Wearing jailhouse orange clothes and his hands in chains, Michael A. Gambino was among the first to appear before Buffalo Housing Court Judge Patrick M. Carney on a recent morning.
Gambino insisted he's fixing up the rundown home he lives in on Krupp Street off Broadway.
The judge was skeptical.
After all, Gambino just spent four nights in jail after being arrested on a warrant issued because he previously failed to appear in court to address numerous housing code violations on his property. He's also been fighting off threatened foreclosure of the house by the city.
Soon after Gambino left the courtroom, Joshua Lukasik was in front of Carney for the second time in two months. Lukasik doesn't own any cited properties but is property manager for a Canadian company, Belgan One Inc., that owns 11 Buffalo properties. Five are in housing court on violations.
"We are not saying everything is done, but we are getting work done," Lukasik told the judge.
"I don't need some – I need this work done," Carney responded.
Another out-of-town property owner, Muhammad Rafiqul Islam of the Bronx, didn't show up in court on this day, but his lawyer did.
"My client says everything is taken care of," said attorney George Berbary.
The case – for 11 citations on a two-family house Islam bought in 2015 for $40,000 – was adjourned until next month, giving city building inspectors a chance to recheck Islam's Germain Street property, near Grant.
A typical day
When court ended Nov. 8, Carney described the day as pretty typical – a microcosm of the housing problems facing the City of Buffalo as well as the challenges facing those working to enforce city housing codes.
On this particular Thursday – the one day of the week set aside for trials, pleas and sentencing as well as checking on ongoing cases – Carney handled almost 70 files involving 40 property owners. Fines were imposed. Pleas entered. Trial dates set. More jail time was threatened – but not imposed. Almost a dozen cases were closed. Most were adjourned.
The judge has a reputation for giving property owners time to fix up their houses before resorting to hefty fines, jail time or receivership.
Some of those who appeared last week before Carney are longtime owner-occupants of their homes, often elderly or infirm, many of lower income. Their houses are in disrepair, sometimes dangerously so, but they don't appear to have the money or wherewithal to fix them. There were also newer homeowners struggling to get repairs done, and landlords under pressure to maintain rental properties.
Investor Victoria Gutierrez, 45, of Black Rock, for example, bought a 3,000-square-foot house on West Ferry Street, near Massachusetts Avenue, for $9,600 in 2009. The house was first cited in 2011 for violations involving the roof, gutters, stairways and deck.
"For seven years I've been waiting for you to get this done," Carney told Gutierrez. "That is a ridiculous amount of time to finish it."
"I have another house I'm about to sell on Lasalle," Gutierrez responded. "All that money is going into this house."
Out-of-town owners pose challenges
The increasingly global ownership of Buffalo properties is also apparent in Housing Court, as are the additional challenges that presents for building inspectors.
Buffalo has approximately 94,000 total properties with 64,355 rental units. Owners of about 17,500 properties list their mailing addresses outside of Buffalo, according to city records.
Most of those owners from outside of Buffalo are identified as Erie County residents. But about 8,200 residential and commercial properties are listed as having owners outside of Erie County, records show.
There are property owners from all over the world, including Canada, Europe, the Middle East and Asia, on the city assessment rolls. A large chunk of property owners are from the New York City area.
Among the cases in Housing Court was one against True Privilege Holdings of Long Island, which, until recently, owned houses at 271 Loring Ave. and 77 Clarence Ave.
No one from True Privilege showed up in court. Carney imposed a $22,500 judgment on the company for failing to fix the properties, which True Privilege had purchased for a few thousand dollars at a 2010 tax foreclosure auction, records show.
The two houses were sold last month at the city's 2018 foreclosure auction. But that doesn't cancel out fines owed for violations from when True Privilege owned the property, said Louis Petrucci, assistant director of Buffalo's Department of Permits and Inspections.
That True Privilege is no longer owner could, however, make it more difficult for Buffalo to collect from the Hempstead company.
A True Privilege representative did not respond to a phone message from The Buffalo News.
The Nov. 8 housing court session lasted about 2½ hours. But most cases on the court docket continue, including the ones for Belgan One and Gambino, the Buffalo homeowner.
The five Belgan One properties before Carney include houses on Wick, French, Koons and Laurel streets that were cited for everything from damaged roofs and siding to drainage problems, excessive rubbish and suspected lead paint.
"They have five houses in my housing court, and not one is done. Laurel has been here since 2015," Carney told Lukasik, the company's property manager.
A prior property manager wasn't properly maintaining the houses, but improvements are being made, Lukasik said. "Windows are ordered, and ready to be installed."
"Wicks hasn't been touched. They haven't been doing anything," Carney responded. "Same roof issues. Same broken steps. They ordered windows. Great.
"Relay to whomever your supervisors are they have no more time," the judge told Lukasik. "If this work is not finished April 25, they will have a trial, and I will impose every dime I can and take over the properties."
Outside the courtroom, Lukasik said the situation is challenging because Belgan is providing rental housing for low-income residents, so the rents don't generate a lot of revenue.
As for Gambino, he is now free from jail.
His house on Krupp Street was cited five times since 2014 – most recently in 2017 – for violations including problems with the ceiling, stairs and deck as well as suspected lead paint and overall unsanitary conditions.
When Gambino, 49, failed to appear for his continued court appearances, Carney in November 2017 issued a bench warrant for his arrest. Police pulled Gambino's truck over on the night of Nov. 3, possibly because it had no front license plate. When police ran a computer check, the Housing Court warrant showed up. He remained in jail, unable to make bail, until he appeared in Housing Court Nov. 8.
A Buffalo News reporter went to Gambino's house a few days after his release, but no one answered although lights were on inside, a radio or television could be heard playing and Gambino's truck was parked outside.
The Krupp Street house needed work when Gambino bought it in 2012 for $1 from a New Jersey investment company, but the property has deteriorated since then, neighbors said. It's a two-family house, but Gambino lives alone and has no tenants, they said.
In recent weeks, neighbors said, workers have been sporadically scraping and painting the outside of the house, but the roof remains deteriorated, the front handrail broken, a water pipe appears to be broken, and the side and back yards are filled with junk, including tires. It's a breeding ground for rats, neighbors said.
Gambino was able to get the house off the city's 2018 foreclosure list, but still owes almost $1,500 in back taxes and fees, some going back to 2014, according to city records.
Carney set a March 22 trial date on the violations, giving Gambino until the beginning of spring to clean up and repair his house.
"We've been at this for five years," Carney told Gambino. "Get it done ... or go back to jail."
Story topics: BMHA