Some frustrated inner-city homeowners wish the city would get tough on landlords.
Among a group of about 30 residents who met recently with Mayor Michael Tucker to vent about problems near rental-heavy Genesee and Waterman streets, several embrace the idea that getting after landlords is a way to get at tenants who cause or invite trouble into their neighborhood.
There ought to be a law, says Alexander “Red” Fleming of Waterman Street: If the police are called to a particular address three times in a certain period, say a year, then the city should fine the property owner for harboring a nuisance.
Too many “out-of-town” landlords aren’t choosy about their tenants, Fleming said, and they don’t feel obliged to step in when tenants deal drugs or cause other problems in the neighborhood.
“I guarantee if you start fining the landlords, this stuff will get all cleaned up,” he said.
Fourth Ward Alderman Patrick Schrader thinks it’s time for the city to revisit the landlord licensing issue. He raised the idea in the June 20 Common Council work session.
“We’ve got to hammer these nuisance properties, the scum landlords and the drug people. We’ve got to be merciless if need be,” he said. “The good landlords will not have a problem with it.”
Schrader’s call drew no response from fellow alderman, some of whom were serving with him in the early 2000s, when a citizen panel researched and put together a sample law. According to Glenn Aronow, who was chairman of the mayor’s Citizen Advisory Board at the time, widespread opposition by rental property owners stopped the law from going to a vote.
The Council “definitely caved” to pressure from landlords, Aronow said.
Landlord licensing essentially is a way of getting a permanent record of who owns what in the city and who is supposed to be contacted in the event of problems. The proposed law would have required all rental property owners to register with the city — and provide the name of an agent in the city, someone to take paperwork, complaints and let authorities into individual units for regular inspections.
The effort seemed aimed at getting accountability from out-of-town property owners, but the proposed annual registration fee got local landowners riled up.
“The landlords came down (to City Hall) en masse opposing it,” City Attorney John Ottaviano said. “They said the fee was just another cost imposed on them.”
Aronow said his board later found out state law already provides for regular inspection of all rentals and challenged the city to exercise the option.
It did for a while, according to Senior Building Inspector Harry Apolito. After the licensing brouhaha, he and former inspector Dan Sparks organized city streets alphabetically and began going through all rentals one street at a time. Then Sparks quit and was not replaced by the Council; since then the department has been composed of two inspectors and one zoning officer to complete myriad tasks, from code enforcement to contractor licensing, planning and zoning issues.
“It was close to being physically impossible when Dan was with us,” Apolito said. “Now it is impossible. ... State law says once every three years we should be checking all rentals but we do not have the staff, so it doesn’t get done.”
When apartments are inspected, it’s usually only after the department receives complaints about code issues, Apolito said.
Alan E. Giles of Gasport, who owns several apartment buildings on Waterman Street, dislikes the sneering way the word “landlord” gets thrown around when neighborhood issues are raised. He wants a good, safe neighborhood as much as anyone, he said, because the viability of his business depends on it.
“When people tell me something’s wrong, I try to go after it. It’s a constant battle,” he said. “It’s difficult to find good people; slim pickings (among potential tenants) get slimmer when you tell them it’s Waterman Street.”
Giles said he personally checks on his rental properties at least three times a week and maintains “core” tenants who help him monitor the buildings.
He can’t always do much about the things that are bothering his neighbors, however.
Loud music, vulgar language and the general “crassness of young people” aren’t crimes; drug offenses are crimes only if charges are pressed and they stick; and generally speaking, there’s no good way for him to pre-select good tenants because references, in his experience, tend to be tight-lipped or phony. Local police might know who the troublemakers are, but they’re not allowed to tell civilians.
“It would be nice if the police could make a list of people not to rent to,” Giles said. “They know, but it will never happen.”
To evict a troubling tenant, Giles said, he has to have a solid legal/contractual basis. If someone’s rent isn’t paid up it’s easy, but if the tenant does not owe money, “it’s difficult,” he said.
“Personally I wish when police are called, they’d just start bopping heads together ... . I don’t know, I’m as frustrated as anyone else. The vast majority of my tenants are very good, decent people who want a good place to live. There are always a few bad apples.”
The city can get at neighborhood nuisances indirectly, by going through landowners, thanks to a series of local, state and federal laws allowing it to pursue removal of particular people at properties that have a troubled history.
Since he learned about the laws, Tucker has been suggesting residents in troubled neighborhoods unite and employ a strategy of calling police frequently to complain about criminal and nuisance activities. The calls could help the city build a record justifying city eviction proceedings, he said.
Earlier this year, Police Chief Neil Merritt sent letters to two rental property owners, one on Washburn Street and another on Washington Street, advising them that he’s empowered to seek particular tenants’ eviction due to a number of public nuisance-type police calls caused by those tenants.
The landlords were given the choice of evicting the tenants themselves or having the city do it for them, for a fee and possibly a fine. Both apartments had generated more than 100 calls each for police service since 1995, when call records were computerized.
Another letter is set to go out to another Washington Street landlord this week, this time on a record of 51 police calls since 2000.
Merritt didn’t discourage the idea of calling police as a neighborhood strategy, but he said nuisance law is applied at his discretion and civil rights issues are a factor.
He has sent the eviction letters only about three or four times a year, he said, after vetting the call records on particular addresses and deciding they’d reached the level of legitimate public nuisance.
“If there isn’t drug activity, there has to be a significant amount of calls for police services and they have to be of a certain type,” he said.
A succession of noise and other disturbance complaints count, while other types, such as rescue/victim calls and some violent crime complaints, do not.
Also, the nuisance record is not built on any minimum number of calls. A high rate, say 300 calls in 10 years, probably indicates a nuisance residence, Merritt said, but a low rate like 10 calls in 10 years would require some scrutiny.
Whenever Merritt has sent an eviction request letter, he said it’s always produced results by the property owner. He’s never had to commence city eviction or move to seize property, which federal law allows in cases where the property has been the scene of drug crimes.
Contact reporter Joyce M. Miles at 439-9222, ext. 6245.
Defining a nuisance
Local, state and federal law all allow Lockport’s police chief to declare a property a “public nuisance” when certain types of troubling activity take place at the property over time. Discretion belongs to the chief in deciding when the property — be it individual apartment, whole building or single-family home — rises to the level of public nuisance.
• City code allows the chief to dub property a nuisance when he can show police have responded to a number of criminal or nuisance complaints there, including noise, fighting, arrest warrant service and drug activity.
• State law allows the city to direct private eviction of a tenant or resident from frequently serviced property. If the landowner doesn’t comply, the city can effect eviction and send the property owner a bill for the service — plus a civil penalty of up to $5,000.
• Federal law allows government seizure of real property used in commission of drug crimes.