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Nowak era in Housing Court draws wide praise ; Judge 'really cared' about neighborhoods

City Court Judge Henry J. Nowak heard housing cases for the final time Tuesday, his tenure ending in praise from neighborhood leaders and even some defendants -- for his impact on Buffalo neighborhoods for eight years.

Why the outpouring of thanks?

"There are a lot of ways to say it, but in the end, it's just that he really cared," said Harvey A. Garrett Jr., a neighborhood activist and a volunteer Housing Court liaison.

"He made it into a 60 hour-a-week job," Garrett said. "He didn't just work behind the bench. He went to every block club -- and he didn't have film crews following him around."

"I'm sad. It's an end of an era," said Michele Johnson, an East Side housing activist.

No other judge has handled housing cases for as many years as Nowak, an assignment he sought, or done as much to increase community involvement, the activists and other judges said.

With Nowak, 42, moving on to a State Supreme Court seat, those involved in Housing Court wonder whether his replacement will keep Nowak's programs and match his commitment.

"Those are some big shoes to fill, almost impossible," Johnson said. "He was very creative. He was willing to try anything within the law. He'd say, 'Let's see if it works.' It's going to be hard to find someone else to do that."

Tuesday, Chief City Judge Thomas P. Amodeo selected a veteran jurist to succeed Nowak, City Court Judge Patrick M. Carney, who has been a City Court judge since 1994.

"I need somebody with his experience to go in there and know how to handle it," Amodeo said. "Pat's going to be someone who understands what Judge Nowak has done here."

"I hope I can do as good a job as Hank has done," Carney said.

Carney's take on Housing Court: "You've got to take care of the little stuff and work your way up."

Amodeo credited Nowak for transforming Housing Court into a problem-solving court.

Nowak said he approached each case with a simple proposition: "How can I take that property and improve it?"

Often he encountered roadblocks.

"How do I get over the roadblock? With that attitude, you can do anything," Nowak said.

While he handled housing cases for eight years, "it seems like it's been six months," Nowak said.

In January 2003, Nowak became the city's fifth Housing Court judge in the previous six years and the seventh since Frank A. Sedita Jr. in 1992-93. Sedita imposed what was then a record number of fines and boosted city efforts to clean up its aging housing stock.

After Sedita's term, the Housing Court seat was often treated as a training ground for new City Court judges, and the results were uneven.

Then Nowak showed up.

He caused a stir on his first day on the bench when he imposed a 10-day jail term and a $1,000 fine on an offender.

In just his first two years, Nowak imposed more fines than his predecessors had in the previous four years combined. The total ran into the millions of dollars.

Last October, Nowak informed City Hall that more than $22 million in Housing Court fines remained unpaid since 2005. A total of 922 individuals and companies owe money, with one defendant in arrears for nearly $1 million in fines for violations on 43 properties.

Joy A. Drati, a California businessman, spent nearly five months in jail here on housing violations in 2006 after buying -- but not fixing -- more than 50 properties that proved to be in terrible disrepair.

But neither fines nor jail sentences defined Nowak's tenure. He selected two dozen neighborhood leaders to serve as volunteer liaisons to bring concerns about problem properties to his attention. They often told him about problems that city inspectors were not aware of, or found people willing to buy and repair problem properties.

Johnson said Nowak called her out of the blue, asking her to get involved with Housing Court, after he read about her housing-related activism in a newspaper article.

Nowak scheduled properties for court on certain days of the week, depending on their neighborhood. So all of the Niagara District properties were handled on Tuesdays and Fillmore District properties on another day. The scheduling allowed liaisons from each district to appear one day a week and be present for all of the cases for that district.

Nowak linked evictions with code compliance, holding up evictions until landlords repaired their properties and brought them up to code.

The judge also appointed receivers, who were empowered to collect rents from a landlord's adequate properties to pay for repairs for the landlord's other properties cited with code violations.

Nowak's also instituted "orders to vacate" as a crime-fighting tool against drug dealers who operate out of vacant houses in some neighborhoods. The order gives police the right to immediately remove and arrest anybody they see on the property. The officers no longer need a witness or somebody to press charges.

Nowak's staff kept track of how cases were resolved during a seven-month stretch in 2008.

Each month, on average, 110 properties were repaired and brought into compliance by the property owners. Fifty other properties were transferred to better owners. Five property owners, on average, went to jail.

Nowak put vacant houses on demolition lists when he had to, but he preferred looking for solutions for occupied houses.

"That's where our programs really shine," Nowak said.

Aaron D. Bartley, who directs People United for Sustainable Housing, said Nowak held property owners accountable.

"He certainly did that, but he also was great at understanding the policy elements of the housing crisis," Bartley said. "He didn't see his job to simply enforce a set of codes, but also as a way to experiment with solutions to the housing crisis."

e-mail: plakamp@buffnews.com

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