Buffalo News Editorial Board: "Buffalo's Proactive Rental Inspection program should be fully funded"

Date: April 14, 2024

Buffalo News Editorial Board | April 14, 2024

Finding and fixing problems in aging rental units before it’s necessary to use punitive enforcement is a great idea. Making that policy a law? Even better.

But laws need to be implemented and the city of Buffalo’s reluctance to fully administer its Proactive Rental Inspection law is bitterly disappointing.

It’s all there, in black, white and color on the city’s website. Informative, well-illustrated presentations for both landlords and tenants explain exactly how a new inspection program can improve the lives of Buffalo residents, including protecting families from being poisoned by toxic lead paint.

The PRI program was instituted in 2020 through an amendment to Chapter 264 of the city’s code. It’s an amendment that was approved unanimously by the Buffalo Common Council and celebrated by Mayor Byron Brown in a National League of Cities article entitled “Why Buffalo Pushed Safe and Affordable Housing in the Middle of a Pandemic.”

The program is intended to address health and safety problems with nonowner-occupied rental units before they get to the complaint stage. That’s the “proactive” part. It is meant to look for lead paint and much more, including foundation and roof problems, inactive smoke detectors, window deterioration, unsafe stairs, buckling ceilings, leaky plumbing and electrical hazards.

This is an essential strategy to improve residents’ lives that Brown was justified in bragging about and that the city of Buffalo should be proud to implement. Except it is not being effectively carried out and the city now says it can’t afford to continue it.

It should find a way. The program doesn’t deserve to disappear under the weight of bureaucratic entropy and lame excuses, which seems to be the case here.

Poor implementation

Since 2021, Buffalo has completed 4,382 inspections out of 36,000 units covered under the legislation, and 458 certificates of compliance have been issued, according to a report that Commissioner of Permits and Inspections Catherine Amdur filed with Buffalo’s Common Council. This year, city inspectors have completed 200 PRI inspections and issued 89 certificates.

Now Amdur is asking for revisions to the PRI law, claiming, as reported by the News Deidre Williams, that the $2.1 million cost of the program is more than Buffalo can afford.

Not so, according to Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, executive director of local think tank Partnership for the Public Good. That organization points to the city’s rental registry fees, which are not being effectively collected and are overdue for an increase, as one source of revenue that should pay for PRI. PPG also indicated the city’s remaining American Rescue Plan funding, of which $136 million remain, as well as HUD lead removal funds that could also go toward what, in the larger context of the city’s half-billion-plus budget, is a manageably reasonable sum.

Enforce the code

As part of its research on this issue, Partnership for the Public Good has created a website called fixbuffalohousing.org, which includes words and pictures from Buffalo’s substandard – but not inexpensive – rental housing. For $1,200 per month, one tenant, Krystal, endured a collapsed ceiling, broken plumbing and a nonworking front door. Another tenant was paying $750 for an apartment with leaky pipes, an unusable toilet and horrifying infestations.

These tenants have since managed to find better situations, but, according to PPG and the agencies it works with, their stories are typical – and widespread.

Zillow data shows that average rents in Buffalo went up $371 between December 2018 and 2023. If it takes a modest increase in the $25-$50 rental registry fee to help cover PRI, it does not seem a hardship to landlords. In addition, if inspections happen, there are multiple resources at the federal and state level that can help landlords fix their units.

But unless PRI is fully implemented, it’s less likely these issues can be identified or fixed. Few tenants want to risk eviction to report issues; as they know all too well, no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse.

Buffalo’s aging housing stock needs regular monitoring and maintenance.

The city should use the effective tools it created to make that happen.

Read the Buffalo News article on their website, here.