tries to find common ground on an ordinance that some feel
attacks student housing and others think is necessary to preserve
the Pine Hills neighborhood
Eferstein, a Uni versity at Albany senior, says she and her
five roommates are very close. “We look out for each other,”
Eferstein says. She and her roommates haved lived in a large,
blue Victorian house at 414 Hudson St. in Albany for the past
two years. The six friends have lived together since they
were freshman, and two of them have known each other since
their high-school days on Long Island. They appear to enjoy
living together. The house they share is well-kept, with lace
curtains and matching furniture—a rare sight among the college
apartments on their street. They cook meals together, study
together, and throw parties together.
These students, all seniors, are not only counting down the
days to graduation, but are also counting down the days until
they will no longer have to live in fear of eviction due to
a violation of what is known as the “grouper law.”
The grouper law is not an actual law; it is a city zoning
ordinance that defines the word “family” as it applies to
single- and multi-family houses. A family is defined in the
city of Albany code as “one, two, or three persons occupying
a dwelling unit; or four or more persons occupying a dwelling
unit and living together as a traditional family or the functional
equivalent of a family.” The tricky part of the ordinance—and
the part that is referred to as the grouper law—is the second
half of the definition, which states, “it shall be presumptive
evidence that four or more unrelated persons living in a single
dwelling unit do not constitute the functional equivalent
of a traditional ‘family.’ ”
Essentially, the code restricts four or more unrelated people
from being considered a family. This can cause problems for
some tenants and property owners of four-, five-, and six-bedroom
apartments in the heavily-student- populated area of Pine
Hills. The majority of the controversy is centered on a four-block
radius, including Hudson, Hamilton, Quail, and Ontario streets,
that is commonly known as the “student ghetto.”
Eferstein’s experience with the grouper law began after some
partygoers got out of hand at her house last November. A fight
broke out, and one of her roommates called the police.
One of the police officers inquired about the residency and
found out that six people were living at the house. “We didn’t
think anything of it,” says Eferstein. That same night, at
1 AM, workers with Albany’s Division of Building and Codes
showed up to inspect the property. The city threatened to
evict the tenants, and the building’s owner, Matt Morrissey,
was threatened with fines.
After the incident, Morrissey began the lengthy process of
converting the house from a six-bedroom single unit to two
three-bedroom apartments. Because Morrissey has kept up with
the process of making the renovations, he has not yet been
fined and has not had to evict anyone.
The tenants say that if they were forced to move out they
would most likely have to crash on friends’ couches or try
their luck at finding available on-campus housing in the middle
of the semester.
Morrissey and the tenants at 414 Hudson are just one of many
examples throughout the city of apartment dwellers living
under threat of the grouper law. According to Nicholas DiLello,
director of Albany Building and Codes, records of citations
are sealed once the case has been settled, so it is hard to
get an accurate picture of the scope and geography of the
citations. He estimates the number of cases at only two or
three a month, and says that citations are complaint-based.
not the Gestapo,” he says. “We don’t go out there and hammer
landlords.” DiLello says that the city has a 100-percent victory
rate: All grouper-law citations have either resulted in compliance
or in the citation being upheld in court.
Some landlords complain, however, that they are discouraged
from bringing the issue to court and told by DiLello that
it is “expensive and pointless.”
DiLello,” Morrissey says, “is the judge, the jury, and the
April 8 meeting of U-Albany’s committee on University and
Community Relations of the University Police offered the first
opportunity for property owners to publicly address the grouper
law. A panel, including DiLello and property owners, considered
a proposal to change the definition of family.
The proposal, presented by Debbie Pusatere, vice-president
of the New York Capital Region Apartment Association, expands
the definition of family to up to five unrelated persons and
allows for a group of six or more unrelated persons to prove
that they are the functional equivalent of a family if they
meet certain qualifications, like sharing the cost of food
and utilities, and “any other factor reasonably related to
whether or not a group of unrelated persons living together
are functioning together as a family.”
not saying this is exactly what would be passed,” says Pusatere.
“I’m saying this is what’s on the table to open it up.”
Her proposal, she says, brings the defintion of family “up
to current times.”
As many college towns across the country have found, using
the definition of the term family to evict tenants has complicated
legal implications. Some cities have found their versions
of the grouper law to be unconstitutional, while other places
can’t seem to pinpoint exactly what constitutes a family.
An ongoing case in Oneonta, filed in March of this year, cites
a 1989 New York State Court of Appeals decision in the case
of Baer v. Town of Brookhaven. In this case, the town of Brookhaven
charged five unrelated elderly women living together with
a violation of a zoning ordinance similar to that in Albany.
The court determined that the zoning law, which did not place
a similar restriction on the number of related people allowed
to live together, violated the state’s due process clause
because it restricted the size of a functional equivalent
of a family but not the size of a traditional family.
In other Capital Region cities, “family” has become a loaded
word as well.
Schenectady corporation counsel L. John Van Norden determined
in April 2008 that his city’s grouper law was written so vaguely
that 10 members of the Union College football team qualified
as a family. Norden found that the students shared expenses
and had the social functions of a family, which were requirements
of the city’s definition.
In Troy, after determining that a grouper law would be unconstitutional,
the city tried an alternative route to combat overcrowded
houses. Taking particular concern with property owners who
were renovating buildings to add extra bedrooms without adding
extra space, Troy enacted a moratorium to prevent this type
of construction. The Troy City Council has since extended
the moratorium while working out the kinks of a resolution,
attempting to define a “rooming house” and “roomers” in order
to avoid the word “family” in zoning laws.
The architectural approach that Troy has taken is similar
to a solution recommended by the Capital District Association
of Rental Property Owners (CDARPO) and its president, Robert
McRae, another panelist at the April 8 meeting. McRae suggests
modifications to the law that rely on limitations to the architecture
of a house, instead of trying to define the word “family.”
For example, a law could define a bedroom by square footage,
have bathroom requirements per number of bedrooms, or allow
only single-room occupancy for houses containing more than
McRae also provides alternatives to the grouper law, like
encouraging property owners to require parental co-signers
and using laws such as the noise ordinances and litter laws
already in place, to address problem properties.
just want to shoot the shotgun and say ‘You can’t do that’
to everyone,” McRae says. “They have this idea that the less
kids are running around out there the fewer problems there
will be, and we don’t agree with that.”
McRae is also concerned that, in its current state, the zoning
ordinance could be used as a weapon or threat against property
owners in Albany.
concerns me, and what concerns my members, are the innocent
causalities,” McRae says. “The guy who is smart enough to
say, ‘Nick, Bob McRae next to me has six kids in his building;
if you’re not enforcing it with him, you can’t enforce it
with me.’ There’s where I have a problem.”
what happened to at least one Pine Hills landlord (who wishes
to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation). He first found
out about the grouper law a year ago when one of his properties
was cited while he was on vacation.
The house, a two-family located in Pine Hills, contains two
four-bedroom apartments. Three of the four students living
in the upstairs unit requested to have the fourth person evicted,
and the landlord agreed. However, he explained that the rent
would remain same regardless of the number of tenants, and
that the remaining three would each have to pay more to add
up to the full amount.
girl would not agree to pay for the additional rent for the
missing fourth person,” the landlord says. “Then she wouldn’t
pay me at all, and I threatened eviction. Her father called
Nick DiLello and turned me in for the grouper law because
he knew I had four [tenants] downstairs also,” even though
there were only three people living in the apartment at that
When the landlord returned from vacation a week later, he
found two notices on the building: The first was an order
to fix the situation on both floors. He says initially he
was given about two to three days to comply, which, being
out of town, he obviously hadn’t done. The second notice was
an order to appear in court.
here’s a situation where I helped the tenants out, and they
were able to use the grouper law against me,” he says. “This
is not a neighbor calling in to complain. This is a guy from
Brooklyn [the father] who has never even seen the house.”
He was charged a $1,000 fine and given 30 days to evict the
tenants or it would be an additional fine of $1,000 per day.
The upstairs tenants already were moving out that month, but
the downstairs tenants—who already had signed a renewal lease
for the next year—had to scramble to find another apartment.
The tenants ultimately ended up moving out and finding another
I tried to call the city of Albany and Nick DiLello to reason
with them what was going on, they treated me like a common
criminal,” he complains. “They literally treated me like dirt.”
Consider, he says, that he knows of more than 100 four-bedroom
apartments in the student ghetto, and the eviction of one
student from each of these apartments not only would displace
many students, but also would reduce the amount of money a
landlord is able to earn from a property. His apartments currently
rent out as three-bedroom units at a lower rate: a loss of
$7,000 a year.
the end, the entire community is going to suffer,” says McRae,
“because if an investor or owner can’t make the expenses to
maintain that property, it’s going to fall into disrepair,
no matter what your intentions are.”
Pusatere, who has properties in Cohoes and Watervliet, says
that she has seen students in Albany moving out to these areas.
DiLello argues that the displacement of students is not an
issue because, according to him, there is no shortage of available
apartments in Albany.
are a lot of vacant buildings,” DiLello says. “There’s a lot
of potential for residence in the city. I mean, just look
at the vacant buildings. If there was a greater demand for
residence in the city, there wouldn’t be many vacant buildings.”
McRae doesn’t agree.
reason a building is abandoned is because it wasn’t supporting
itself,” McRae says. “A lot of that vacant stock is in really
bad shape and is going to cost a serious amount of money to
bring to livable conditions.”
Some property owners are getting creative about ways that
they can improve quality-of-life issues in Albany as an alternative
to the grouper law. One suggestion is to install security
cameras on the buildings to survey the streets and sidewalks
in Pine Hills. Another is to target the number of cars.
have no problem at all not renting to a student if they had
a car,” McRae says. “I would put it in my lease. If that eases
the neighborhood’s parking situation I would say, ‘You know
what, this is great off-campus housing, but you can’t have
a motor vehicle because the neighborhood can’t support it.’
I would look at options like that.”
spending more than $15,000 in architect fees, Morrissey says
that it’s no longer financially viable to make the necessary
renovations to 414 Hudson. He is currently seeking a use variance
from the Board of Zoning Appeals. A use variance is another
tool that property owners can utilize; that is, they can apply
to be an exception to the rule. The Pine Hills Neighborhood
Association likes this because it allows the neighborhood
association to be involved in the decision.
do like the way the current law is written in that it allows
the neighborhood associations to have a say regarding use
variances,” says association president Dan Curtis, “but I
still take issue with it in that I think we may be requiring
property owners to jump through too many hoops.”
Morrissey is presenting his case at this month’s PHNA meeting.
But, an approval from the PHNA does not automatically guarantee
approval from the Board of Zoning Appeals.
the BZA, they don’t usually issue variances without our support,
and they don’t usually deny a variance when we do support
it, but there’s not a one-to-one relationship,” Curtis says.
“I think that the BZA has come to a point where they appreciate
that we’re very active, and we take some time to investigate
these matters and to investigate the other property that the
landlord owns and see what kind of impact we really think
it’s going to have on the community.”
Morrissey has his concerns, however, because he says DiLello
told him that applying for a use variance was a waste of time.
certainly plays a role in that,” Curtis says, “but I think
that Nick plays less of a role than he thinks he plays. There
is a Board of Zoning Appeals and I’m pretty confident that
the ultimate decision would lie with them, but if the board
didn’t go with the way the neighborhood association felt was
appropriate—as you’ve seen before—I have no problems with
making a bit of noise.”
There are, however, many who feel that the grouper law is
an effective tool to preserve the quality of the neighborhood.
For some of the residents in Pine Hills, college students
don’t make the best neighbors. Littering, late-night parties
with loud music, public urination, and vandalism are all part
of an average Saturday night.
you’ve got four kids in one flat, and then next door he’s
got 10 kids, it does affect the neighborhood,” says DiLello.
“If we don’t get strict enforcement there, probably in 10
years we’re talking slums.”
Cecelia Quinn is a resident of St. Vincent’s Senior Apartments
on Yates Street in the heart of the Pine Hills student area.
Two popular college bars are just half a block away, and on
weekend nights students parade up and down the street in front
of her building.
are surrounded by frat houses, college kids and everything
in between,” Quinn says. “We are apartments for senior citizens.”
Quinn seems torn about the situation and has particular concern
with how the senior citizens in the apartment complex can
coexist with the college students. She spoke at the April
meeting, saying she felt the need to “stand up for the people.”
hurts us is they disrespect our building; they throw pizza
garbage near the school, they skateboard, and we call the
police,” Quinn says. “We’re not trying to run them out of
town, but it feels somehow like they would like to terrorize
Despite the described abuse at the hands of college students,
she still feels optimistic about the students and the area.
have so much potential here,” she says. “What gets me about
these kids is that they are smart, they are talented, and
they are the future. It’s tough being a young person now;
they have a lot of demands. But the thing is, we have a lot
in this area, and I love this area. We have the best schools,
and we have a real chance to turn things around. These kids
have more IQ, they’re smarter than I’ll ever be. Why do they
think the street is their garbage pail? I just think it’s
McRae understands the desire for better neighborhoods, and
feels that the solution goes beyond citing property owners.
are three people that need to come together on this: the city,
the landlords and the students,” McRae says. “The students
need to take responsibility for themselves and for their actions,
and the city needs to start holding the landlords accountable
for these types of things.”
There hasn’t been any public action in regards to the proposed
changes, but property owners are anxious to get the ball rolling.
brought this issue up at the meeting to inform people about
what the law is and to allow for discussion,” says Gebhardt,
who says that the university has no official stance on the
Curtis also says that the grouper law is going to be a big
issue for the PHNA over the coming months.
really looking forward to stoking that conversation,” Curtis
says, “and getting it riled up.”