PPG's Comments on Proposed Proactive Rental Inspection Legislation in the City of Buffalo

Date: November 17, 2020

On November 17, 2020, the Buffalo Common Council Legislation Committee discussed ordinance amendments that would create proactive interior rental inspections in the City of Buffalo. PPG Community Researcher Sarah Wooton shared the following remarks during the session.

Watch a video recording the full Legislation Committee meeting, including many speakers on the proposed rental inspection legislation, on the Common Council's facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BFLOCC/videos/1508871915964652.

Good afternoon Council Members, my name is Sarah Wooton, and I am a Community Researcher at the Partnership for the Public Good. First, I want to thank Mayor Brown, and to appreciate the work that his office has put into these amendments. I’d also like to thank the sponsors of this bill: Majority Leader Rivera, Council President Pridgen, Council Member Nowakowski, and Council Member Wyatt. Passing this legislation would be a landmark for the City of Buffalo, and it would not be possible without the dedication of all of these individuals. On behalf of myself and the Partnership for the Public Good, we fully support the passage of the proactive rental inspection amendments. We’re thrilled that these inspections will address lead issues, and they will address many other harmful housing conditions as well.

Before working at PPG, I worked at a non-profit legal services provider in Buffalo. Part of my job was to take calls from tenants who were facing poor housing conditions. The housing issues ran the gamut—from ceilings that had collapsed due to water damage. to severe mold. To front doors that didn’t lock. To heat in only one room of the house when it was below zero outside and the tenant had a new baby. One woman lived in a two-story, single-family rental with her three children, yet they only spent time on the second floor of the home. Why? Because a severe rat infestation had taken over the first floor of their home. This tenant broke down in tears in my office while explaining it to me.

As council members, I’m sure you’ve heard many similar stories from your constituents. Sadly, in Buffalo, these stories are common. And as a tenant advocate, the best advice I could give to these tenants was to move. There was little recourse for them. Any attempt to force their landlord to fix an issue would take months or even a year. But their homes were negatively impacting their health. They couldn’t afford to risk their health for six months or a year. Most tenants chose to move.

And what happened to the property after that? Well, the landlord was free to re-rent the problem property to a new tenant—usually a tenant who couldn’t afford much for rent and didn’t have other options. And so, the cycle would begin again.

The proactive rental inspection amendments press pause on this cycle of disinvestment and health-harming conditions. Many tenants are afraid to call the inspector, even if they want to. In PPG’s 2020 report on evictions, half of the tenants we spoke to had repair problems but did not feel comfortable calling the housing inspector. Many were afraid of retaliation from their landlord. Given the power dynamics of the landlord-tenant relationship, requiring landlords to schedule inspections is the right choice.

And we will not be the first city in New York State to do it. Both the City of Rochester and Syracuse use similar requirements for property owners renting to tenants.

While I fully support these amendments, one thing I ask the council to consider is to expand the amendments to include owner-occupied doubles. Many of these properties exist in Buffalo, and tenants in these homes deserve to be protected too.

Tenants in one unit can experience conditions that are not experienced in the owner-occupied unit. Also, similar conditions can impact households differently. If an owner-occupier rents their second unit out to a mother and her two-year-old daughter, yet both units have chipping lead paint, who will be most impacted? Surely, the two-year-old should not have to experience lead poisoning simply because the owner lives upstairs. If property owners are renting units in their homes, they have a responsibility to provide safe—not hazardous—housing. And trusting that they’re doing it is not enough. We need regular inspections of these units to ensure that they are safe for tenants.

In summary, I urge you to pass these critical proactive rental inspection amendments, and to include owner-occupied doubles as well.

Thank you again, council members, for your time.