Foss: Schenectady’s order-to-vacate process is broken

LouLonnie Sturrup in front of the Albany Street apartment building that she was ordered to vacate in early April.
LouLonnie Sturrup in front of the Albany Street apartment building that she was ordered to vacate in early April.

Categories: News, Opinion

When the city of Schenectady ordered LouLonnie Sturrup to vacate her apartment, she left. 

“The only thing I have a complaint about is that I’m gone and it seems everybody’s still in the building,” Sturrup told me, when I spoke with her last spring. 

Sturrup didn’t question why the order to vacate, which cited electrical hazards and exposed wiring in the Albany Street property, had been issued. But she did wonder why tenants who ignored the order to vacate hadn’t been compelled to leave. 

It’s easy to understand why tenants remain in a building that’s been deemed unsafe. 

They stay because they have no place else to go – because they fear ending up in a shelter, or someplace worse. 

When I met with Sturrup, she was living in a dingy motel on State Street with her husband and son. (When I caught up with her a few months later, she was living in Albany.) Their belongings were piled around the room in garbage bags. It didn’t look especially comfortable, or pleasant.  

What’s harder to understand is why the city doesn’t do more to ensure that residents comply with orders to vacate. 

As it stands now, these bright red notifications are completely toothless – documents that signify a building is dangerous, but little more. 

If residents are willing to take a chance on living in a condemned building, it might be because of the broken, ineffectual system that makes it possible. 

It’s hard to come up with a more prominent example of a condemned building than the hulking, violation-riddled structure at 271-277 State Street, better known as the Wedgeway Professional Building. 

And yet, as a Sunday story by my Daily Gazette colleague Pete DeMola revealed, tenants have ignored the order to vacate that was issued for the Wedgeway before Thanksgiving. 

This flouting of the city’s directive is easy to spot, if you’re interested in spotting it. 

I drove by Friday evening, and the windows of the tattoo parlor on the first floor of the building were lit. I could see people inside, and the “open” sign was visible to passersby. 

I’m sorry, but do city officials think this is a joke? 

It was just four years ago that four people died in a fire in a dilapidated apartment on Jay Street, exposing deficiencies in the city’s code-inspection process.  

Officials vowed to address the underlying problems, but the situation at the Wedgeway makes it clear their efforts have fallen short in some major ways. 

Perhaps most troubling is the city’s laissez-faire attitude toward follow-through, and the lack of clarity concerning how to deal with tenants who refuse to leave an unsafe building. Too often, tenants who don’t leave voluntarily are free to do as they please. 

It’s been obvious for some time that the city needs to re-examine its order-to-vacate policies and figure out how to fix them. 

It was obvious in March, when nine people, including five children, escaped from an early-morning fire at a house on Georgetta Dix Plaza that had been hit with an order to vacate for electrical hazards earlier in the month. 

It was obvious in the aftermath of the Jay Street fire. 

And it’s obvious now. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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