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'Out of control' absentee landlords stir call for licensing

Buffalo's Housing Court judge says problems with absentee landlords who live in other states or countries are "out of control," and he's endorsing a plan to license most property managers.

Judge Patrick M. Carney kicked off testimony at a public hearing Thursday as the Common Council reviewed a proposed law that was unveiled last week. It would require all managers who maintain four or more properties to obtain city licenses.

Applicants would have to undergo police background checks, provide proof of insurance and give the city key contact information.

Carney said he believes that licensing managers would create an important accountability mechanism. Lax managers would know that their licenses could be yanked if they fail to adequately maintain properties.

"As we all know, it is out of control. We have thousands of pieces of property owned by people in Utah, California, North Carolina, Pennsylvania," Carney said.

The judge added that the roster of property owners with cases pending in his court include people from numerous foreign countries. One man from Britain even bought a property that "doesn't exist," Carney told about 25 people who attended the hearing.

"They have absolutely no local connection whatsoever," Carney said.

Requiring property managers to be licensed by the city would guard against "fly-by-night" managers taking money from out-of-town property owners and then failing to perform, Carney said. Property managers also would be subject to the court's jurisdiction, and Carney said licensing would make it much easier to track down offenders.

The judge urged the Council to pass an even more stringent law, contending that a manager who is responsible for just one property should be forced to obtain a license. He also believes that all out-of-state people who own properties in the city should be required to hire a licensed manager.

"I don't think any honest, hardworking property management firm is going to mind being licensed," Carney said, "because it's going to eliminate the other people who aren't doing the right thing."

City licenses and inspections officials also endorsed the proposed law.

Joseph A. Cipolla, president of Bella Vista Development Co., warned that a licensing law, while well-intentioned, could deter responsible managers from stepping in to try to improve problem-plagued properties.

"It's going to make people like me, who want to try to help even in dire circumstance, say, 'You know what? I'm not going to be tarnished. I'm not going to have my license in jeopardy,' " Cipolla said.

The Buffalo Niagara Association of Realtors said that it supports actions that "would control the problem." But Daniel A. Locche, the group's public affairs director, said a statewide remedy would be more effective.

The proposed law is sponsored by Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto and South Council Member Michael P. Kearns. It would exempt real estate brokers or agents whose duties are confined to nonmaintenance tasks such as collecting rent or screening tenants. But any person or company that performs even routine maintenance would have to be licensed.

Also Thursday, the Council and Carney briefly discussed housing-related problems involving foreclosed properties that are now owned by numerous banks. Kearns said the banking industry is one of the biggest culprits hurting neighborhood housing stock.

Referring to some banks, Carney said, "They're running away from [properties] as fast as they can."

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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