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Schenectady cracks down on landlords who miss inspections

Thursday, April 4, 2013
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— 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 Influencing 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 final 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 officials 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 cross-referenced 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 officials focus on the main corridors of the city.

 
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