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New legislation bolsters Buffalo's arsenal in battle against slumlords

Ask Buffalo officials about out-of-town slumlords, and there's often a scowled acknowledgement of a lost cause.

In a city where properties are owned by landlords from as far away as China, Kuwait and Sweden as well as New York City, Texas and California, it's sometimes difficult to enforce housing code laws on these investors, they say.

But the state Legislature late Wednesday passed a bill that city officials say will give them new powers to combat the issue.

"For years we have been fighting against slumlords that have used our community as their own personal piggy bank," said state Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, D-Buffalo, who, along with Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, introduced the city's anti-slumlord legislation.

"This (legislation) holds absentee, out-of-town landlords accountable," said Mayor Byron W. Brown. "It puts more pressure on landlords to maintain their properties in good condition.

"Our message," the mayor continued, "is whoever you are, if you own rental property, we expect it to be maintained."

The legislation – which Buffalo has been requesting from Albany for several years – allows the city to convert court judgments resulting from unpaid building and fire code fines into tax liens that become part of the annual tax bill on nonresident rental properties.

In the past, if these citations were ignored, the city could go to court to seek a judgment. But there was no practical mechanism for getting property owners living out of the area to address the citations and judgments, city officials have said.

Under the new law, if these judgments are not paid once they become tax liens, the city has the ability to foreclose on properties – just as it can now foreclose on properties when property taxes go unpaid.

Given that, Brown said, landlords are more likely to fix up their properties to avoid the payments they will otherwise face and avoid losing their property. And if they don't, the city can foreclose, Brown said.

The new law affects all rental properties except those that are owner-occupied.

Also, the law is aimed at slumlords – not a landlord who may periodically run into a problem, officials said.

The new law requires that the unpaid judgment be at least 5 percent of the assessed value of the home before it can be converted into a tax lien. Also, the judgment must remain unpaid for a year before the city can move to collect the lien.

While the law covers property owners from Buffalo and Erie County, its primary target is property investors living out of the area, Brown said.

"The further away (landlords are from Buffalo), the harder it gets to hold people accountable," Brown said.

The city has 64,355 rental units included in its approximately 94,000 total properties, with about 17,500 of those total properties listing owners outside of Buffalo, according to city records. More than half of those owners outside of Buffalo are listed as residing in Erie County, leaving about 8,200 other properties – residential and commercial – with owners outside of the county, records show.

There are property owners from all over the world, including Europe, the Middle East and Asia listed on the city assessment rolls. The majority of properties not owned locally are owned in the United States, with a large chunk in the New York City area.

The challenge Buffalo has with some out-of-town landlords was highlighted following a 2016 fire on Humber Avenue that took the lives of three people. The house was owned by Sayara A. Uddin of Brooklyn.

About nine months before the Feb. 19, 2016, fire, the city cited the property owner for failing to properly maintain the exterior of the property. When the fire occurred, the May 2015 violations had not been corrected, city officials said. Given that, the city building department filed additional housing code violations against Uddin after the fire.

Uddin pleaded guilty to seven violations in Housing Court, but failed to make any payments, court officials said. The city then obtained a $10,500 judgment in December 2016, which also was not paid, officials said last April.

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The city eventually foreclosed on the property because of unpaid taxes, and sold the property at auction.

At the time, city building department officials discussed the frustration of dealing with out-of-town landlords who ignore building code citations as well as court judgments. Having the ability to convert judgments into liens that could be added to the property tax bill would help, officials said.

"We have been asking for legislation like this for some time, and are glad it passed," Louis J. Petrucci, assistant director of the city's Department of Buildings and Inspections, said Thursday. "It's another important tool we can use to gain compliance."

Others praising the new law included Council President Darius G. Pridgen and Lovejoy Councilman Richard A. Fontana, who have been pushing for stronger slumlord laws in Buffalo.

Pridgen has been posting signs outside of run-down properties in his Ellicott District to draw attention to property owners he views as unresponsive, out-of-town slumlords.

Fontana has sometimes taken it upon himself to do some routine maintenance on properties in his districts. Among them is a vacant house at 1277 Bailey Ave. that has been the subject of several complaints in the past year. The property is so poorly maintained, Fontana said, that he periodically cuts the grass himself. The owner is from Kuwait, Fontana said.

"This is a huge tool for the city of Buffalo," Fontana said of the new law.

Fontana and other city officials said Buffalo has been pushing for passage of a slumlord bill of this type for years.

Back in 2003, Fontana said, he introduced legislation into the Common Council to allow unpaid building department citations to be converted into liens that, if unpaid, could be added to the tax bill. But Fontana then learned state legislation was needed.

The item has also been on the Brown administration's legislative agenda for years, but past attempts to get a bill approved didn't succeed in Albany.

State lawmakers had to address concerns from legislators in the New York City area, who were unfamiliar with Buffalo's real estate market, and also wanted assurances that the bill would not hurt lower-income homeowners and tenants, Buffalo officials said.

In fact, the legislation requires the city to develop a program to assist any tenants living in a house that could be foreclosed upon as a result of the new law.

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