the code: (l-r) Watervliet Building Department Supervisor
Mark Gilchrist and Mayor Michael Manning.
by Shannon DeCelle
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
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.
the purpose of having bunk beds at 140 square feet?” Mrs.
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
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.”
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
for rent: Italo DiFebbo says that the occupancy laws can
be confusing to an out-of-towner.
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
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?
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
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.
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
difficult to do that,” says Gilchrist, pausing, “but it’s
Mrs. Smith describes the difficulty of finding a new apartment
that could legally fit the size of her family as a “pure hell.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
all about health, safety and welfare,” agrees Gilchrist.
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.”
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.
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.
the end, who is going to pay for it?” asks DiFebbo rhetorically.