Thursday, September 6, 2012

Common Council Hearing on Rental Properties

Last night, the Common Council Legal Committee held a fact-finding hearing about rental properties in Hudson. Aldermen John Friedman (Third Ward) and David Marston (First Ward), Council president Don Moore, and city attorney Cheryl Roberts made up the panel hearing the comments; Mayor William Hallenbeck, Police Commissioner Gary Graziano, Fire Commissioner Tim Hutchings, Code Enforcement Officer Peter Wurster, and Hudson landlord Phil Gellert made up the panel offering the comments. Tom Casey reports on the meeting in today's Register-Star: "Viewpoints shared on city housing."

Casey's report requires one correction: Friedman did not say he wanted city code to elevate problematic addresses; rather he said the goal was to see how city code could alleviate the problems.

The hearing went on for two hours, and Gossips will make no attempt to report everything that was said, only some interesting information that emerged from the discussion.

Wurster offered the information that there are more than 600 rental apartments in Hudson. He revealed that 50 percent of Gellert's apartments turn over in less than a year. He outlined the following as a typical pattern of code enforcement's involvement with rental units: tenants fall behind in the rent; they receive an eviction notice; the tenants then ask the code enforcement office to inspect the property to establish that it is substandard so they can argue that they should not have to pay the past due rent. "You can set your clock by that schedule," said Wurster.

In his comments, Gellert complained that it takes too long to get a bad tenant out of an apartment, pointing out that after eviction notices are served, bad tenants continue in the unacceptable behavior that triggered the eviction in the first place.

There was some discussion about who had the power to declare a building a safety hazard and order it demolished. According to Friedman, the code gives this power to the fire chief. Wurster asserted that "the mayor is the ultimate person to say that a building needs to come down." In the discussion of condemnation and demolition, Hallenbeck talked about how some cities took possession of dangerous and derelict buildings, stabilized them, and then sold them for the cost of the stabilization--generally describing, without naming any particular city, the Community Land Bank program that the mayor of Newburgh has initiated in that city. At the end of his comment, Hallenbeck added that this took money, implying that the City of Hudson had no money available for such a program. Later in the discussion, Hallenbeck made the observation: "There is an expense to the City when you want to aggressively attack something."

Hutchings pointed out that at least one life could have been saved if a rental inspection law had been in place before a disastrous fire on Robinson Street nearly ten years ago. He explained that a new tenant had moved into an apartment before the prior tenant's belongings had been removed. Those belongings had been packed into boxes, which had been stacked in a hallway blocking an exit from the building.

Graziano made the point that there is not necessarily a correlation between buildings with fire and safety code violations and locations that the police department considers problematic. He reported that the police had been called more than 200 times to the same locations within the past eighteen months and concluded that "certain landlords rent to problematic people."  

At the end of the meeting, when comments from the audience were heard, Timothy O'Connor talked about a particular building on lower Allen Street, where "successive tenants are constant problems," and recommended the City consider enacting an "Animal House law," which holds landlords responsible if the police are regularly summoned to their building.


  1. Thank you Gossips for acknowledging my recommendation at the hearing, and for an accurate report of Commissioner Graziano's statement.

    Requiring that owners of extremely problematic rental properties post bonds, which the city may later draw upon in the eventuality of future law enforcement actions and court costs, is a legislative option that's been around for some time.

    If you get an alarm system in Hudson, you pay the HPD a permit fee. When the alarm is faulty and reports beyond a permissible number of false alarms, the owner pays a fine.

    An "Animal House" law follows the same principle. It's something I've been arguing since last year, both to the agreeable HPD and to the generally mute Common Council.

    The Common Council can make the ordinance merely symbolic, or it can be as onerous as they wish. It can cover only the worst crimes such as drugs and violence, or it can cover lesser infractions as well, as long as it can be proved that such properties are a constant draw on HPD resources. It would be the council's law to design.

    But if last night's hearing was billed as a fact-finding occasion, the proceedings had an entirely different feel and purpose.

    There was an evident bias maintained by its sponsors throughout the hearing, whereby all comments were trained to fit into a specific social narrative. Even when HPD Commissioner Graziano offered a differing perspective on why people behave the way they do, he was politely corrected by the Committee Chairman.

    Today's Register Star story further cemented the bias by eliding what Graziano actually said. Fortunately Gossips sets the record straight. (My polite criticism about the story was posted at the Register Star at 6AM, but was not accepted. In itself I find that treatment ominous coming from our official "Newspaper of Record.")

    The bias goes like this, and if you don't agree with it then count on being corrected, elided or deleted:

    "People's behaviors are caused by their environments, ergo they are not entirely culpable for their actions when they live in degraded surroundings. We are victims of our circumstances first, and of our poor characters second (if at all)."

    As Flip Wilson might have said, "the apartment made me do it!"

  2. Another complaint I had about the hearing was that there was no context for the complaints of neighbors of these problematic rental addresses (a concern that was implied throughout the Police Commissioner's mostly unwelcome statement).

    Another shortcoming was the failure to look at other rising rental markets in Hudson, such as short-term weekend and holiday rentals, and those smaller operations than Gellerts' which regularly draw in the HPD.

    As a homeowner, I compared the hearing's general myopia to Western medicine when it sees only the symptom and not the patient.

    To be fair, at one point the Committee Chair recognized that problems arise when one person's rats become their neighbor's rats, but that was the only acknowledgement that bad situations effect residents beyond the immediate landlord-tenant relationship.

    Because the hearing did not treat the city as a whole entity, it would have been more accurate to have billed the thing as either a hearing about the proposed inspections of rental units, or a meeting about Phil Gellert's business model.

    Frankly, if a landlord is in the wrong business why is that anyone else's problem? If he's losing business, then he's a crappy businessman. Let the market sort him out.

    Anyone might come away from the hearing supposing that landlords and tenants come first in Hudson, homeowners second.

    Nuts to that! Hudson homeowners beware!