When Renee Crockett lived in a three-story, six-apartment building on First Avenue five years ago, she dealt with bare electrical wires, mice and a hole in her bathroom ceiling.
“When the guy above us would shower, our bathroom would smell like his shampoo,” she said.
Crockett, her boyfriend and her neighbor across the hall contacted code enforcement several times, she said, with no action. Finally, when a supervisor came out to see their living conditions, her issues were addressed, she said.
The Schenectady code enforcement office is amid turbulent times. It is simultaneously without a department head, under audit by the state and in the shadow of a former employee’s alleged role in a fatal 2015 fire. City officials said the department is adequately staffed, and they are making internal changes to improve accountability and efficiency. But many residents said they feel the department is either unresponsive, unreliable or understaffed.
“It doesn’t feel like you’re calling to get help,” said resident Carmen Montanaro, recalling his experiences with the department. “It feels like you’re calling and they don’t want to do anything about it.”
For residents who have encountered code enforcement or attempted to file complaints, the process has not always gone smoothly.
In recent interviews, many residents said there’s a perception the department is either understaffed or slow to respond to complaints. Some say they’ve had no issues with code officers, but are unsure of how effective the city’s follow up methods are. In nearly all cases, residents cited a lack of trust in one part of the enforcement process or another.
“People are feeling like where can I go from here?” said Deborah Rembert, president of the Schenectady Tenant Association Meeting Program . “If you don’t feel like code enforcement is doing the job, who do you call?”
Between March 1 and June 1, the city received 701 code complaints, according to city records. Those complaints fell to the nine staffers responsible for citing and inspecting properties.
The department has five code enforcement officers, whose duties include monitoring and inspecting permitted construction, responding to and resolving complaints, performing required inspections and promoting safe living and working conditions.
Three housing inspectors with are tasked with registration of rental property, inspection of rental units and response and maintenance of reported complaints.
The city’s lone nuisance inspector notifies residents of unsafe, unsightly or illegal property conditions. That includes overgrown grass, abandoned vehicles, junk or garbage placed out on the wrong day.
Mayor Gary McCarthy said staffing is not an issue and the department is keeping up with its workload.
But multiple residents said they’ve reported unsightly or dangerous looking properties repeatedly, and failed to get results. City resident Paul Paken said he and six other families called to complain about exterior issues at the same neighborhood home for months, to no avail. He then filled out paperwork in person at the codes office, he said, and still nothing was done.
Eventually, he and his neighbors gave up, Paken said, adding he’s unsure if the city’s inaction was a result of inadequate staffing or indifference.
Some residents recalled positive experiences with code enforcement. Dave Hines said he was pleased with the department’s prompt response to his complaint about a neighboring property leaving its water running until the surrounding area flooded, though he wondered if the city had the means to properly punish violators.
Bob Harvey, president of the Eastern Avenue Neighborhood Association, said he believes residents trust the city to cite properties initially, but are less confident in the follow up measures.
“When you are being told that you have to do this and you have to do that, certainly the approach is very important,” said Chris Morris, president of Schenectady Landlords Influencing Change. “I personally feel they’re working vigorously to minimize blighted properties, but the concept of code on the street is they’re talking to somebody about minor things and nearby there’s something that’s been there for years in disarray.”
For some city residents, it’s not a matter of staffing, but a matter of trust. In the aftermath of 2015’s fatal Jay Street fire and a recent indictment implicating a city code officer in the blaze, many said their faith in the department has either eroded or disappeared.
“How do you come back from something like that?” said Crockett, who now lives in Goose Hill. “I don’t even think there is anything. People died.”
One resident suggested holding a public forum to gather input on improving the department, while the mayor said rebuilding trust is done on the job.
“It’s a situation that I wished had not happened, but we tell city employees we have to earn the trust and respect of people every day,” McCarthy said. “If you’re a police officer or a code officer, you get judged on what you do every day in terms of engagement with the public. From that, people either have confidence or questions.”
The Code Enforcement Department works on a complaint basis.
If it’s an urgent matter that represents a safety threat, an officer is dispatched immediately. If it’s less pressing, it’s scheduled to be looked at, McCarthy said at a recent Goose Hill Neighborhood Association meeting.
A homeowner or landlord is typically given 30 days to address a violation, though the city will be flexible if more costly, comprehensive repairs are required, officials said.
Enforcing violations largely falls to the city’s law department. After a code official cites a violation, the law department often assists by tracking down an owner of a vacant property or pursuing violations in court. Eighty percent of violations will never go to court, said Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico.
“We try to take a common sense approach to dealing with each situation,” Falotico said. “There are some properties where the owner hasn’t been there in years. Talking to somebody at the door isn’t going to be effective in that case. Going through the legal process is what will get their attention.”
In the coming days, the law department will have a more formalized role in the overall process, McCarthy said. The collaboration between the law and codes departments will allow for increased accountability and improved responses to blighted properties, he said.
Typically, McCarthy said, officers are dispatched when someone new moves into a rental property, or whenever there’s a complaint. The city then conducts follow-up inspections to see if a cited property was brought into compliance, he said.
The city’s five code officers are assigned a district for which they are responsible. There’s no hard and fast rule on how frequently they must inspect properties, Falotico said. Rather, they are expected to be familiar with their jurisdiction and give particular attention to known problem properties, he said.
City-owned properties go through a different process, where city staff make regular checks and maintain them until they’re ready to be sold, Falotico said. That maintenance is generally handled by the Schenectady Neighborhood Assistance Program, which has a crew of nine people.
In addition, Schenectady, in partnership with Amsterdam, Gloversville and Troy, is part of an ongoing initiative to digitize the code enforcement process, which will increase efficiency, McCarthy said. The cost of the program is funded partially through an increased fee structure for permits and property registration, which the City Council approved in May.
Addressing code violations and blighted properties was a hallmark of McCarthy’s agenda when he came into office five years ago.
“It’s not a situation that’s going to change overnight,” McCarthy said. “You’ve had multiple decades of lack of appropriate follow through, and over the last four or five years we’ve had more that’s been done than in the prior decade or 15 years.”
A DEPARTMENT UNDER SCRUTINY
For being a priority of the administration, the department has been in the spotlight recently for the wrong reasons.
The department’s inspection of multiple-dwelling buildings over the last couple years is under audit. The scope of the audit includes documents pertaining to the Jay Street fire, and the review is expected to be completed in the next few months.
In March, code officer Ken Tyree was indicted on manslaughter charges for his role in the fatal 2015 fire. Prosecutors said Tyree inspected the property at 104 Jay St. the day before the blaze, and either missed or ignored the malfunctioning fire alarm system.
Tyree’s lawyer argued he lacked the proper training to inspect a building the size of 104 Jay St., which was home to about 75 people. Prosecutors rebuffed the claim, saying anyone would have understood the alarm system was malfunctioning.
All of this is transpiring while the department has no formal leader. Former Building Inspector Eric Shilling died in February, and his replacement has still not been named. McCarthy will interview a potential candidate in the coming week, he said.
While the lack of a building inspector puts more of a burden on the rest of the department, it also leaves a communication gap for city residents and landlords, said Morris, president of SLIC.
“He was the face of code aside from who comes into your property to do inspections,” Morris said of Shilling. “That connection was important and it was valuable. It’s up to the next leader to maintain that relationship between landlords and the city.”
BY THE NUMBERS
- Between March 1 and June 1, the city received 701 code complaints.
- The code department has five code enforcement officers, three housing inspectors and one nuisance inspector.
- Nine people work on the Schenectady Neighborhood Assistance Program, or SNAP, which helps maintain properties, particularly city-owned properties.
- The city has not had a building inspector since mid-February.