Weekly Feature

2017-09-14 / Front Page

Residents split on proposed local law

by JENNIFER WATERS
Editor

The first of two public hearings on Local Law No. 5, West Seneca’s proposed absentee landlord and criminal activity law, brought to light weaknesses within the current document.

During the hearing, held the afternoon of Sept. 7, several landlords spoke about their concerns with the law as it is proposed, and recommended changes be made before the law is put to a vote. The public hearing will remain open until the board’s Sept. 18 meeting.

According to town officials, the purpose of the law is to implement a registration requirement for the owners of residential non-owner-occupied rental properties in order to curb criminal activity and disorder regarding such properties in the town. The law will also provide the town with the ability to commence summary eviction proceedings against tenants engaged in criminal activity.

Under the law, landlords will become registered with the town, at no cost to the property owner, giving the town the means to fight criminal activity.

Donald Wiess, a West Seneca resident with rental properties in the town since 1975, said the law needs to be tweaked and should be tabled until changes can be made. He also suggested the board create a committee to rewrite parts of the law as it stands.

“I don’t think anything is wholly wrong with the law,” he said. “Why not include owner-occupied rental properties that have criminal activity and disorder? In other words, if the Police Department has records of [nuisance].”

Wiess argued that a landlord’s lease is intended to curb the same problems as the law addresses, making the law redundant and unnecessary.

Town Attorney John Fenz said he understands that Wiess has a thorough lease for tenants to sign, but that Wiess is reading the law from the context of a responsible landlord.

“You pay attention. You’ve read your lease. You’re collecting rent,” Fenz said. “What the town is concerned with is irresponsible landlords that also have those provisions in their lease, however, the enforcement mechanism is not what is happening, and that’s what’s causing a problem.”

The attorney added that passage of the law will issue authority to all arms of the town to enforce the terms of leases, or the terms of the state statutes that are not being enforced by absentee landlords.

“For the people who have not had the police reports, the problems at their apartments, those people should not be included in this,” Wiess said.

“If you can show me a law that only applies to criminals, I will give you all the money I make for the rest of my life,” Fenz said.

In the law, landlords must be prepared to provide authorities the names and contact information of tenants at the time of any criminal occurrence. The town will not have possession of this information.

“[My tenants] specifically asked that they do not want any government personnel in their house without their permission. They do not want their names or their phone numbers given out,” Wiess said.

Councilman William Hanley, who presented the law, said Local Law No. 5 is essentially a copy of laws currently in place in the Town of Cheektowaga and City of Buffalo.

Hanley said passage of local laws is directly responsible for the number of vacant homes in town being reduced and that Local Law No. 5 hopes to tackle an additional housing concern.

“That’s how things get changed. Things have to change,” Hanley said.

“I just don’t see copying a law from Cheektowaga and trying to make it work here in West Seneca,” Wiess said.

Hanley added that the law would give neighbors peace of mind and help ward off drug activity, fights, stolen goods and other such problems.

Registration by landlords would be on a two-year renewable term for those who own a one-, two- or three-unit or multi-dwelling property. Fenz said registration is per unit and is intended to encourage compliance by landlords.

Fenz said notice would be given to landlords of tenants engaging in public nuisance or criminal activity. If the landlord chooses not to act, the town will send police as a plaintiff to evict the tenant.

The Erie County sheriff’s deputies would be sent to handle the actual removal of the tenant, he added.

Anthony Parisi, a Reserve Road resident and owner of two rental properties in the town, said he is in favor of the law but has concerns about potential repercussions for landlords.

“I screen tenants — background and credit check — I’m a responsible landlord,” he said. “If an eviction fails or takes too long, what are the consequences that are going to come back on me?”

Fenz said the punishment for landlords, responsible or otherwise, will need to be evaluated further before the law should be passed.

“Evicting a tenant can take a long time,” the town attorney said. “As long as you are complying and demonstrating that on your own accord, you’re aware of what’s going on and you’re doing what you can to evict the tenant, that’s complying with the ordinance.”

Notice will be given to landlords any time criminal activity is reported at the property, and Fenz said the division between responsible and absentee landlords will be whether they take action to notify the resident, attempt to resolve the issue, or move forward with an eviction.

“The whole effort is to encourage the conversation, communication, activity of an absentee landlord. If you’re in town, you’re not an absentee landlord,” Fenz said.

“Good landlords, we’ll never see you,” Hanley added. “The good landlords that are in here tonight, the responsible landlords, you’ll never hear from us.”

Parisi said problem tenants are always a concern to landlords and that despite safeguards put in place, some slip through the cracks.

William Melski, a Bayberry Avenue resident and neighbor to a nuisance property, said the landlord is absent at the residence in question while nefarious activity takes place. He said emergency personnel responded over the Fourth of July to a drug overdose.

“It’s a foreclosed house. I don’t know how they stay in there, but, all the neighbors are pretty concerned about it,” he said. “We are all for this law.”

During the hearing, Erie County District Attorney John Flynn spoke in favor of the law, which he said will help communities take a hard line on criminal activity in their neighborhoods, especially drug dealers peddling deadly opiates.

Jasmine Avenue resident Patricia Metz said she is “totally in favor” of the law.

“This law is exactly what is needed,” she said.

Copies of the law are available at the Town Clerk’s Office, 1250 Union Road, and on the town’s website, west seneca.net.

Comments regarding the law can be submitted to the Town Clerk’s Office or to members of the Town Board directly. The public hearing will remain open until the board’s next meeting, to be held at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 18, in Council Chambers at Town Hall, 1250 Union Road.

email: jwaters@beenews.com

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