- Despite an uptick in development, Elmira was dealing with the problems common in shrinking cities: vacancy, noncompliant landlords and illegal boarding houses.
- To address complaints and research cases, Code Enforcement officers would spend hours each day chasing up data from across City and County departments
- Using BuildingBlocks, Code Enforcement officers now have instant access to all the information they need before responding to a complaint, allowing them to identify problem owners, prevent unfair evictions and protect property standards.
Elmira, NY, lies ten minutes north of the Pennsylvania border along New York’s Southern Tier. It was once a robust hub of manufacturing and railroad jobs, but the exodus of a number of large employers whittled the population from a peak of 50,000 in the 1950’s to just under 28,000. Today, Elmira is experiencing a resurgence, with Federal, State, and private investments creating a steady drumbeat of development in the City, yet it continues to deal with problems common in shrinking cities: vacancy, noncompliant landlords, and illegal boarding houses. Enter Tom Skebey, who as the Director of Code Enforcement and Superintendent of Buildings is charged with eliminating blight and ensuring Elmira’s citizens live in safe conditions.
Like many of his fellow building officials across the country, Skebey deals with a constant influx of citizen complaints, inquiries from other departments, and requests for information from the administration. The nature of his role means that he is in the middle of disputes among neighbors, tenants, landlords, property managers, corporation counsel, city management, and even elected officials. To respond to contradicting claims, Skebey found himself working long hours to sift through assessor’s records, cross-reference his database of code cases, and call his colleagues in other departments.
In one case, a landlord requested that one of his rental properties be posted for non-occupancy, pointing to a utility shut-off as evidence that the home was vacant. Skebey was conscious of the importance of posting properties in a timely manner, and an inspection showed no clear-cut signs of occupancy. But he remained skeptical: “We have a few ‘frequent fliers’—landlords that know how to game the system. If I’m not operating with complete information, I’m a step behind these guys.”
Skebey turned to the BuildingBlocks application, which brings together data on code violations, police, fire, tax, utilities, and more, giving him a one-stop portal for all the information he needs on every property in the City. Instead of hours and hours of research, in a few seconds he was able to quickly determine that there was a police call regarding a landlord-tenant dispute mere days before the request came in. With evidence that the landlord’s ulterior motive was eviction, the City and County Social Services took a closer look at the property. They discovered that the tenants who originated the earlier police call had young children, and that cutting off the utilities constituted child endangerment. The quick action of Skebey and his colleagues kept the family from being evicted.
“The data doesn’t lie, so it’s the fastest way to resolution,” Skebey explained. “But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to pull it all together. I’ve got limited staff and competing priorities.”
Tom Skebey, Director of Code Enforcement and Superintendent of Buildings
“It’s amazing what we have available to us now and how we can use it to operate more efficiently and effectively,” Skebey stated. “I am in the application every day as an enforcement tool, but it goes beyond that…it’s become the go-to answer for us.”
He recounted another instance in which a neighbor complained at a Council meeting that he had called police and code enforcement multiple times with no response. “Before BuildingBlocks, we would have told him we’d look into it and get back to him in a week. Now I can pull up the property in a few seconds and get the City Manager the real-time information he needs. We can say immediately and confidently that that we’ve sent our people out there each and every time a complaint has come in.”