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LANDLORD LICENSING ALSO MIGHT PROTECT AGAINST BAD TENANTS

Irresponsible property owners might not become the only targets of Buffalo's long-stalled landlord licensing program when it's launched in a couple of months.

The city is also considering tactics that take aim at troublesome tenants who have histories of creating problems. The city will soon take steps to more stringently regulate all absentee landlords who own single- and double-family homes. For the first time, the owners of up to 25,000 properties will have to pay registration fees and file certificates that list contact information.

But tenant accountability must be a key element of the new rental registry program, some officials said last week. One strategy being studied would post on the city's Web site the names of tenants who have documented problems. The goal would be to give landlords easy access to a database of prospective tenants they might want to avoid.

Inspections Commissioner Raymond K. McGurn briefed the Common Council last week about his plan to red-flag tenants who are "notorious" for creating problems.

The Law Department is expected to issue an opinion on the legality of such a registry. But the Common Council's top legal adviser is already concerned. Assistant Corporation Counsel Lenora B. Foote said that without safeguards the policy could expose the city to lawsuits.

"What do we consider a bad tenant? What criteria would be established for putting people on such a registry?" she asked.

Ellicott Council Member Brian C. Davis fears that some tenants might end up on the list merely because they've had disputes with landlords -- disagreements that might not be their fault. McGurn agreed that the system would have to be delicately implemented.

"There clearly has to be some criteria set for distinguishing who would be on the (registry)," McGurn said.

Some suggest that the list could be made up of tenants who have been evicted from properties by the courts or who have criminal records. They noted that some private companies already compile such lists and sell them to landlords.

Council President David A. Franczyk said the city can't just focus on problem landlords. "Tenant accountability is also very important," he said. "I think something like this would definitely help."

Franczyk is the sponsor of a landlord licensing law, which has been on the books since 1998 but has never been enforced. The original provision mandated inspections of all non-owner-occupied singles and doubles every three years.

Under the new law, inspections could occur when owners fail to register, have outstanding debts to the city, repeated housing violations or complaints lodged against them. Non-owner-occupied singles will be assessed a $20 annual fee starting next year, while non-owner-occupied doubles would pay $40.

All homeowners will be required to obtain registration certificates, though owners who live in the singles and doubles would not have to pay a fee.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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