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Editorial: Landlords are on notice after new anti-slumlord bill

Buffalo has for years been wrestling with the problem of out-of-town owners who don’t maintain their rental properties.

That could change now that the state Legislature recently passed what’s been called an anti-slumlord bill. The new law is a good start, but it will take assertive enforcement and a careful monitoring of the results to make the effort worthwhile.

When the landlords of Buffalo buildings live in Canarsie, California or China, the city has had limited ability to hold them to account. Now, under the new law, when the owners of nonresident rental properties accumulate unpaid building and fire code fines, the city can convert them into tax liens that become part of the yearly tax bill. If the judgments are not paid after becoming tax liens, the city can foreclose on the properties.

Putting teeth into our laws to hold landlords accountable is a good thing, but there may be unintended consequences that make the cure worse than the disease. If a lien is more money than a property is worth, the landlord may just abandon the property rather than pay. That could add to the city’s supply of “zombie” homes, another scourge that plagues many of our neighborhoods.

A fairly high percentage of the city’s derelict properties are owned by banks after foreclosures. Would the city also become a de facto landlord with hundreds of properties if it aggressively pursues foreclosures? What will become of those properties – will the city be able to sell them, or will it preside over a new inventory of zombie homes?

According to city records, about 8,200 of Buffalo’s 64,355 rental units have owners located outside the county, or about 13 percent. The majority of properties not owned locally are owned in the United States, with a high concentration in the New York City area.

Tom Larsen, head of the Western New York Real Estate Investors Association, points out “the biggest offender when it comes to distressed properties is banks that hold them. They don’t live here, have no accountability to maintain a property, so maybe this bill will wake them up.”

Larsen also objects to any implication that all absentee landlords are “slumlords.”

“There are a lot of great, caring landlords out there who operate a legitimate rental property business, some full time, too,” he said.

Patty Macdonald is coordinator of Project Slumlord, a group that works to rid the city of rundown and vacant properties. Macdonald says the bill is well-intentioned, but she questions whether the city will use it to bring about change.

Macdonald says the city’s Housing Court “is notorious for adjournment after adjournment, with few or no fines imposed never mind collected. … Permits and Inspections has wide powers to fine, and even to secure and repair properties, but they don’t have a budget for doing stabilization and repairs, so they don’t use this power. This seems to me to be the best place to start, but it would require action by the Common Council.”

Also, Macdonald points out that “some of our most notorious (landlords) live right here in Erie County. They appear, or their proxies appear, in Housing Court on a regular basis, two of them upwards of 60 times since 2008. ... The city could and should act swiftly to bring these properties up to the standard of the neighborhood.”

The business guru Peter Drucker said “what gets measured gets managed.”

It will be up to the city to not only keep the heat on absent landlords who neglect their properties, but to measure the results of the new law to make sure that aggressive enforcement doesn’t result in a zombie home apocalypse.

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