City of Newburgh property owners were surprised to get a letter in the mail this month asking for information about their homes and buildings. The letter was part of an effort to fully catalogue the city’s rental properties and ramp up code enforcement.
The city’s rental registry law requires that landlords register their buildings with the city in order to obtain a rental license. But, so far, city officials say the ordinance has fallen short of meeting its goal of providing a comprehensive record of rental properties.
“No matter how we slice or dice the data, there are always a significant number of properties that are left out,” said City Manager Michael Ciaravino at City Hall last Thursday.
“What we decided to do was blanket the entire community with notices.. that require single-family homeowners to either affirmatively state or deny whether they have other tenants or other dwellings in their residences.”
A form accompanied the letter asking property owners how many rental units they owned. But, the letter caused confusion, especially among homeowners with no rental units. On Facebook last week, residents said they found the letter “threatening” and complained that a Spanish version of the letter was not also sent out.
“It was nasty,” said landlord and single-family homeowner Christine Bello, referring specifically to part of the letter which read, “if you fail to register this rental property within 10 days of receipt, you will be subject to an action in Newburgh City Court seeking civil penalties…”
“All the information is on the assessment roll,” Bello complained, suggested the city cull the information that way.
The mass mailing occurred, essentially, due to a computer glitch, said city acting Fire Chief Terry Ahlers on Friday. “Due to limitations on computer software, there was no way to filter out single-family, owner-occupied homes,” Ahlers said. “That’s why everybody is getting a letter.”
“Don’t panic,” Newburgh Mayor Judy Kennedy told residents last week. “We need to know who’s doing what.”
Homeowners living in single-family homes may fill out a simple form available at City Hall or the city Code Compliance Department on Grand Street to certify there are no rented units in their building, the mayor explained.
City Building Inspector William Horton said the goal is “systemic change” to improve the quality of housing in the city. “We’re holding these landlords to a standard. They’re going to meet the code and, if not, we’re bringing them to court,” he told residents, who broke out into applause at City Hall on Thursday.
Some landlords use buildings as “cash cows” without putting much back into their properties, Horton said, and some claim tax credits for owner-occupied homes while renting buildings out to tenants.
Some of the city’s commercial buildings have been reconstructed into dwelling units; others, approved for two, three and four families, have been changed into single-room occupancy buildings, Horton said.
One fine example turned up earlier this year, when one building owner was renting a dozen or more single rooms in her single-family home on Grand Street. The building was condemned after police and fire crews responded to an emergency with one of the tenants, who was found living in a state of extreme squalor.
Last month, a commercial building on Broadway was found to have multiple rental units, including four individual rooms in the basement. “There was no way out except a long hallway at the back of the building that led to a stairwell,” Horton said, posing a serious safety hazard.
Jesus Cruz was later charged with first-degree arson, accused of setting fire to the building after it was condemned due to a number of building-code violations. Fire officials reported that Cruz, the owner of a deli located on the ground floor, was illegally renting the building out.
The registry’s main goal is safety, Horton insisted. Renters deserve the same level of safety as anyone in the city, he added. “Substandard housing has plagued the city for 40-plus years,” he said. “We cannot accept the risk of having people living in substandard buildings that are unsafe anymore.”
The city’s code enforcement initiative was recently supported by two grants: a Cities RISE grant from the New York State Office of the Attorney General and a Local Initiatives Support Corporation grant, which enabled the city to hire a part-time, vacant-building specialist and a full-time, occupied-building specialist this year.
Certification forms are available at Newburgh City Hall, located at 87 Broadway, and the city Code Compliance Department, located at 123 Grand Street. Forms can also be found online on the city’s Facebook page and on the city’s website at Cityofnewburgh-ny.gov.
For more information, contact city Code Compliance at 845-569-7400.
By SHANTAL RILEY