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Enforcing the code: (l-r) Watervliet Building Department Supervisor Mark Gilchrist and Mayor Michael Manning.

Renter Beware

By Catherine Caperello

Photos by Shannon DeCelle

The Smiths, a family of six and lifelong Watervlietians, had been living in the same apartment since 2001 when, in 2006, they were ordered to vacate. The family’s youngest child was born while they lived in that apartment, and was still in diapers when Mrs. Smith went to court, along with eight other families in June 2006, to contest her city-ordered eviction. Under a recently enacted policy shift, the family’s three-bedroom apartment had received a certificate of occupancy for only three people.

The two oldest boys shared bunk beds, a younger boy had his own room, and the baby’s bassinette was in his parents’ room—a room the Smiths (whose names have been changed at their request) were told should have been a living room, because the apartment was too small for them. They were told that the residential-occupancy formula dictates that, based on the number of occupants, they also needed a dining room and that they couldn’t have bunk beds unless that bedroom was a minimum of 140 square feet.

“What’s the purpose of having bunk beds at 140 square feet?” Mrs. Smith asks.

Mr. Smith adds, “I made my father finally understand the whole thing by telling him that, with this new rule—the bedroom that my brother and I shared without a problem—my parents would’ve had to uproot and move us someplace else. I lived there my entire childhood.”

While their old apartment was too small according to the city law, they contend that’s not the real reason they were forced to leave.

“We were one of the first families to be, I want to say, ‘target houses.’ There were houses that they targeted and got done first,” says Mrs. Smith. She believes that it was the tenants who lived upstairs that caught the attention of a neighbor who works in the city’s building department. “They smoked pot on the back porch,” says Smith. “The mother was never home. Every other word was the F-bomb. The kids didn’t go to school and [the city-employed neighbor] wanted them gone. They pretty much said it.”

“I hate to say it, but there are a lot of slumlords out there. They just want the almighty buck and don’t care, but my problem with that is: Go after the landlord, don’t come after me. I’m faithful. I pay my rent. I just want some place where I can rest my head at night and have no worries about that.”

The Smiths were luckier than the other families who went to court in June; they were allowed to stay through the life of their lease—an extra six months—but had to be out by the end of the year. Other families with no such contract, says Smith, were warned that they had 30 days to vacate their apartments or face forcible eviction, courtesy of the Albany County Sheriff’s department.

‘This program can change the face of the city,” says Watervliet Building Department Supervisor Mark Gilchrist. “In another two to three years, after we’ve gone through the cycle once or twice, there will be a visible difference in the quality of life.”

Local officials believe that the Arsenal City is ripe for revitalization. The new mayoral administration of Michael Manning, elected last November, has no shortage of ideas, though some of the steps currently being taken were initiated under the former mayor, and arguably have the most significant impact on residents. In 2006, the city enacted a policy that requires landlords to have non-owner-occupied units inspected at least every three years and, if vacant, before they are rented to new tenants. Further, the policy adopted New York state code to require that apartments be inspected for occupancy limits, to determine how many people are legally allowed to live in the unit based on floor space. For decades, some of the city’s largest rental properties have been cut into smaller units to capitalize on rental income.

City officials maintain that the policy change ultimately will improve the quality of life for residents—both for renters who live in substandard conditions and for the homeowners whose property values suffer from neighborhood blight. However, critics say that these housing regulations ultimately leave the least-advantaged families to shoulder the heaviest burden in the form of increased rent and even displacement from their homes. The costs of bringing old housing up to current building standards can be staggering if major repairs or updates are needed to the electrical system or the building foundation. Couple those repair costs with increases in property taxes as well as service fees such as water, sewer and trash collection, and it’s easy to understand that those expenses will trickle down to tenants.

And in a city with an abundance of rental property, critics charge, the occupancy regulations have made it more difficult for large families to find apartments that are both legally suitable and affordable, leaving some to jump from apartment to apartment, or even to split up their household.

“The reason for this program is the lack of property maintenance by property owners,” says Gilchrist. Inspections for basic building code enforcement include inspection of the electric systems and foundation, and checks for water damage, broken windows, excessive garbage or debris, and placement of smoke detectors. Code is code. An apartment either passes or fails. Landlords are given sufficient time to address violations and bring the apartment into compliance.

“There are a lot of people who own property in inner cities who do not seem to care too much about the condition of their property,” he explains, “people who don’t cut their grass, people who have junk cars on the property, people whose property needs paint on the outside of the building. This program helps to enforce those rules and regulations. It forces them to improve property, or weeds them out. Perhaps they decide to sell and invest in some other community that is not keeping so close an eye on them.”

However, he says, two years into the program, the city is still far from its goal. He estimates that there are approximately 2,500 rental units that remain uninspected.

“It’s a big undertaking,” says Gilchrist. It’s unlikely that his office will be able to inspect all those properties within the timeframe established by the policy change. “Will we get into every apartment within the three years required by law? No. I doubt it.”

The most complicated—and contentious—prong of the policy change is the inspection for occupancy. Residential occupancy is determined using a formula devised by the state Real Property Maintenance code, drafted by the Department of State. The formula is a ratio based on the square footage of the bedrooms in relation to the square footage of the rest of the living space. For a room to be a legal bedroom, it must have a window, a closet, two electrical outlets, and a minimum of 70 square feet (140 square feet for bunk beds). If an apartment doesn’t have any legal bedrooms, it is considered an “efficiency” apartment, and the number of tenants is then based on “clear floor area.”

“We don’t tell people where they can sleep, but the number of people is controlled by this clear floor area,” says Gilchrist, who admits that he and his building inspector, Steve Hoffman, don’t always see eye-to-eye on the way the calculations are done: whether closets should be included in the floor-space measurements of a bedroom, for instance.

Once an apartment passes the code inspection and is measured for residential occupancy requirements, the city tells the landlord how many occupants are allowed. The certificate of occupancy and residential occupancy permit cost the landlord $30. According to Gilchrist, missed inspection appointments cost the landlord $20 per unit. Last year, the city collected more than $10,000 dollars in fines for code violations related to residential permit inspections.

Gilchrist, without any hard data at hand, estimates that about a half-dozen families were displaced due to CO/ROP requirements in 2007. He estimates that number was about the same for 2006, when the city began to inspect problem units. He is waiting for new software, which is being custom-developed for the city, to help track the work of the building department.

Rooms for rent: Italo DiFebbo says that the occupancy laws can be confusing to an out-of-towner.

“It can be difficult for large families to find appropriate-sized apartments so that they can meet the legal occupancy size limits,” Gilchrist says. “I don’t have an answer for those families.”

“You’d like to be able to work with people because you don’t want to displace anybody,” says Mayor Manning. “You’d like to accommodate someone, but you also want someone living safely. We try and look at the big picture.”

Has the shift in policy enforcement caused families to simply uproot and leave Watervliet all together?

“If it’s happened, it’s only been a few, which is maybe a few too many,” allows Gilchrist, “but I just don’t know. Sometimes they move to other apartments in Watervliet, bigger ones. Sometimes they move into other apartments where no CO has been obtained.”

“As you move problem tenants out of one apartment, what’s to stop them from going two blocks down and starting over again?” asks Manning rhetorically, acknowledging the issue with tracking repeat offenders. “There’s a revolving door inside Watervliet and between Watervliet, Cohoes, Troy and Albany.”

How do you track the problem tenants? Can you track them? “Is that the type of information that can be shared, or is it private?” he asks. “You have boundaries of public information.”

Gilchrist takes a piece of paper from his overflowing desk and holds it up—a residential occupancy permit, a form with a hand-written address, four names and their respective social security numbers. A family of five or six was living in a four-person apartment before the policy changed. The inspection came, and they had to vacate due to overcrowding.

“They moved into another apartment right over here on 16th Street,” Gilchrist says. “They told us that there were four people. There are really six people living there. Positive of it. They admitted to it. So they’ve got to get out. They knew the rules.”

“It’s difficult to do that,” says Gilchrist, pausing, “but it’s the law.”

Mrs. Smith describes the difficulty of finding a new apartment that could legally fit the size of her family as a “pure hell.”

“What I could find that was big enough I couldn’t afford. I couldn’t afford over $1,000 a month. The taxes had just gone up. There was one for $1,500! Where do you get off charging $1,500 in the city of Watervliet?”

The Smiths, having no place to go after rejected appeals to city officials, split up to survive. The three older boys went to stay with their grandparents. Mr. and Mrs. Smith and their youngest boy, in desperation, took a studio apartment for $350 a month that could comfortably accommodate no more than one adult.

“Five days after Christmas,” she says. “You know what that was like? The crying? Thinking you’re going here and they’re going there? Obviously, Christmas sucked.”

Mrs. Smith kept her clothes and personal effects in a storage tote in the closet so there would be no sign of her staying in the apartment when and if the inspector came to call. The three of them stayed in the small studio for an entire year.

“That was a year of pure hell,” she says. “Not having your children there with you. I mean holidays, birthdays, we’re not in the same house. We were all separated. You got this one living here, this one living here, this one living here, and here we are in this studio apartment, sleeping on a couch and a blow-up bed. Where are you gonna go? Out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

Smith looks to her youngest son, who bounces on a couch while watching television. “If they were doing this, they should’ve had more resources out there and not just said to families, ‘Ok, you’ve got 30 days, get out.’”

But that was then. Last year, a friend of the family purchased a two-family home and leased the place to the Smiths for $750 a month. The kicker? Even their newest apartment is still too small for the family—technically speaking. And anything bigger, Mrs. Smith complains, is simply not affordable in the rental market.

Two of the four boys still stay primarily with different sets of grandparents—a practice that Mrs. Smith was told would be reported to Child Protective Services if city officials found out. But all four boys are healthy and excelling in school, she says, and the arrangement is more comfortable overall.

Sure, Smith says, they thought about packing and up and moving to a different city. However, she says, “This is where we grew up. This is where I want my kids to grow up. Our family is here. Why should we have to leave?”

The Smiths claim that they were able to circumvent the CO/ROP inspection to stay in that cramped studio based solely on the surname of the landlord involved. They charge that the owner of that property is related to a city worker who assisted in fingering so-called target houses, and that based on nepotism, “some people can get away with it while others can’t.” Favoritism is a difficult but common charge in a small city such as Watervliet. With its population of 10,200 residents compacted into 1.4 square miles, people inevitably end up in each other’s business.

“I heard from people who said they were grandfathered in because they lived there for so long,” she says. “And I’m like, ‘How could you be? I went to court myself and begged.’”

City officials acknowledge that some families are grandfathered in and allowed to stay in their homes as long as there are no code violations that jeopardize safety and the apartment is not “grossly overoccupied”—a phrase construed by some as arbitrary.

“We’re not grandfathering ones that are grossly overoccupied,” says Manning. “It’s an important component as to why we feel that grandfathering is OK, because we’re not letting major violations slide. If we get a call that the place is overoccupied, then we’re sending people.”

“It’s all about health, safety and welfare,” agrees Gilchrist.

‘If there’s an issue with what’s going on, it’s applying modern building-code standards to 100-year-old buildings, whether they’ve been modified or not,” says Manning. “Some of these updates are not simple, and if you’re not a contractor or handyman then you’ve got to pay someone to do it.”

The age of the home is a major factor in the costs of such mandatory updates. Eighty percent of the housing stock in the historic inner city of Watervliet was built prior to 1940. Electrical updates, which require a professional or skilled handyman, can be the most costly.

Manning, coming off the heels of starting a business council, suggested the formation of a landlord council after multiple-property owner Italo DiFebbo approached him with concerns that the rental market can absorb only so much of the renewal costs before they pass down to tenants. Manning continues, “At some point, [DiFebbo] is concerned that you price yourself out.”

“We have to recognize that, in Watervliet, we have a lot of multifamily homes, which means we have a lot of rentals, which means we have a lot of landlords here,” says Manning. “So it’s a big part of our constituency. As far as revitalization, we don’t really have a lot of industry here—we have almost none—so we are a place where people live. That virtually is our industry. We’ve got to protect that.”

DiFebbo, a North Greenbush resident, is one of the largest property owners in Watervliet, investing in eight buildings since 2003. With upwards of 20 units in the city, DiFebbo considers himself an expert in code, especially after spending nearly $100,000 to bring his apartments into compliance. Still, he feels that this policy change is the best thing the city has done to combat the crime and quality-of-life issues that are exacerbated by neglectful landlords and overcrowding.

“It raises the quality. Everything is more controlled,” says DiFebbo, who looks forward to reaping a return on his investment. “What’s my benefit? Better quality people and better rent.”

But compounded by the added costs of meeting code requirements with property tax increases, changes in the scheduled collection of those taxes, water and sewer bills that have jumped three times in 18 months, and increased fees for garbage collection, the pressure on landlords to raise the rent is undeniable.

“In the end, who is going to pay for it?” asks DiFebbo rhetorically. “The tenant.”

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