Schenectady County

Roof collapse spurs code vigilance

The roof collapse that nearly killed a family on Barrett Street two months ago has served as a warni

The roof collapse that nearly killed a family on Barrett Street two months ago has served as a warning for at least three other homeowners.

The near-tragedy has also persuaded code inspectors to focus sharply on vacant buildings. They are now citing every code violation they can find, as often as possible, in an effort to pressure owners to fix their properties before they fall down.

That’s what happened at 1035 Barrett St., where the walls slowly bowed out over the course of months. Then, suddenly, the roof pancaked onto the second floor during a light rainstorm on Nov. 26. The Wright family, which had rented the first floor, ran outside as the side wall blew out and bricks tumbled to the driveway.

They said they hadn’t believed there was a serious problem with the house despite a notice posted seven weeks earlier saying the house was unsafe and should not be occupied.

The slowly bowing-out walls on Barrett Street were missed by an inexperienced code inspector, and Mayor Brian U. Stratton worried that other buildings could have been passed over as well.

He announced a series of projects designed to make sure something like that never happened again.

In an emergency inspection of all old, brick houses in the city, inspectors found three more homes that had the same hard-to-see masonry problems that led to the Barrett Street roof collapse.

The brick houses were bowing out in the same way as 1035 Barrett St., said Building Inspector Keith Lamp.

All three houses were vacant, and after code violations were issued, work is beginning at two of them, Lamp said. None were as bad as 1035 Barrett St., which had to be demolished after the roof collapsed.

‘A lot to learn’

He thinks inspectors aren’t going to miss such problems again.

“It was easy to miss,” Lamp said, but added that he had no trouble noticing the problem when he saw the Barrett Street house, seven weeks before the roof collapsed.

The first inspector, who had only been on the job for a year, just wasn’t experienced enough yet, he said.

“There’s a lot to learn. He’s still new,” Lamp said.

All the inspectors are now keeping a close eye on the city’s aging masonry houses, watching for the bowing-out bricks that indicate a major problem, he added.

Stratton also told inspectors to check every house that had been ordered vacant due to structural problems.

He wanted to make sure families weren’t still living in those houses, considering that the Wright family had stayed in the Barrett Street house for months after being warned about the roof problems.

Lamp said inspectors are now checking those houses regularly, and haven’t yet found any signs of occupancy.

“That’s the first occupied unsafe structure I’ve come across in years,” he said, but added that since the Wright family so easily ignored the city’s order to vacate, he won’t assume that others will obey the order.

“We’re going to keep tabs on them,” he said.

The police department is getting in on the act too, Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden said.

“Police at muster will be told of structural orders to vacate, and swing by the house to make sure it’s still empty,” he said.

In case code inspectors haven’t already passed the word to police, law department officials notify them too.

“It’s to ensure redundancy,” Van Norden said.

owners pressured

The project has morphed into a focus on all of the city’s vacant buildings.

Lamp reorganized his department, reassigning two inspectors to vacant-building duty without adding workers to the budget.

One inspector has been assigned to make a list of every vacant structure in the city, a project that is expected to be completed by the end of the month.

There are a lot of them: 800 buildings in the city are already boarded up, Van Norden said.

A second inspector has been assigned to check the vacant buildings every week and cite them each time for every code violations he can find.

The idea is to “pressure” the owners into taking immediate action, Lamp said.

“I believe what will happen is the owner will take notice, and if he doesn’t have any plans for the near future maybe just sell it to an individual who will renovate it,” Lamp said.

Although the department began focusing on vacant houses when Stratton announced that cleaning up blight would be one of his main priorities, Lamp said he’d recently realized more needed to be done with those buildings.

When he got complaints about vacant buildings, he began checking the records only to see that similar complaints had been made months earlier.

more prosecutions

“I saw numbers coming in I wasn’t happy with,” he said. “I was getting complaints about open and vacant and finding out six months ago, or two months ago, we had a complaint of open and vacant. I wasn’t happy.”

His inspectors were citing owners who left their properties unsecured and vacant, but all too often, owners did nothing.

Ninety days later, inspectors would write out a nuisance ticket — which carries a $300 minimum fine for the first offense — but still would get no reaction from the owners.

“It’s just not working,” Lamp said.

He thinks repeated tickets for every exterior code violation will have more of an effect. But the law department plans to back him up with more prosecutions.

In another reorganization that’s not expected to cost the city more, attorneys are now available for more court work, while the city’s new insurance carrier handles lawsuits against the city, Van Norden said.

That means the city attorneys will have time to take more property management violations to court, pushing for nuisance fines on more than just the extreme cases. Before, they had to “triage” their cases, Van Norden said.

Half of the law department staff is focusing on vacant buildings now.

Categories: Schenectady County

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