April 3, 2022
Dear Council Members,
I am writing about the code enforcement proposals recently announced by Mayor Kraham. While I support the overall efforts, the statements made by the Mayor and Councilmembers are a bit overstated. Moreover, the reforms don’t really solve the specific concerns expressed by the same officials. Or they simply reinstate what former mayor Rich David dismantled—a smart move in the right direction but hardly worth all the ‘back patting.’
In the City’s release, Mayor Kraham stated “Too many of Binghamton’s families live in substandard housing owned by bad actors with no intentions of fixing their deteriorating properties,” and that these reforms are meant to “crack down on slumlords.”
I am extremely pleased to hear the Mayor’s comments. Unfortunately, these proposals do nothing to address his admirable concerns, all of which I share.
I want to offer some specific comments about the four reforms announced by Mayor Kraham, and then offer some alternative approaches or ideas, if indeed the Mayor and City Council have a genuine, bipartisan interest to protect tenants, neighbors, and neighborhoods from blighted rentals, slumlords, and abandoned properties.
Proposal #1: Create an Attorney Position to Prosecute Slumlords.
The call for “more enforcement” when it comes to housing and building code enforcement is certainly common, but entirely misguided and potentially harmful. An overreliance on criminal prosecution to resolve vacant or blighted properties, as well as unsafe and deteriorating rental properties, is ineffective, inefficient, and inequitable. For example, most landlords causing harm to tenants and landlords hide behind LLCs or reside out-of-state, either of which make local prosecution impractical, costly, and ineffective. Often, it’s the local mom-and-pop landlords who might want to do the right thing but don’t have the resources to achieve compliance that are swept up in this “bringing down the hammer” approach.
- While it may be worth criminally prosecuting a couple “high profile” slumlord cases here and there, it would be more effective to focus any new capacity in the Legal Department on resolving the harms caused by abandoned properties and zombie properties, utilizing NYS’s Article 19A (Abandonment Proceedings Law) and NYS’s Zombie Property Inspection and Maintenance Law respectively. I am happy to share with City officials the successes seen by Rochester, Niagara Falls, and the Greater Mohawk Valley Land Bank after developing the legal expertise in resolving these two subtypes of “blighted properties,” both of which harm the health and safety of neighbors and neighborhoods.
- As a general rule, any administration that seeks to ensure all tenants have safe and healthy living conditions must move beyond reactive enforcement and design and implement a proactive rental inspection and licensing program. There really is no other policy, no “half-step” reform measure. I believe there are more than 20 communities in New York that have some form of a rental inspection program, to varying degrees of impact. But there is definitely no shortage of models to learn from and emulate. In fact, the best models—designed with a “carrot-and-stick” approach that rewards good landlords and penalizes bad landlords—have helped to dramatically improve the health and safety of the inventory of rental units in that community.
- Whether new legal capacity or a new rental inspection program, if the City intends to “go after slumlords,” it better first develop a well-resourced and just tenant relocation program—because if the intervention works, there will be tenants facing involuntary displacement and potential homelessness. This should not be handled “ad hoc” and reactively when tenants are suddenly facing displacement or, worse, already displaced. A well-resourced and just relocation program must be designed and in place, ready to help tenants before any efforts to “crack down on slumlords” begin.
Proposal #2: Hire a New Code and Building Inspector
I am not opposed to adding capacity, but it’s unclear if the current department has been utilizing existing resources efficiently and effectively. In my professional capacity, I have worked with departments here in New York and across the country that had very limited resources but performed at a very high level because they had strategic direction from leadership, invested in operational efficiencies, and relied on innovative partnerships. The City of Elmira, for example, has had fewer than three full-time officers over the last few years, but has leveraged partners, policies, and technology to launch and carry out impressive work, including an expanded proactive rental inspection program that touches most residential properties in the City.
Before approving a new position, City Council should ask the administration for two items:
(1.) A comprehensive overview of how training, software resources, and more than a $1 million in code enforcement grant awards provided by New York State Attorney General’s Office over the last five years were used by the City, and to what end. The specific grants are as follows:
- 2016 Zombie Grant Award, Round 1, $250,000
- 2017 Cities Rise Round 1 Selection, which provided Binghamton and 15 other cities free software (Building Blocks), training, and technical assistance related to code enforcement
- 2019 Zombie Grant Award, Round 2, $250,000
- 2020 Cities RISE Award (Binghamton was eligible for up to $1 million, but received only $585,000, the second lowest amount of the ten cities participating in the program)
Cities across the state that had access to one or both of the above grant programs have launched some incredible new partnerships and programs, or made significant policy reforms (or both). If the administration is serious about reforming code enforcement, it seems an important first step would be to host a community forum to be transparent about Binghamton’s successes, challenges, and lessons learned from the last five years of receiving unprecedented state resources to bolster local code enforcement efforts.
(2) Status of New Code Enforcement Software. In February 2020, the City issued a request for proposals (RFP) seeking new code enforcement software. The RFP stated the vendor had to complete the installation and training of users by November 2020. The RFP also stated that the software must have a “public facing app/portal for constituent use.” The administration should share with City Council and the community the status of this project. If the software is fully deployed—and before approving a new position—the Council should ask for reporting that speaks to performance metrics and other data that can help officials and the community better understand how current code enforcement resources and capacity are being deployed in our neighborhoods and why.
Proposal #3: Create Parks Department Subdivision to Handle Property Maintenance Complaints
Response: I support this proposal, which reinstates the dedicated, internal capacity that former mayor Rich David inherited and then dismantled in favor of “privatizing” this service. A small team of City laborers dedicated exclusively to mowing City-owned residential vacant lots and high grass on privately-owned residential vacant lots when the owner refuses to comply with a violation notice is good practice. Not only is it more efficient, but all costs incurred by this team abating nuisances on privately-owned lots can be fully recouped. Either the private owner will pay the costs when billed, or if ignored, the costs can be rolled to the property tax bill, in which the City will then be paid by Broome County.
Proposal #4: Adopt Stricter Rules On High Grass & Weeds
Response: Pass it or not, who cares—residents harmed by blighted and vacant properties won’t notice any material difference whether the rule for grass height is eight or ten inches. The most cynical resident would say this is the kind of proposal officials tout as “bold” when they want to appear like they’re doing something but really don’t want to do anything to change the status quo. A more informed resident would say this is a silly distraction from the many, many meaningful reform measures and interventions that could have a real, positive impact on neighbors and neighborhoods currently harmed by blighted and vacant properties. Vote and move on. It doesn’t matter.
Final Thoughts: A Framework for Action Already Exists
Overall, I support the underlying intent of these reform measures—if in fact they do come from a place of authenticity and genuine care for those who are currently being harmed by unsafe and unhealthy rental units, abandoned properties, and negligent and irresponsible owners. I support the Mayor’s and Council’s intent if these proposals truly do reflect a genuine commitment to break free from a broken status quo.
Unfortunately, the four proposals themselves do very little to help those harmed by blighted rentals and abandoned properties, and fail to chart a new “bold, strategic, and equitable” approach to code enforcement.
There are some recommended next steps for the Council to consider in the above responses and alternatives. I hope the suggestions can be taken seriously, understanding they reflect my passion for my hometown, a commitment to housing justice, and eight years of serving as a national expert helping local officials from across this country design equitable, effective, and efficient code enforcement solutions to protect the health and safety of neighbors and neighborhoods from the harms imposed by vacant, abandoned, and blighted properties.
In addition, I strongly encourage the Mayor and Council to revisit the 2019 final report of the Broome County Safe Housing Task Force, and consider using the Task Force’s many excellent recommendations as a roadmap for the next few years. With the City’s finances stronger than they’ve been in decades, and with unprecedented federal recovery dollars (ARPA) available for the next four years, there is no better time than now to address the longstanding (and worsening) housing crisis here in Binghamton that is harming too many of our residents.
Please know that I would be happy to support this work in a volunteer capacity, sharing my extensive knowledge and insights working with communities here in New York and across the state on these very same challenges and solutions.