minor plumbing and electrical repairs. Owner-occupants are allowed to that work themselves, but landlords were not allowed until now because they would not have to live with the results.

Some landlords are thrilled by that change, and Schenectady Landlords Influencing Change has set up workshops with Home Depot so landlords can learn plumbing and electrical work.

Landlords will also be given a copy of the checklist used by inspectors, although it’s not yet clear whether that checklist will be detailed enough for landlords to understand.

For example, Falotico said the checklist simply says “windows,” to cover all potential problems involving windows.

And a few landlords who own very large buildings with a great deal of turnover could get a break on the fee. The proposal allows them to choose to have just a few units inspected annually, at a much higher cost that the $50 per-unit fee.

The newest option is for landlords to pay more for inspectors to take photos of the unit during the inspection. Those photos could be used later by the landlord to prove tenant damages.

Shilling said he wanted to “hold tenants accountable” through the photo program, which he said would cost landlords “a small fee.”

SLIC organizer Chris Morris said she was pleased to hear city officials talking about “tenant accountability.”

“Maybe this regime is, for the first time, thinking in those terms,” she said, adding that the photo program would help landlords embroiled in disputes with difficult tenants.

Still, she said, landlords wanted much more. “We want the fee reduced,” she said.

Hafez added that a lower fee — he wanted $25, not $50 — would help persuade landlords to get their apartment units inspected.

“That would entice more landlords to comply. To have people comply voluntarily, you need some enticement,” he said. “They didn’t see it that way.”

Morris said SLIC also still wants a way for landlords to critique inspectors.

“It would be a little accountability thing,” she said, adding that the demeanor of the inspector is critically important as the city tries to expand its inspection program.

“If the landlord consents, with some reluctance, you want to have a good experience,” she said.

The City Council will vote on the legislation Monday. But even after the vote, SLIC plans to keep negotiating.

“This is who we are,” Morris said. “And we’re not going away.”

SCHENECTADY
BY KATHLEEN MOORE Gazette Reporter
Schenectady’s landlords are learning the art
of public negotiation.
The Schenectady Landlords Influencing
Change group crafted a detailed counterproposal
to the rental inspection changes up for a
public hearing Monday night.
The group also came up with a strategy for
presenting their detailed proposal despite the
council’s three-minute time limit for speakers.
They wrote a nine-minute presentation
and passed it from hand to hand, each person
picking up precisely where the last person left
off.

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