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Making Slumlords Pay

With a little help from Albany, Buffalo has a new weapon in the fight against neglected properties.

Long-sought by Buffalo legislators and councilmembers, a state law signed last week will give the City the ability to add property fines levied in housing court to property tax bills. In addition, if those fines go chronically unpaid, the City can foreclose on those properties the way it currently can over unpaid property taxes and some fees.

In a statement, South District Councilman Chris Scanlon said,

In 2014, Councilman Fontana and I co-sponsored a resolution calling for any unpaid fees, fines, or penalties levied against a property to be added to the tax bill as a way to force absentee landlords into code compliance. We have spent four years pressuring the NYS Legislature to approve the measure.

Thanks to the help of Senator Timothy Kennedy and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, our resolution was signed into law this week. The Department of Permits and Inspections will finally have a vital tool to help them put an end to negligent, profit-driven, absentee property ownership that for years has victimized residential streets throughout the City of Buffalo.

According to the Buffalo News, Councilman Fontana attempted to introduce a similar law at the local level in 2003 before being told that it required a change in state law. So why did it take so long to get this done? According to the News, “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.”

Buffalo real estate agent Dave Weitzel, who also owns properties in Buffalo, reacted positively:

Better late than never! Glad to see new tools available to fight this issue, especially since it has become more difficult with the adoption by slumlords of hiding behind nameless LLC’s and S-Corps. Regardless of the ownership the city has a new ability to hold people more accountable.

Patty MacDonald, a longtime activist on this issue, said on her Project Slumlord Facebook page that the City has had this authority under city law since 2004, but it apparently required companion, state-level legislation to take effect.

Other details, per the News, are that 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.

This law provides an important new tool to address the “buy and neglect” game that thousands of out-of-town investors have been playing here. They buy properties cheap, either at the in-rem auction or from desperate sellers, then collect whatever rent they can while spending as little as they can, betting that property values will increase and they can flip the property for a tidy profit. The owner, who may be on the other side of the world, may never see the property, and the faces of the angry neighbors whose block is blighted by the neglect.

Cobblestone District

This development comes on the heels of other actions this summer that are putting the heat on neglectful owners. Just last month a notorious, longtime neglectful landlord was finally sentenced to jail time after years of maneuvers and dodges in addressing issues with her properties, the most prominent being on Hudson at Plymouth (lead image). Earlier this month Common Council President Darius Pridgen launched Operation Slumlord, which aims to seek out the ten-worst absentee property owners in the Pridgen’s Ellicott District and publicly shame them. Patty MacDonald, whose Project Slumlord is a similarly named but separate advocacy effort, characterized it as little more than grandstanding. Yet it may have been part of the effort to publicize and push for the passage of the state-level legislation.

Many eyes will be watching to see if the City puts this newfound power to vigorous and responsible use. How about starting with Darryl Carr’s building (inset photo) in the Cobblestone District?

Get connected: Project Slumlord

Written by RaChaCha

RaChaCha

RaChaCha is a Garbage Plate™ kid making his way in a Chicken Wing world. Since 2008, he's put over a hundred articles on here, and he asked us to be sure to thank you for reading. So, thank you for reading. You may also have seen his freelance byline in Artvoice, where he writes under the name his daddy gave him [Ed: Send me a check, and I might reveal what that is]. When he's not writing, RaChaCha is an urban planner, a rehabber of houses, and a community builder. He co-founded the Buffalo Mass Mob, and would love to see you at the next one. He represents Buffalo Young Preservationists on the Trico roundtable. If you try to demolish a historic building, he might have something to say about that. He is a proud AmeriCorps alum.

Things you may not know about RaChaCha (unless you read this before): "Ra Cha Cha" is a nickname of his hometown. (Didn't you know that? Do you live under a rock?) He's a political junkie (he once worked for the president of the Monroe County Legislature), but we don't really let him write about politics on here. He helped create a major greenway in the Genesee Valley, and worked on early planning for the Canalway Trail. He hopes you enjoy biking and hiking on those because that's what he put in all that work for. He was a ringleader of the legendary "Chill the Fill" campaign to save Rochester's old downtown subway tunnel. In fact, he comes from a long line of troublemakers. An ancestor fought at Bunker Hill, and a relative led the Bear Flag Revolt in California. We advise you to remember this before messing with him in the comments. He worked on planning the Rochester ARTWalk, and thinks Buffalo should have one of those, too (write your congressman).

You can also find RaChaCha (all too often, we frequently nag him) on the Twitters at @HeyRaChaCha. Which is what some people here yell when they see him on the street. You know who you are.

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