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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.)
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
Be patient. That’s not exactly how city officials phrase
their response to that question, but that’s the gist of
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
it was me,” Vroman says, “I’d be out in the street. They
would have a bulldozer before I had my furniture out in
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:
for sentimental reasons, because I knew the people. But
for what I have next door, it hasn’t been worth it.”