By Philip Gambini firstname.lastname@example.org Feb 1, 2018
Instead of “carpet-bombing” building code violators across Niagara Falls, City Administrator Nick Melson and other officials told lawmakers this week the new strategy is to target chronically negligent local property owners.
Melson called it a “crude reference,” but one that also frames the planned changes to the way the city confronts the continued decay of its housing stock.
“We’ve been carpet-bombing for years,” Melson said. “We’re going to precision bomb, right, and we’re going to show these bad actors there’s consequences.”
Melson assists in the oversight of the Department of Code Enforcement after a consolidation of the division with the Department of Community Development late last year. Seth Piccirillo, the CD department’s director, has assumed the directorship of code enforcement as well.
Piccirillo described the strategy as a pivot from the existing reactive, complaint-driven response model to a “data-driven” approach, something he expects to allow city officials to act proactively. That will require prioritizing code enforcement violations, he said.
“That means some other calls, or other complaints will be ‘de-prioritized,’ ” Piccirillo told lawmakers, explaining a call for chipped paint will be superseded by collapsing porches or hanging gutters.
Niagara Falls City Councilman Kenny Tompkins offered caution. Though small infractions may appear so in the scheme of city problems, to responsible property owners living beside the issue, it remains a prime concern.
Melson said the city does not have the resources to effectively combat the issues on a wide scale.
“The reality is, unless someone walks in the door right now and drops $20 million on the floor, you can’t go around and hit every single house, so we’ve got to be smarter with the resources we have,” he said.
Since 2009, the city’s code enforcement office has seen its budget decrease by about 14 percent, from about $1.02 million to $880,000. It is among the most substantial financial reductions among the major city departments in the past decade.
The office will also be using software provided by a state Attorney General’s Office grant called “Building Block,” which among other things allows for chronological tracking of code violations, as well as logging calls to the local police and fire department.
A test case for the new approach is already in action: a pair of properties, one on 12th Street and the other on Memorial Parkway. Piccirillo said they belong to Steven Clark, a landlord from the village of Ransomville who owns 19 other city buildings.
According to Piccirillo, code violations cited in January of this year included “the same violations” Clark was cited for in 2015. He said such situations are considered “intentional blight.” Staff will return to the homes March 2 for a re-inspection, after which time persisting violations will become a court matter, he said.
Clark, when reached by telephone on Thursday, said he was unaware of any code violations at the 12th Street property. As for the Memorial Parkway house, Clark said a vehicle crashed into the porch in 2016. That matter is currently in housing court, he said.
“If they were going to bring me up I would have loved to be there to respond,” he said.
On Thursday, Piccirillo said code enforcement staff had sent five notices since 2015 to the post office box associated with Clark’s tax payments.
“Every time there’s a code violation he receives a letter,” he said, adding that specific addresses were mentioned at the meeting so residents “can check our progress” and hold the city accountable to its stated aims.
Councilman William Kennedy also suggested a strategy be developed in specific relation to “out-of-town” landlords, who can often postpone housing court appearances by claiming the the hardship of travel, which Melson said was under consideration.
In addition, Melson and Piccirillo said changes would also be coming to how the city monitors housing court cases.
The pair intend to post departmental employees in the city’s housing court, which convenes once a month, in order to effectively track the results of the code violations. Last year, Piccirillo reported a total 1,879 complaints, of which 250 to 300 cases were heard by a judge.
The conclusion of those cases is not well monitored, he said, as housing court decisions are not made publicly accessible.
“We do not know clearly what the personality of housing court is,” Piccirillo said. “I would say, in my opinion, it has been lenient over the years.”
Councilman Christopher Voccio pressed Melson and Piccirillo to detail how the changes will result in increased efficiency. He ultimately satisfied his line of questioning and said he “applauds” the effort, describing blight as a “plague” on the city.
Chairman Andrew Touma said previous methods had proved a “disservice” to the public.
“And I really think now is the time when we have to take a hardline and start, you know, sending the message,” he said.