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Too close for comfort: Wesley Vroman’s house (r) and its problem neighbor 130 Dove St. (l).

The Wreck Next Door

By Darryl McGrath

photographs by joe putrock

A downtown Albany homeowner wrestles with the city over the abandoned building next to his property

Behold 130 Dove St. in Albany, a house like so many hundreds of others in the city for the tale of woe that it could tell.
On one side of this story is the owner of 130 Dove St. That’s Dominick Cubello, one of the better-known property owners in the city, and not because the Historic Albany Foundation is giving him preservation awards. He’ll tell you that 130 Dove is in fine shape and just needs a paint job, notwithstanding the fact that the city declared it unfit and unsafe for human habitation last spring.

On the other side—both literally and figuratively, because he owns the house adjacent to 130 Dove—is Wesley Vroman, who might punch a wall through in frustration if he didn’t fear it would let even more mice into his home from the infestation next door.

And in between is the city, where officials will explain that the law moves slowly and that demolition is a desperation move that’s far more easily called for than done.

Now multiply the story of 130 Dove St. on blocks all over Albany. You start to see why, for every preservation-minded resident ready to march on City Hall to save a building from the wrecking ball, there are probably a dozen other residents hoping in vain that the city will knock a building down for a change. Usually, one that’s next door to their home.

One more time: Easier said than done.

“The city does not demolish buildings until they are in imminent danger of collapse,” said Terrence Gorman, an assistant corporation counsel who handles Albany’s buildings and codes cases. “And it’s a last resort.”

Wesley Vroman bought
his house at 132 Dove St. 10 years ago for $26,000 and proceeded to do exactly what the city needs about 50,000 more people like him to do: He moved in and began renovating it, thereby ensuring that it would not move out of the pol of thousands of at-risk city buildings in need of some care and onto the Historic Albany Foundation’s list of more than 800 vacant buildings in the city.

Drive or walk down this stretch of Dove Street, from Madison Avenue to Park Street, and you appreciate the commitment it takes to buy a house on Vroman’s block. There are many houses whose owners and occupants display pride of place, and have done an admirable job of keeping these 130-year-old buildings looking good. But there are also the long-vacant houses with the windows gone, the facades boarded over and the elegant gingerbread trim rotting with neglect. In one case, tattered curtains still flutter through an empty window frame. Many of these buildings have become havens for feral cats. Although the streets in this historic section often have brick sidewalks, the three blocks of Dove Street from Madison Avenue to Myrtle Street are a sloppy patchwork of concrete and worn asphalt, a look that adds to the overall impression of neglect.

Against this backdrop, 130 Dove has a ways to go before it’s the worst house on the block. But it is certainly a contributor to a block where comparative ranking of decrepit housing is a reasonable pasttime.

Vroman, 49, is an Albany native who spent his childhood on Elm Street—just around the corner from the intersection of Irving and Dove streets, where his house stands—and he grew up knowing the couple who used to own his current house. They ran a cobbler shop, which was one of the dozens of mom-and-pop businesses and corner markets that dotted Albany’s residential sections then.

Renovating a late-1800s home as a do-it-yourself project is brutal work. You put in hours of work and follow a painstaking process of code inspections and city permits. Along the way, you put something else into the house—your faith in a social contract with the city which states that the houses next to yours won’t drive your property value down or keep you from getting fire insurance because they pose such hazards to adjacent structures.

In the early stages of his social contract, Vroman obtained a $26,000 federal Housing and Urban Development loan and started ripping out walls and putting up sheet rock in his new home. He estimates that he put $30,000 of his own money into the project. He works as a maintenance assistant for the town of Bethlehem, so he knew how to do much of the work himself, and he had enough friends in the building trades to keep the costs down.

Back then, longtime tenants occupied 130 Dove St., and “it was decent,” Vroman recalls. “It wasn’t as deteriorated as it is now.” But by the time tenants left the building a good five years ago—Cubello says they fell behind in their rent—the house needed at the very least cosmetic exterior work. Without occupants, it quickly slid from vacant to “unfit and unsafe.”

Vroman, who was going through the long and occasionally frustrating process of meeting the building and fire safety code on his own house, started asking officials from the city’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services and the Division of Buildings and Codes when the city was going to do something about the wreck next door.

There’s a whole lexicon in Albany for describing what lay people commonly think of as abandoned housing. The city never declares buildings condemned; it declares them “unfit and unsafe for human occupation”—a designation that can cover a range of problems, starting with “correctable” and ending with, “Someone’s going to get killed if we don’t take this down.”

The city will declare a building unfit and unsafe for human occupation if it’s about to collapse, but the city will also declare a building unfit and unsafe if the owner needs to correct a health or safety hazard in an otherwise sound structure. Rodent infestations, bad wiring and water or sewage leaks are some of the more common problems that get a building tagged unfit and unsafe, explains Robert Forezzi Sr., the deputy fire chief in charge of emergency demolitions.

Getting to the demolition stage can take years. Demolition is expensive (almost always five figures for a two- to three-story building; upwards of six figures for anything taller) and it exposes the city to major liability, say Forezzi and Gorman. Nearby buildings can get damaged; city workers and passersby can get injured. So demolition is reserved for buildings ready to collapse.

In the meantime, owners might fix the problems for which they’ve been cited, but then again, they might not. The law is largely on their side, and astute slumlords know how to employ the legal delaying tactics that can drag a case out for months or even years. And that’s how a building starts on the long, slow slide into abandonment.

The city is not about to start doing repairs itself, and legally couldn’t step in and repair someone else’s property even if city officials really thought they could submit a repair bill to a slumlord and get him to pay it. What the city will do is shut off the utilities and lock the building, an act that may prevent a fire but also can seal its fate as a crumbling eyesore.

Semantics mean little to the property owners living next to a building that the average person would call abandoned, however structurally sound it may be. By any reasonable measure, 130 Dove is abandoned, whatever Cubello calls it. He owes back taxes to 2000, and the city declared the building unfit and unsafe for human occupation last March. Weeds and a sawed-off tree trunk protrude from the sagging foundation, the concrete steps are wearing away, and an odor of cat urine wafting from the interior can be detected on the sidewalk. Vroman says one of the former tenants continued going in and out of the house long after vacating it.

And then there are those pesky mice.

Several years ago, Vroman started catching mice in his home. A lot of them. He continued catching them as he pleaded with the city’s building and safety officials to demolish 130 Dove St.

One day a couple of years ago, Vroman reached his limit with the mice. He collected about a dozen dead ones that he had trapped in his home, packaged them in a plastic grocery bag and took them to the office of the fire safety inspector he’d most recently been complaining to about 130 Dove St. The secretary told him that the inspector was at lunch. Well, I brought him another lunch, Vroman said, and handed over the bag of dead mice.

Dominick Cubello is the
first landlord in Albany to a ctually go to jail for code violations in his rental properties, not once but twice. He owns 23 commercial and residential buildings in the city, and he has a long history of fires and code violations at his properties. The city is pursuing code violations cases against Cubello in city court, but will not discuss the specifics of any one case for fear of prejudicing its actions against him.

Talking to Cubello about 130 Dove St., you might think it’s the featured fixer-upper on This Old House. He says the building just needs remodeling, and has been declared structurally sound by an engineer. (City officials verify that the engineering report is on file, but decline to disclose the details or the name of the firm that conducted the inspection.)

“I’m going to wait until springtime,” Cubello says when asked about his plans for the house. “There’s nothing much to do. I’ve got to paint it. I’ve got a good roof. Whatever the guy next door says is not true. It looks as good as any other average house where people live.”

Given the surreal quality of Cubello’s take on 130 Dove, and the fact that the building nonetheless seems a long way from demolition, what’s a homeowner like Vroman supposed to do?

Be patient. That’s not exactly how city officials phrase their response to that question, but that’s the gist of their reply.

“Things always seem worse in your backyard than if it was in another part of town,” says assistant corporation counsel Gorman. “The law is not an incredibly fast mechanism. That’s not a surprise to anybody. And the same’s true here. Property ownership and the rights that accompany that ownership are paramount and highly protected by the constitution, as I believe they should be. And the city of Albany has the right to protect the safety and welfare of people entering or living in these buildings.

“That doesn’t mean we’re soft on [code violations]; that doesn’t mean we’re light on it,” Gorman adds. “Due process takes time. There’s no quicker way for us to do it than we’re doing it.”

Wesley Vroman’s plight has drawn the attention of neighbors. There’s a feeling among them that there but for the grace of God could go any of them. At a time when the city is aggressively trying to encourage home ownership, people watching Vroman’s one-man campaign against 130 Dove St. realize that this could be their story, given a slight twist of fate, and that Vroman’s situation is probably not even the worst example of this problem in Albany. Anyone could end up living next door to a building that starts out needing minor repairs and ends up abandoned.

Dan Formica rented 63 Irving St., around the corner from Vroman’s house, two years ago. He thought he would move to the suburbs in a couple of years, but he liked the neighborhood so much that instead he bought his rental. He has watched Vroman’s effort with empathy.

“He’s put a lot of time and a lot of effort into his property, he takes a lot of pride in his work, and the neighbors do as well,” Formica says. “I know it’s frustrating for him. I really feel for him.”

Empathy may be all that a homeowner like Vroman can get for now. Last month, the city announced a long-range plan for dealing with abandoned buildings. It speaks of involving community organizations and local banks in neighborhood revitalization, and of boosting home ownership and the sale and rehabilitation of run-down buildings. It’s an ambitious plan that indicates the city’s awareness of the problem, but right now it’s just that: a plan, and one that can’t possibly address the frustration of an individual homeowner who has already waited years for relief from one bad building.

Which is why some observers say that an entirely new way of thinking about vacant housing needs to take root in cities like Albany.

“There are problems with the way that we as a society deal with buildings that make this kind of case inevitable,” says Joe Fama, executive director of Troy Architecture Project Inc. in Troy, which works with community design and housing issues. “Not only do we set up all these marginal buildings for failure, but we make it particularly easy (for their owners) to skip away.”

City governments, Fama says, “just sit there saying, ‘We’re not in the real estate business.’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, yeah, you are.’ Cities should do what they need to do to fix a building up and get it back on the market. A lot of these buildings are not auctioned by the city until after two or three years after they are functionally abandoned.”

While the issues at stake with vacant buildings more often affect property values than lives, they can also, in the most extreme examples, be matters of life and death. Firefighters in cities around the country have died searching burning abandoned buildings for homeless people and squatters, and children and teenagers have been killed and seriously injured playing or gathering in vacant buildings. So the idea of a city getting into the real estate business by more aggressively taking over abandoned housing, and then renovating it and selling it, seems worth considering.

And most likely unworkable, says Gorman of the corporation counsel’s office.

“The wheels fall off that wagon when you read the law,” Gorman says. Property law allows government some discretion in dealing with abandoned housing, but not the wholesale takeover of buildings that dispenses with due process, he notes.

Vroman believes that if 130 Dove were next to the home of a city official, the city would have dealt with it more decisively by now. And he also suspects that the sheer weight of dealing with Cubello as the owner of multiple buildings has made it more difficult for the city to address the problems in any single Cubello building. Based on Vroman’s own experience of meeting the city’s building code while renovating his home, the unknown owner of one building can be held to a higher standard than the well-known owner of numerous problem buildings.

“If it was me,” Vroman says, “I’d be out in the street. They would have a bulldozer before I had my furniture out in the street.”

So for now, he continues to wait for a resolution to the problem of 130 Dove St. When asked if he regrets buying and renovating his home, Vroman qualifies his answer:

“Not for sentimental reasons, because I knew the people. But for what I have next door, it hasn’t been worth it.”

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