Letter to Council about Commissioner's 2024 PRI Report

Date: March 28, 2024

On March 14, 2024, Commissioner Cathy Amdur of the Dept of Permits and Inspections submitted a report to the council (download) about the status of Proactive Rental Inspections program. On March 28, PPG submitted the following letter to the council in response to the Commissioner's report. We also included a memo outlining how the city can pay for the program. 


To: City of Buffalo Common Council
From: Andrea O Suilleabhain and Sarah Wooton, Partnership for the Public Good
Re: Dept. of Permit and Inspection Services’ 2024 PRI Implementation Report
Date: March 28, 2024
This memo shares our concerns about the Commissioner of Permits and Inspection Services’ 2024 Report to the Common Council on the status of the Proactive Rental Inspections program.
First and foremost, we want to express gratitude to the Buffalo Common Council for unanimously passing the PRI law in 2020. This legislation was a significant step forward in our collective efforts to improve the quality of rental housing and protect the health and safety of our residents.
Contrary to some of Commissioner Amdur’s recent statements, we'd like to highlight our close collaboration with the Department of Permits and Inspections (DPIS) on this program—both before and after the legislation was passed. PPG and many of our partners, through the Lead Safe Task Force, worked closely with DPIS to inform, advocate for, and implement PRI. We've hosted workshops, engaged residents, and provided education about PRI alongside DPIS. In fact, the PRI educational sessions for tenants and landlords that we jointly hosted with DPIS in 2021 are still displayed on the City’s PRI webpage. Despite our collaborative efforts, inadequate PRI implementation has prompted us to publicly call for compliance with this law, joined by 38 additional community organizations.
1) PRI addresses many substandard and unsafe housing conditions; it is not only about lead in housing.
Commissioner Amdur’s report seems to suggest that the PRI program is focused solely on lead poisoning prevention. While lead poisoning prevention is an important component of the program, PRI isn't just about addressing lead hazards; it's a holistic approach to ensuring safe and healthy living conditions for our residents.
In the legislative findings and intent of the law, there are nine stated purposes. Remediation of lead-based paint hazards is just one of those purposes. There are equally and perhaps even more important purposes, such as “the enforcement of minimum standards for heating, plumbing, adequate bathroom facilities and other recognized acceptable living conditions necessary for health and safety.” We know that our old housing stock has often been neglected, resulting in unsafe, health-harming housing conditions for tenants. Prior to PRI, the City of Buffalo wasn’t inspecting these properties at all, unless requested, so these homes were left to languish. From requiring smoke detectors to ensuring structurally sound foundations to evaluating leaky roofs, PRI is intended to make sure that rental properties are up to code and appropriate for human habitation.
2) Implementing the PRI law is solely the City’s responsibility.
Implementing PRI isn't just a suggestion—it's the city’s legal duty. The legislation was enacted to improve the quality of rental housing in the city. When it comes to lead poisoning prevention, collaboration with Erie County is critical (and is underway through the Lead Safe Task Force’s many initiatives). But PRI is an inspection program for the City’s rental housing. It is a City Law, and it is only the City’s responsibility to implement it. Continually referring to Erie County’s role is a distraction from the City’s clear legal duties under the PRI law.
We know that implementation is possible. Similar proactive inspection programs exist across the U.S., with several in our backyard, including Syracuse and Albany. The City of Rochester has a similar program that it’s been implementing for about 20 years. In fact, in the early years of the discussion around PRI, Buffalo DPIS staff met with staff in Rochester to learn about their process. We can continue to learn from these other cities about how to implement PRI.
3) There are revenue sources to pay for PRI.
Now, let's talk about funding. Commissioner Amdur has raised concern about the cost of PRI, which she has estimated at $2 million per year. This is only 0.35% of the city’s budget. We’ve written the attached memo that outlines several ways the City of Buffalo can pay for this program. One option is to update Rental Registry fees. In the 2023-2024 budget, the city projected it would bring in $1.376 million in rental registry fees. We recommend a modest increase in the fee—perhaps to $50 for a single and $100 for double. With this increase, the city would easily generate over $2 million per year. This increase is reasonable given the rise in rental prices over the years, and it would still be much lower than recent fee hikes for short-term rental licenses.
Additionally, there are other funding sources to draw from. The city has access to the remaining American Rescue Plan funds, which could be allocated to jump start PRI implementation. As of the latest report in the Common Council Finance Committee this week, approximately $136 million of the $331 million received under the American Rescue Plan remains unobligated or unspent. This presents a significant opportunity to allocate funds towards fast-tracking PRI implementation.
Furthermore, enforcing existing housing code fines and leveraging revenue from inspection-related fees could also contribute to covering the program costs.
It's worth noting that PRI isn't just an expense—it's an investment in our city's future. By improving the quality of our housing stock, we protect property values, enhance the tax base, and promote community well-being. Neglecting this responsibility not only jeopardizes the health and safety of our residents but also undermines our city's long-term prosperity.
4) The PRI law deserves urgent, full implementation.
The lack of PRI implementation evident in the Commissioner’s report is not a funding problem. It is not a capacity problem. It is a political leadership problem. As Mayor Brown emphasized when he initially signed the legislation, PRI is a critical component of our city's lead strategy. Mayor Brown wrote, "Renters will no longer have to deal with potential lead contamination after moving in when they are more vulnerable to landlord inflexibility. With this legislation, landlords are forced to deal with this issue before they’re able to legally rent a unit."[1]
Yet now, the Brown Administration balks at the requirements of this law and claims it’s not the city’s job. This shift in position is alarming. Should we be led to believe that any commitment that the city administration makes will be forgotten as soon as the applause dies down? Residents of Buffalo cannot wait any longer for basic housing conditions. We must act urgently to implement the law as written.
We urge the Buffalo Common Council not to amend the current law. While it's unclear what specific changes Commissioner Amdur is proposing, she appears to imply that lengthening the three-year inspection cycle is necessary. However, PRI was originally planned with a six-year roll out period in mind. After the six years, properties will presumably be in better condition since they've been inspected once; they will require fewer re-inspections, and the process will be less involved. Thus, it will be feasible, with proper staffing, to achieve the three-year cycle. Commissioner Amdur cites Rochester's inspection cycle as six years. However, based on the City of Rochester's website, this is incorrect. The City of Rochester is, in fact, on a three-year inspection cycle for properties in areas with historically high lead-levels, which would apply to the target properties in the City of Buffalo.[2] The City should explore avenues for implementation of the current law as adopted, perhaps with consultation from cities like Rochester.
Last, we'd like to address Commissioner Amdur’s notion that human services agencies share blame for the city’s poor housing conditions. She suggests that, rather than the city focus on implementing the mandatory inspections of PRI, these service agencies should call DPIS to request inspections before placing clients. This would likely have negative unintended consequences, such as discrimination against these tenants, and is simply a distraction from the administration’s duty to enact PRI. While collaboration with these social service agencies is important, a piecemeal approach to rental inspections is not feasible for our systemic housing conditions problem. Instead, we must take a comprehensive approach; we must implement PRI and require that all single and double investor-owned properties be inspected.
In conclusion, we urge the Buffalo Common Council to reaffirm its commitment to PRI and explore the funding solutions outlined above. By prioritizing safe and healthy housing, we demonstrate our dedication to the well-being of all Buffalo residents and the housing stock of our city.

[1] Mayor Byron Brown, “Why Buffalo Pushed Safe and Affordable Housing in the middle of a Pandemic,” National League of Cities, December 4, 2020, https://www.nlc.org/article/2020/12/04/why-buffalo-pushed-safe-and-affordable-housing-in-the-middle-of-a-pandemic/
[2] See “Certificate of Occupancy Chart,” City of Rochester, https://www.cityofrochester.gov/article.aspx?id=8589937560, for requirements for “one or two family non owner occupied.”