Schenectady County

Landlord cited after tenant dies

The landlord whose tenant died of carbon monoxide poisoning has been cited with 13 code violations,

The landlord whose tenant died of carbon monoxide poisoning has been cited with 13 code violations, according to city records.

Only one relates directly to the death. Owner James Marcella has been cited for a lack of smoke detectors in his four units at 1802 Campbell Ave. A detector could have woken up tenant Jack Idec when he fell asleep while heating his apartment with the flames from his stove, fire officials said.

Code enforcement staff also wrote up a violation for the building’s lack of carbon monoxide detectors, but Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden said that would be dropped. A state law requiring carbon monoxide detectors in existing homes doesn’t go into effect until Feb. 22.

Marcella said he’s already bought 26 detectors, one for every rental unit he owns, including the four at 1802 Campbell Ave.

Other violation citations may be issued by the city. Van Norden said it appears that Marcella broke the city’s heating law, even though his furnace and thermostat were working properly.

The furnace was set to turn on whenever the temperature in the building fell below 71 degrees, but the thermostat only measured the temperature in one apartment. It had no way to signal the furnace when other apartments fell below 71 degrees.

Those other apartments were as cold as 55 degrees on some winter nights, and firefighters said tenants in all three units used their stoves to stay warm. Tenant Jack Idec died from the carbon monoxide produced by his stove.

Van Norden said the city’s law clearly requires landlords to not only provide a working furnace but also to actually keep the apartments at 68 degrees or higher.

That means Marcella is likely in violation, he said.

“I would say this is a violation. You’ve got the equipment adequate to provide it, but the temperature is not consistently maintained so that space is not in compliance,” Van Norden said.

However, Marcella has not been cited with that violation — and he may never be, Van Norden said.

“I don’t have any way to prove it,” Van Norden said. “The man is dead. There’s a real evidence problem here.”

He said the city would need statements from one of the building’s other tenants before it could cite the heating issue. The city would likely have cited it before Idec died if Idec had complained to code enforcement, he added.

“Code [enforcers] can’t cite something they don’t know about,” Van Norden said. “We really do depend on constituent complaints or reports.”

Marcella has disputed the code violations, which he said are irrelevant to the death. Most of the 13 violations refer to peeling paint, deteriorated siding and other aesthetic problems.

“It has nothing to do with habitation — that’s appearance,” Marcella said.

He said a violation for a leaking water pipe in the cellar was “the only legitimate thing” in the list of citations.

As for the smoke detectors, he said the lack wasn’t his fault.

“A lot of times people cook and they create heat or they burn something and they take it off the wall and take the battery out,” he said.

He acknowledged that one unit had no smoke detector but said he provided them for the other three units.

He said he also should not be held responsible for the temperature in the building that led Idec to turn on his stove for heat.

The furnace did not fire because a downstairs tenant used a space heater to warm her apartment above 71 degrees. Whenever she did so, the sole heating probe for the building, which was in her apartment, would measure the temperature and signal the furnace to turn off.

Marcella said he told the tenant “at least 20 times” this winter to stop using the space heater because it stopped the building’s heat. She didn’t listen, he said.

“The system couldn’t run better, so long as she didn’t do anything stupid,” he said.

He does not plan to move the heating probe or add probes in other apartments.

“That [one probe] is still the best way of doing it,” he said. “The best problem-solve is to get rid of her. No matter where you put the probe, it doesn’t matter if you get a bad tenant.”

The tenant, Peggy Elwood, said that before Idec’s death, she didn’t understand why Marcella wanted her to turn off her space heater. She said she turned on the space heater because she was cold; some portions of her apartment drop to 66 degrees, according to a thermometer, even when the building’s furnace is running.

Marcella is considering evicting her.

“For anybody to say they’re cold — put on a sweater!” he said.

Meanwhile, he has until Feb. 22 to begin making corrections to his building. But money is tight. He has not paid his property taxes to the city since 2002. Recently, he paid off three years’ worth of back taxes to American Tax Funding, but his current taxes remain unpaid. He owes a total of $30,000, including $7,000 for 2009.

He said he has been unable to pay because he can’t get his tenants to pay their rent.

“I have $50,000 on the books with deadbeats,” he said.

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