A number of local landlords are deeply concerned over the Batavia City Council's decision a week ago to deny Michael Pullinzi the chance to buy a piece of property he won at city auction.
The 5-4 vote punctuates a growing frustration with the code-inspection process, which they say puts an unfair burden on the landlords without holding tenants accountable.
Jeremy Yasses (pictured), an Oakfield resident who owns eight properties in the city, as well as several other tenant-occupied buildings outside of Batavia, describes himself as a budding entrepreneur who is trying to build a real estate business.
The 13 citations mentioned by the council against Pullinzi as the reason for denying him the chance to purchase 9 Willow St., is piddling compared to other landlords, according to Yasses. Other landlords, both on and off the record, say much the same thing.
Yasses, for his part, readily admits to getting between 40 and 50 citations a year from city inspectors.
Almost all of them, if not all of them, are for things tenants have done.
And that's the problem, according to Yasses. Tenants are not held accountable, so there's no motivation for them to change. If a tenant puts his garbage out on Wednesday, Yasses gets a notice, so he goes and picks it up on Thursday to correct the violation. Then the same thing happens the next week, and the next.
"Did we get to the root of the problem?" Yasses asks.
"I own the property. I’m held accountable," said Yasses. "I’m not passing the buck, but have the tenant standing right there next to me (in court). That’s how you hold them accountable."
Terry Platt, who operates one of the largest residential rental businesses in the city, said he's no stranger to receiving violation notices for things tenants have done, and he's concerned, also, that the current system isn't really helping to address the problem.
"There's no tenant responsibility," said Platt, who also serves on the city's Neighborhood Improvement Committee (NIC). "We can kick them out, but if they move out, they just move to someplace else in the city and do the same thing over again. How is the city going to clean up the city if there is no tenant accountability?"
(Point of disclosure: Platt is my landlord.)
From the city's perspective, the only option is to hold the landlords accountable. They're the ones who own the property and the only recourse for the city is to cite property owners for any problems outside a house or apartment.
City Council President Marianne Clattenburg said residents want to live in a cleaner city and the citations landlords receive is, at least in part, just the cost of doing business.
"We really don't have a lot of recourse as far as the tenant goes," Clattenburg said. "The only person responsible is the property owner. That's just the way the system is."
Clattenburg is no stranger to getting cited for violations she didn't cause. Two years ago, then-City Inspector Mike Smith wrote her up because her garbage can was next to her house, rather than behind it. The notice came, said Clattenburg, on a day the staff was conducting a citywide sweep on code enforcement. Her trash had been picked up that morning and she was at work, when her father-in-law, who lives next door and has health problems, moved her trash can from the street just to help out.
Still, Clattenburg, a school teacher, thinks landlords need to do a better job of policing the conduct of their tenants, perhaps offering incentives, such as rent breaks, for not getting citations.
"The landlords are in business," Clattenburg said. "If it wasn't a business, if they weren't making money, they wouldn't be doing it. Every business has obstacles and faces difficulties. That's just part of owning your own business. You figure out ways to deal with that."
Yes, it is a business, landlords will tell you, and because it is a business, solutions don't come as easily as city officials seem to think they should.
As we spoke while standing in the front room/kitchen of a house the 33-year-old Yasses is rehabilitating on Thorpe, Yasses said the best he could hope for from that piece of property was $250 per month net profit. That's after mortgage, flood insurance and taxes are paid, and only if the tenant paid the water bill and pays rent on time and there was no maintenance on the 100-year-old building.
“That’s not a lot, especially when you look at the fact that I’ve got four vacancies and I just spent five grand here," Yasses said. "If you take all that into account, that’s two years income all right here in one house.”
Meanwhile, he's grappling with the city over a tenant's car that has no license plate. The tenant, Yasses said, is a essentially a single mom (her husband doesn't work) who works part-time at a fast-food place. She can only use her mobile phone for text messages because all she can afford is a $10-per-month plan. She couldn't afford insurance on her car, so she had to remove the license plates. The city cited Yasses and said it needed to be covered with a tarp.
"So I hounded her, 'put a tarp on it, put a tarp on it' because Ron (Panek, city inspector) hounded me, 'put a tarp on it,'" said Yasses. "She went and bought a blue tarp, covered it. It’s not good enough. You need to have a tarp that’s fitted to the car. I didn’t even know that. So Ron goes, 'we’re going to have to go to court then.' I said, ‘fine. We’ll go to court.’
"Now wait a minute," Yasses added. "We paid a guy to make three visits and make two phone calls, and now we’re going to pay the city attorney to take me to court for a tenant’s car? And we’re hurting for money in the city? Maybe we need to tighten up our belts and our shoelaces a little bit and figure out what’s going on. That’s my point – I think we’re wasting some money and we’re just masking the problem"
Yasses thinks city officials and some NIC members don't have enough experience dealing with low-income people to really understand what many landlords are up against.
Eviction, of course, is an option, but it can also be difficult and expensive, especially if a tenant has been paying his rent on time. It begins with $500 in legal fees and ends with cleaning up the apartment (which can be especially costly if the tenant took vengeance on the evicting landlord) and then searching for a new tenant. The process can take months, especially if a good-paying tenant fights the eviction.
And in the end, a landlord may not even have improved his tenant situation.
"The new tenant is going to be the same pool of tenants," Yasses said. "The next tenant is going to be the same quality – and I don’t mean it that way, because they’re good people, just down on their luck – the next tenant isn’t going to be any better than what I had. We need to train them and teach them and hold them accountable, along with us."
City officials, NIC members and his Fifth Ward Representative Kathy Briggs need to come down on Thorpe and meet some of his tenants and see what he's doing to rehabilitate his buildings, Yasses said. He repeated several times that his tenants are good people just having a hard time, and that he's doing everything possible to improve the quality of his holdings as fast as he can in order to attract, hopefully, better tenants. But it takes time and money, he said.
“I’m doing the best I can," Yasses said. "You can’t get anybody decent to come down on Thorpe Street. When I bought this about four years ago, there was a ton of drug activity right here and right next door, bad, bad, bad. I got fed up, thought I could be the hero and forced these landlords to sell me these houses to get rid of the garbage. I can say right now, I have no drugs down here."
The property Yasses owns on Watson, Thorpe and Maple were probably bad investments, Yasses readily admits. He's losing money on them and gets by only because his investments in other jurisdictions are doing well.
And that's part of the problem -- Yasses said he doesn't have issues with municipal officials in other jurisdictions that he has in Batavia.
“I rehabilitated a four-unit in Middleport and they absolutely love it," Yasses said. "I’m putting my money where people appreciate it. ‘Wow, Jeremy, you put a new roof on, you painted, new windows – this looks great.’”
If he could walk away from his Thorpe area properties and take a $10,000 loss on he each, he said he would, but he doesn't have that kind of money. So he's committed to doing the best he can with them. He has no choice.
“I don’t want this to be a negative thing on the city," Yasses said. "The main problem is, you’ve got to have tenant accountability. I’m not the one putting the trash out. I’m not the one with the vehicles. If you really want to change, that’s what we need to do. Not by fining me. You can fine me. I can go before the next judge next Friday (on the car/tarp case) – I hope he doesn’t take offense if this gets out there – but he could fine me five grand. He could put me in jail. But at the end of the day, the car still isn’t covered or taken care of because we didn't go to the source."