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Schenectady using technology to reform its Codes Department

Schenectady using technology to reform its Codes Department

Ongoing reforms part of streamlined approach
Schenectady using technology to reform its Codes Department
City code inspector Cezary Mazur examines the basement of a State Street apartment building.
Photographer: Pete DeMola/Gazette Reporter

SCHENECTADY — Nayeem Abzal called up the complaint on his city-issued tablet: “Open and vacant” structure on Germania Avenue. 

A walk around the backyard of the single-family home revealed an open door inviting illicit entry through a thicket of chest-high weeds. 

“People are getting in there,” said Abzal, a city code inspector. “We don’t want people getting in there.”

Abzal snapped several photos, which he uploaded into Municity5, the new software program the city Codes Department deployed earlier this spring.

With just a few keystrokes, inspectors can now access a GPS map of the city overlaid with a complete color-coded dossier of each address: Joining names of property owners are inspection records, active permits, open investigations and violation reports, among other information.

Officials hope the software will boost the amount of time the city’s 12 full-time code officers can spend in the field and streamline operations, eliminating trips to the office to sift through paper records. 

Ultimately, Chief Building Inspector Christopher Lunn hopes the software will result in greater productivity that will allow inspectors to be more responsive to complaints. 

The tech upgrades are part of a sweeping reform package instituted following the fatal 2015 Jay Street fire. 

While firefighters reported code violations at the Jay Street apartment building, the reports were not acted on. Codes Department employees testified to a Schenectady County grand jury that while they received the reports, there was no system in place to log, track or ensure the issues had been addressed. 

In the aftermath, the grand jury’s report knocked the department for “numerous failures” that “directly contributed" to the four deaths and multiple injuries at 104 Jay St.

“It’s a work in progress,” Lunn said of the new technology. “There are some growing pains.”

ADDING IN LAYERS

The city owns a significant amount of housing stock.

While the numbers continually float, Schenectady owned 437 vacant buildings in mid-April, roughly half of the city’s 869 vacant properties.

Some are salvageable, others are not. 

For those that can be saved, the city serves as a de facto real estate broker, selling fixer-uppers through their Home Ownership Made Easy in Schenectady (HOMES) program -- a partnership among banks, real estate brokers and lending institutions designed -- to first-time homebuyers.

Before placing the homes on the market, the city evaluates the properties to determine what it will cost to bring the buildings up to code. 

As the city grapples with the glut, Lunn also aims to institute a system that would rank the condition of properties on a scale of 1 to 100.

“What we’re trying to do is add in layers,” he said.

Armed with a 20-point checklist, Abzal took a quick cruise around a split-level home on Avenue B in the city’s Goose Hill neighborhood. 

He looked at the sidewalk and driveway and went into the backyard, where the fence had collapsed.

“The fence definitely needs to be replaced,” he said. 

Inside, he methodically went through the home, checking the electric box, boiler and the bathroom, among other sites. He assigned each item  a numerical value and an estimated dollar amount for repairs as part of a pilot system.

The house was empty, but the lack of ventilation resulted in an acrid, stuffy odor and the carpets were stained and filthy.

“Pets,” Abzal said. 

The city’s goal is to work with homeowners to bring the property up to code within six months. 

Despite the cosmetic deficiencies, the home was in relatively good condition, Abzal said. 

“This is one of the good ones,” he said.

Lunn said the city aims to recruit codes inspectors with backgrounds in the construction industry because their familiarity with labor and building material costs is a valued asset. 

Abzal quickly estimated it would cost $15,000 to return the home into a habitable condition, not including plumbing.

The valuation also includes permit costs so homeowners aren’t blindsided.

Later, he dropped by to check in on a city-owned property on Rugby Road as part of ongoing monitoring efforts. 

“The last thing we want is power in a vacant building,” he said, inspecting the meters. 

The home was cleaner than the Avenue B structure, but years of inactivity allowed birds to gain access through an unknown entry point. The windows were cracked, the hardwood floors spattered with excrement, and a dead bird lay on the stove. 

Abzal opened the back door, where the porch had collapsed. 

In bedrooms, posters and trophies from Schenectady High School remained. 

And upstairs, he paused at the slightly-cracked attic door from which the dull coo of pigeons murmured. 

HUMAN RESISTANCE

Being a code inspector isn’t simply knocking around empty buildings and inspecting what remains.

“The day gets very interesting sometimes,” Abzal said. “We get a lot of resistance from the public.”

The city prioritizes owner-occupied homes, viewing them as keystones of neighborhood stability because owners are typically more invested in their neighborhoods than renters or absentee landlords.

But sometimes inspectors run into homeowners with a “King of the Castle” mentality who balk at fixing violations, Abzal said. 

When that happens, and if homeowners are lingering underfoot contesting each finding, Abzal simply tells them he will leave and return another time.

It’s the same approach he takes with landlords.

The city Codes Department must inspect a rental property whenever there’s a change in occupancy, and state law determines any buildings containing more than three units must be inspected every 36 months. 

Abzal met inspector Cezary Mazur at a rental unit on upper State Street. 

Mazur inspected the porch and continued down the alley, inspecting water hookups, electrical panels, gutters and electric meters, photographing each of them. 

The backyard yielded a broken door. 

“Not acceptable,” Mazur said. “The whole frame is broken.”

Mazur was trailed by a nervous landlord. They entered the subdivided house, where Mazur asked him if he could open the front door with just one hand. 

The man could not, making it a safety violation, and one that presented a public safety risk, said Mazur. 

He went upstairs, noting a missing rung on the bannister. 

“Cezary doesn’t miss a thing,” Abzal said.

Upstairs, a tenant watched television. 

Officials are increasingly pushing for the installation of interconnected smoke detectors, networks that communicate with each other. Mazur told the landlord he would not issue a certificate of occupancy without one, and the tenants would be ordered to vacate. 

The landlord labored to install the unit, which he did successfully. 

They ventured down to the basement, where Mazur received pushback after telling the landlord he needed to install three carbon monoxide units, a $150 expense. 

The landlord said the electrical inspector didn’t tell him that, but Abzal countered that isn’t his job.

They bantered back and forth.

“Let’s go outside,” Mazur said. “I don’t want to stay in the basement.”

“You scared?” the landlord laughed. 

Mazur ultimately gave the inside units a passing grade, but failed the exterior.

“When we fail an inspection, it automatically prompts us to make a violation,” he said, referring to Municity5.

That violation carries a deadline to fix the issues. 

ONGOING CHALLENGES

After inspecting the Germania Avenue home, Abzal changed the complaint status from “in progress” to “failed,” and the violation automatically created a new inspection date. 

As part of the ongoing technological upgrades, each of the code department’s cars contain in-car printers.

Abzal tapped away at Municity5, printed the notice and pasted to the front door. (Orders are also accompanied by certified letters.) 

Across the street, two people watched from their front porch.

A reporter asked if the unsecured structure bothered them. They said that it did not, but the nearby squatters did. The younger of the two women gestured next door, where a man sat on the stoop warily eyeing the newcomers before ambling away.

His female companion was unconscious, likely in a drug-induced stupor, said the woman. 

“We deal with this on a regular basis,” said the woman, who declined to give her name, fearing retribution.

“This is Schenectady,” she said.

The woman said her door was recently kicked in by a squatter who thought the subdivided house was empty. She staved him off when he got upstairs. 

The backyard is filled with trash, and she doesn’t let her children play outside. 

Her home is sandwiched between two vacant homes: One privately owned; the other, city-owned.

Complaints about run-down, city-owned properties remain a chronic problem, one that officials say does not have an easy solutions. 

The city is not required to adhere to the same compliance standards after taking ownership of the properties, a measure officials have attributed to financial limitations and limited manpower. 

Asked by a reporter who gets cited for unsecured city-owned property, Abzal said those are reported to a supervisor.

“I’m not going to give the mayor a ticket,” he laughed.

 

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