Schenectady’s mediation board, aimed at settling disputes between property owners (landlords for the most part) and city housing inspectors, wasn’t too effective from the city’s standpoint when it was tried in the early 1990s, which may be why landlords are now calling for its reinstatement. Things have changed in Schenectady since then, as far as code enforcement goes, so there may yet be a place for a mechanism like this.
Code enforcement under Mayor Gary McCarthy appears to have gotten more serious, but a number of the issues don’t rise to the level of needing a judge to decide them; they’re relatively minor offenses and judgment calls. There’s also the fact that going to court is expensive, both for the city as well as landlords, and takes a lot of time and ties up the court.
Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo has suggested resurrecting the old Housing Standards Review Board to deal with the expected increase in code violations as the city attempts to get landlords to comply with its rental inspection program. With a few caveats, the idea seems worth trying.
It’s important that the ground rules be laid well in advance as to which types of cases qualify for such hearings and which should be taken to court. A landlord whose property has been cited with multiple offenses, or one who, in McCarthy’s words “has thumbed his nose at the whole system,” can’t be given any benefits of doubt. The legal system must be used to deal with such cases.
The other key is the board’s membership. People chosen for this job have to be impartial — friendly to neither side. They also have to be committed to showing up for work: What killed the board in the early 1990s was poor attendance. Serving on something like this is a considerable commitment, but people with an interest in improving the condition of the city’s neighborhoods can really do so by serving.
If landlords act in good faith, and don’t just use the system to buy more time to milk their properties, fine. But the city has to be quick to pull the plug otherwise.