Has the city of Schenectady learned anything from the Jay Street fire?
The 2015 blaze killed four people and exposed the city's Codes Department as poorly trained, understaffed and ineffective. The city was failing at one of its most basic responsibilities: protecting residents from unsafe living conditions.
Four years later, it seems little has changed.
The broken-down conditions at a prominent downtown building, detailed this week by my Daily Gazette colleague Pete DeMola, suggest that the lessons of the Jay Street fire have gone unlearned.
This building - known informally as the Wedgeway Professional Building - is a potential deathtrap, and it's an obvious one, located on what might be Schenectady's most high profile intersection, Erie Boulevard and State Street.
That it took an inquiry from DeMola to get the city to inspect this building, declare it dangerous, close off the sidewalk around it and order some of the businesses and residents inside to vacate is a disgrace.
The Wedgeway is located about a quarter of a mile from City Hall. It's deteriorating in plain sight.
Nobody noticed it was becoming a hazard?
Substandard apartment buildings are a huge problem in Schenectady, and the city needs to develop a more proactive approach for dealing with them. It shouldn't require a reporter pointing out that a building is crumbling to pieces to get officials to take notice and fix the problem.
The Codes Department is overworked and needs more staff to satisfactorily inspect Schenectady's aging housing stock and hold negligent property owners accountable. Twelve full-time code officers is simply not enough for a city where over 75 percent of the housing stock was constructed prior to 1960.
I'd also encourage the City Council to take a more active role in addressing the blight that diminishes the quality of life of so many residents.
Mayor Gary McCarthy's preoccupation with pet projects such as his smart cities initiative - a case of misplaced priorities if ever there was one - has left a troubling void in leadership, and it's time for the Council to prioritize this pressing issue.
I'd recommend reaching out to neighborhood leaders and compiling a list of problem buildings for Codes to target more aggressively.
The people most impacted by the poor conditions afflicting the city's rental housing are tenants.
But we can't expect or assume that they'll make the Codes Department aware of the hazards they encounter, which is why it's incumbent on city leaders to do more.
Too often, tenants fear that a visit from Codes will result in an order to vacate that leaves them homeless. Many of them choose to put up with problems such as leaks and mold rather than risk being put out on the streets.
Schenectady resident Keisha Stovall told me that she once contacted Codes to inform that there were birds living in the attic of her apartment building. An order to vacate was issued, and she found herself living in a hotel. Would she be willing to summon Codes officers to her home in the future?
"I don't think so," Stovall told me. "I might not do the same thing."
Her attitude isn't unusual, and it's why the burden for making the city aware of code violations shouldn't fall entirely on low-income tenants.
If city officials are serious about preventing the next Jay Street fire, they must do more to hold irresponsible landlords accountable for failing to maintain their property.
The dreadful condition of the Wedgeway represents a failure of policy and planning that's bigger than any one building. Residents deserve better.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]