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Vacant-house fees eyed to raise revenue in Schenectady

Sunday, October 21, 2012
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— When there’s nothing left to cut, there’s just one thing to do: increase revenue.

That’s what the city’s codes department plans to do, by cracking down on rental certificates, Building Inspector Eric Shilling told the City Council.

This year, the department focused on collecting fees for vacant housing.

“Looking forward to seeing how much we can do,” Shilling said.

City rules require owners to pay a vacancy fee that increases with every year the house is left vacant. Owners must also file a plan for rehabbing, renting or selling the house.

Already, the department has collected $133,000 more than it did last year — and that’s just counting money that came in by the end of August.

Next year, he plans to enforce the rental certificate fee, which every landlord must pay for every unit they rent out.

The certificates come with an annual inspection that is quite unpopular with landlords. Many refuse to pay for the certificate, even though it’s required.

Shilling estimated that 25 percent of the city’s landlords get the certificate.

“We’re wildly outnumbered right now,” he said. “We have multiple 100-unit high-rise buildings not being inspected. We have no information on who the landlord is, who’s supposed to be in the building, whether there’s insurance.”

He said he couldn’t enforce the rule this year because he didn’t have enough code enforcers.

“We simply don’t have the resources to chase that,” he said.

So he asked for a housing officer, at a salary of about $37,000. Code enforcers have an average salary of $43,000.

The officer would interview tenants and landlords to enforce the rental certificate.

“I expect it to be just as successful as the vacant housing,” he said, referring to the revenue that could be brought in.

Each certificate is $50. If the unit fails inspection, the landlord must fix the problems and pay another $25 for re-inspection. Certain code violations also require permits when repairs are made.

The city may also start doing apartment inspections for the Schenectady Municipal Housing Authority’s Section 8 program.

Shilling said he could do better inspections because the city inspections require more than Section 8. Among the city’s requirements are carbon monoxide detectors, which Shilling said Section 8 does not require.

Mayor Gary McCarthy added that the change could free up Section 8 personnel while bringing in revenue for the city.

“We’re doing the same inspections, we’re in the same neighborhoods,” he said.

And if the city does those inspections, enforcers could add to the data they’re trying to collect on landlords and apartment buildings, Shilling said.

“We’d start to universalize our data. Right now it’s a void,” he said.

Council President Denise Brucker said she also wants to see penalties for landlords who accept Section 8 rental checks but don’t pay their property taxes. McCarthy wants to get federal support to garnish the landlord’s checks just as child support can be garnished from parents’ paychecks.

“They’re stiffing us,” he said.

City officials also indicated they’d be willing to spend more of the federal Community Development Block Grant on the codes department. The block grant already pays for some code enforcers, but some residents have protested the spending because they feel it would be better spent on community programs.

Shilling said his enforcers and inspectors would be more efficient if they had PDAs so they could file certificates and code violations in the field.

“Right now they’re archaic, writing everything on paper,” he said. “With an iPad, in the field, the rental certificate — it’s done! We could expand our horizons greatly with those tools.”

Brucker said the block grant funds could be used to buy PDAs, since they would be used in low-income neighborhoods. Block grants are aimed at those neighborhoods.

But Shilling said he’d still like more people.

“We’re shrinking our group as we’re growing our programs and revenue,” he said. “The cracked sidewalks and broken windows that people keep calling about — we really have to triage these. I’d love to show [them] attention but I just don’t have the manpower.”

 
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