The Heights of Fear
UB takes hands-off attitude in South Campus neighborhood, students suffer consequences
Architecture student Chen Lin is so scared living in the University Heights she doesn't go out past dark.
She came to UB this year from China and since her arrival, she has heard about students in her South Campus neighborhood being robbed, shot, burglarized and assaulted.
"I feel scared," Lin said. "I never walk on the streets when the sky is dark. In the evening, I'm afraid to go on the street."
Lin didn't come to Buffalo by accident.
For years, UB has actively recruited international students to campus and now those students make up 15 percent of the student body and bring close to $108 million to Western New York. UB ranks among the top 20 U.S. campuses for recruiting international students and is the top international recruiter among public schools.
President Satish Tripathi, who was born in India and is the first international-born president in UB's history, has made it a goal to increase the number of international students on campus.
Yet, the university does minimal work to ensure the safety of these students - or any others who choose to live in the cheap houses around South Campus - once they arrive.
"We're not in the protection business," said Dennis Black, vice president for University Life and Services.
Unlike other campuses, such as the University of Pennsylvania, Ohio State and nearby Canisius College - where administrators have worked with local police, state legislatures or landlords to protect students living on the outskirts of the university - UB has taken a hands-off attitude in the neighborhood around South Campus known as the University Heights.
Tripathi declined to be interviewed for this article. He referred The Spectrum to Black and other administrators, who insist the university is not responsible for students' safety and living conditions off campus.
Fred Brace, who has lived in the Heights for over 25 years and serves as the University District Housing Court liaison, thinks so - particularly if the houses are blocks from campus. He thinks UB is irresponsible and negligent for not improving living conditions and safety in the Heights.
"UB has to find a way to get UPD [University Police] patrolling those areas where they know students live," Brace said. "I don't care how they do it; they have to do it ... I mean, UB is allowing their students to rent properties without proper safety guidelines in them and turning their back on their need for safe places to live."
Eighty-two percent of 760 students polled by The Spectrum feel UB should do more to improve living conditions for students in the Heights. Currently, the university forewarns its students by providing online tips for renting off campus. At international student orientation, UB advises students to be careful before renting homes, though many have already signed their leases.
Many, if not most, of the 5,500-plus international students who come to UB live in the Heights, said John Wood, senior associate vice provost for international education.
That's because many students - particularly international students - rent houses from abroad before they come to Buffalo. They see them listed by the Sub-Board, Inc. (SBI) Off-Campus Housing Office, which does not investigate, inspect or endorse the condition of the listed houses and some students assume they are university-approved housing options.
From a distance, University Heights looks great. Rent is cheaper than in most parts of the city and students can walk to class, to the bus stop and to bars, restaurants and grocery stores along Main Street.
What the ads don't tell the students or their parents - who, in the case of international students, pay over $9,000 for tuition on top of rent and expenses - is that for the past 30 years, the area has become synonymous with crime and absentee landlordism.
The crimes occurring in the Heights are not minor; students are being held up at gunpoint in their homes, burglarized by armed suspects, beaten and traumatized.
Housing inspectors have issued over 750 violations to landlords in the Heights in the past two years. Some houses have had over 20 alone. The violations range from disgusting to deadly and include: faulty wiring that can lead to fire, inactive or nonexistent smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, bed bugs, collapsing ceilings, leaking pipes, unstable railings, improper insulation and inadequate plumbing and waste removal.
The list goes on.
How much crime is there and what is UB doing to combat it?
On UB's website - a site many prospective students read - it states in the "South Campus Neighborhood" section: "Some of the crime in Heights neighborhood (sic) is related to the abuse of alcohol among young people who reside in or visit it. Some of this behavior leads to so-called nuisance crimes, such as vandalism. More serious incidents include acts of violence, though they are rare."
In fact, violent crimes happen quite often in the Heights - twice as often as in the neighborhood around North Campus. Last year, police logged over 500 major crimes, which include homicides, assaults, rapes, larcenies, robberies, burglaries and vehicle thefts in the Heights. And since 2007, rape in the Heights has increased by 50 percent, assaults by 16.6 percent, robberies by 9 percent and larcenies by 7 percent, according to Buffalo Police crime statistics.
By contrast, American Live Wire ranked Amherst, the city surrounding North Campus, the third-safest city in the United States in 2013.
Although University Police protects student safety on South Campus, the minute students set foot off Main Street and into the Heights - even by one block - campus police no longer have jurisdiction, according to UPD Lieutenant Mark Gates. Instead, it becomes the job of the Buffalo Police.
University Police can only intercede if Buffalo Police asks for help or if a UPD officer witnesses a crime, according to Gates. UPD Chief Gerald Schoenle said BPD calls for help three to four times a month.
Students who live in the area insist they don't feel comfortable in their neighborhood. Fifty-four percent of 787 students polled by The Spectrum said they feel unsafe when they're in the Heights. Some residents admittedly like the autonomy of knowing no one is checking on them - not parents or police. Fraternities - some legal, some illegal - have houses in the Heights and there is an abundant party scene.
Still, for some students, dangerous living conditions are significantly affecting their university experience.
"Living in the Heights has affected my experience at UB negatively," said *Taylor Brundage, a senior English major. "While living there, I struggled to get my work and life, in general, under control."
On March 28 at 1:30 a.m., Brundage was sitting in her living room on Winspear Avenue doing homework when two young men - also Heights residents - broke into her house looking for her roommate and pointed a loaded rifle at her and her friend. Afterward, she could no longer sleep and became so scared her doctors diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder. She left UB for a month and saw a counselor in her Rockland County hometown.
On Nov. 10, in three separate crimes, UB student Mitchell Staunch and his friend were mugged and beaten, another student was held at knifepoint and three female students were assaulted.
Staunch, a freshman mechanical engineering major, said a man approached him on the street, asked him to empty his pockets and punched him in the jaw when he refused. He hit his head on the pavement and was knocked unconscious. While he was out, his attackers picked his pockets and stole his cell phone, $42 in cash, his debit card, ATM card, UB ID and driver's license.
"I was really angry because they took a lot of money and stuff," Staunch said. "I hated the world. I hated some people after that and I was really surprised that it happened because it never happened to me before. And there was no reason because I didn't do anything to them."
Six days later, a freshman engineering major (who asked to remain anonymous) was walking to a bus stop on Winspear with two friends in the early morning when a man pulled out a gun and asked for money.
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Bryan Bergstol, a junior communication major, and his four UB student roommates left their West Northrup home for the holidays. When they returned Sunday, they found every door of their house smashed in and many of their valuables gone.
Black, whose office oversees both student residences and public safety, said there was nothing UB could do for Bergstol or his roommates.
"I'm sure there were, on that same day, 200,000 robberies across New York State and 2 million across the country," Black said. "That's not something I'm proud of, but the fact is, that happens."
The burglary at Bergstol's home, however, wasn't simply one of 200,000 in New York State. The same house, when occupied by different tenants, was broken into over Thanksgiving break in 2011.
Burglars surmise where students live, said Dan Ryan, director of Off-Campus Student Relations. And they target their homes when they are away on school breaks, like Thanksgiving, Christmas and spring break.
BPD does not increase its patrols of the Heights during those breaks and campus police does not patrol at all. The only recent action taken to warn students about holiday break-ins occurred in Dec. 2012, when Ryan sent an email to students living in the Heights and told them to lock their homes and valuables.
Three Heights homes were burglarized over that winter break.
On Jan. 18, a 20-year-old was shot in the lower leg in a drive-by shooting in broad daylight on Minnesota Avenue.
BPD upped its Main Street patrols on the weekends two years ago, but E-District Chief Kimberly Beaty, whose district includes the Heights, refused to tell The Spectrum why.
Despite the increased patrols, in the past two years, there has been a 44 percent increase in assaults, 21 percent increase in vehicle theft, 13 percent increase in robberies and 3 percent increase in larcenies in the Heights.
Community members don't understand why campus police doesn't step in to help.
What have other universities done to remedy off-campus crime?
Rosline Righetti has lived in the same house on Merrimac Street for 57 years. In the past five years, she's become so tired of crime that she has installed eight cameras around her home.
"I feel bad for the kids here," Righetti said. "They come to school and they're being subjected to the robberies and the rapes." She said she's seen cars broken into, tires slashed and air conditioners in windows broken to get into homes.
For Righetti, the answer is simple: Give UPD jurisdiction in the Heights.
That is not something UB has tried, Black said. The university has never pushed for its campus police to have jurisdiction to protect students off campus.
Ohio State did.
On Sept. 19, Ohio State University and the City of Columbus agreed on joint jurisdiction that gives campus police the right to patrol in the inner city of Columbus, where many students live.
In the first two months the plan was implemented, violent crime dropped 5 percent from the past 10 years, said OSU Undergraduate Student Government President Taylor Stepp.
Stepp made increased campus police presence his focal point when elected president in April. His true focus is on violent crimes, he said.
"I was not comfortable being in a situation where we were OK with any students getting mugged off campus or held at gunpoint or robbed," Stepp said. "So our job isn't done until we can make that armed assault number zero at Ohio State."
Could UB do something like this?"
Not according to Black.
"Ohio is Ohio; Buffalo is Buffalo," Black said. "I don't know if there's a comparison ... The answer is that it would take legislation in order for that to happen. That's not something that UB and Buffalo alone can deal with. That deals with what the power of different police officers are in the State of New York and that's, quite frankly, beyond us."
In Ohio, university President E. Gordon Gee worked with state legislation to invest in the safety of students off campus, Stepp said.
Stepp said he "cannot even imagine the university leadership team stating they do not have a vested interest in students' safety."
"I oftentimes see students and my constituents as people that really need a helping hand because, a lot of times, these students are renting for the first time off campus, and there needs to be accountability for people who try to take advantage of them because that's simply what it is," Stepp said.
In warm-weather months, BPD and UPD have agreed to share a joint bike patrol on Main Street to increase police presence. Since 2010, during the first few weeks of the academic year and on Halloween weekend, BPD and UPD typically share jurisdiction in the Heights. But that's the only time.
Bonnie Russell, the University District Common Council member, is baffled by the university's hands-off attitude.
"I just think that more police involvement in an area where there's police available, the better off the community is," she said. "If you have campus police nearby, I think it helps benefit everybody who lives there."
What are the housing violations?
In the 2010-11 academic year, four houses rented by UB students in the Heights caught fire due to faulty wiring or natural gas problems.
Last semester, Lin and her fellow international student roommates had to evacuate their house when an inspector realized carbon monoxide, an odorless poisonous gas, was leaking into their apartment.
In September, four students left their Englewood Avenue home for four days when inspectors found faulty electric wiring, which could have caused electrocution or a fire.
On Oct. 13, inspectors found hardened raw sewage in Zhen Pan and Seng Gao's Merrimac home. The second-year electrical engineering graduate students were unaware that debris surrounding an open pipe in their basement floor was the result of neglected plumbing issues.
Jordan Little, a senior psychology major, spent most of his fall semester sleeping on his friend's couch. His Merrimac home was infested with bed bugs, something his landlord - whom he only knew as "Victor" - never mentioned.
In the past two years, inspectors have found at least 34 inactive or missing carbon monoxide detectors and 37 inactive or missing smoke detectors in Heights homes. These cases - which The Spectrum counted in the Office of Permits and Inspections - are only a sampling of the violations found, as they only include the cases that closed. Cases still pending or in court were not counted.
On North Campus, Amherst building inspector Joe Freeze said he hardly gets any property maintenance complaints from students in off-campus houses and apartments.
In the fall of 2011, political science majors Bill Pike, Jeremy Ferris and Mike Frodyma lived without heat or running water for more than two weeks before housing inspectors condemned their Lisbon Avenue house and forced them out.
Now, Ferris, a senior, lives on North Campus. He lived in three houses in the Heights over two years. The first had no gas, the second no water.
"His name was Scott; we've never met him," Ferris said about his second landlord. "We couldn't get in touch with him, ever. Then, the year before, I had a landlord claim we had $11,000 worth of damage in the house ... I feel like the landlords will do anything to get money out of us."
Donna Rosen, Ferris' mother, begged her son to move out of the Heights for two years. But it cost him only $180 to $200 per month - just over a third of his current rent on North Campus.
"I cannot tell you," Rosen said about the homes she witnessed her son live in. "Loose wires, leaking pipes, windows that just have ... nails over them, doors nailed shut, going out to the exterior, it was just disgusting disrepair. Disgusting. Filthy. Horrible."
Though one of the homes was condemned, Rosen said no one takes responsibility for the landlords who are taking advantage of students in the Heights. She particularly pointed out that many landlords don't live in Buffalo.
"A landlord in the house that was condemned was holding some company in Brooklyn," Rosen said. "These people aren't even there. There's no accountability. There's no real people."
Ferris has been robbed of approximately $1,000 worth of valuables in the Heights during his time at UB, Rosen said. The latest robbery happened in November, when he visited the Heights and got robbed of his iPhone at knifepoint.
What is UB doing to correct the housing violations?
In 2011, UB tried to help students living in the Heights by initiating housing blitzes designed to check if homes in the Heights are up to code. To do this, Off-Campus Student Services Director Dan Ryan teams up with Buffalo building inspectors and checks homes for a few weekends each semester. If inspectors find violations, they cite landlords, ask them to fix the problems and, if necessary, send them to court.
Since Operation Student Safety began about two years ago, Ryan said he and the city inspectors have inspected over 600 apartments, some on second visits. His sense is the inspections are helping decrease housing violations and raising awareness to absentee landlordism in the Heights.
Neighbors, too, praise the program and Ryan says it is viewed as a model by other colleges.
But - as Brace points out - Ryan is just one man and he can only do so much. And what he has, Brace says, is "a job for Jesus."
Even Ryan admits the results are ambiguous.
"What we're finding is that when we've gone back to these places, for the most part, improvements have been made," Ryan said at a University Heights Collaborative meeting on Feb. 12. "Having said that, we're also finding some where they haven't vacated the premises or where they haven't repaired the electrical."
Professor Henry Taylor, the director of UB's Center for Urban Studies, which is located on South Campus, thinks the Heights' problem is larger than just Ryan's office can handle.
Taylor has worked for UB as a neighborhood and community developer since 1987. He ranks UB's efforts in the Heights as a "one out of 10" in university involvement.
Taylor insists UB needs to do more than just enforce housing codes in order to better the Heights. He said the university must invest in the Heights' housing stock and businesses, like the University of Pennsylvania did to help develop its adjacent Philadelphia neighborhood.
"[UB] never really developed the type of innovative programs that it should have and could have in order to change conditions inside of the neighborhoods and community," Taylor said. "It never made that commitment. And so, as a result of that, as we predicted a long time ago, the problems continued to get worse."
What have other universities done to remedy housing violations?
Canisius, about a 10-minute drive from South Campus, has similar off-campus housing issues as UB, but was worried enough about its students to take action and purchase homes. Over 17 years ago, the college bought about 21 off-campus houses to rent to students. It stopped buying and renting houses eight years ago to focus on new residence halls on campus.
To make up for that, Associate Director of Residence Life Al Pilato periodically meets with and frequently communicates with about 25 landlords who own homes around campus. He works with the landlords to make sure both students and the neighborhood are being taken care of properly. When a student has a problem with a landlord or vice versa, Pilato contacts the person directly.
"It used to be closer like to what you know at UB," Pilato said. "The quality of life in the neighborhood was actually poor. Garbage everywhere, lack of courtesy, but it's really changed quite a bit. The behavior issues we have that involve the police have dropped dramatically just because of this involvement with the landlords."
The University of Pennsylvania, which similarly had the troubled area of West Philadelphia along its borders, has partnered with three businesses since the mid-1990s to invest in 1,350 units in multi-family houses in University City, its off-campus neighborhood where roughly 10,000 students live, said Ed Datz, real estate and operations director at UPenn. The university also invested in the neighborhood's retail, grocery and hotel space.
UPenn has spent approximately $185.7 million, he said.
UB has spent about $150,000 in the Heights, according to UB Spokesman John Della Contrada. That's 0.08 percent of what UPenn has spent.
The UB money went for: security cameras, Operation Student Safety, increased UB police patrols on peak weekends like Halloween, Operation Doorhanger (a community safety program in which UB students distribute "doorhangers" printed with safety reminders and tips on how to be a good neighbor) and Student Safety Fairs, Della Contrada said.
At UPenn, the administration's goal was to buy houses and make them clean, safe and well serviced so students would have decent places to live, according to Datz. The effect, he said, spread throughout the neighborhood.
"Penn's example brought in other landlord investors who have developed multi-family properties and offer improved housing options to students and others who live in West Philadelphia," Datz said. "Street vibrancy in the neighborhood has increased due to a variety of retail options that did not exist in the past, and these, along with public safety enhancements, have improved the overall safety in University City."
Taylor is waiting for UB to make that commitment.
"University of Pennsylvania spent money with the businesses of the neighborhoods, bought properties and developed them into apartments, worked with the police to make it a safer neighborhood and community," Taylor said. "So they worked on multiple fronts, not just on one front. And they played a leadership role. They didn't just sit back and tell the community what to do."
What will the future look like with UB's current efforts?
SBI general service manager Lorenzo Guzman sits in his office, looking at the list of 71 Heights homes in the beginning of the spring semester that are up for rent on UB's student-run housing office website. Of them, only one has a certificate of occupancy, which outlines the building's proper use and proves it is habitable. Ryan has asked SBI not to list properties that don't have certificates. If Guzman abided by this request, he explains, he would have almost no listings in the Heights.
In four years, one landlord has provided Guzman with a certificate of occupancy.
Guzman says there is one landlord named Wang who is so bad, Sub Board will no longer list his homes.
Yet, as Guzman is talking to a Spectrum reporter, Wang's name appears on the list under an alias, a tactic he often uses, Guzman said.
Guzman takes him off the list but can't guarantee he won't try again or that a student might see Wang's property before Sub Board removes it.
SBI Legal Assistance gives legal advice to many students with landlord issues. Daniel Shonn, an SBI legal assistance attorney, said 60 percent of all issues brought to him are from students in the Heights.
Shonn said international students regularly sign leases overseas and often end up unhappy or with complaints. A large percent never get their security deposits back before they go home, he said.
Like Taylor, Shonn doesn't believe UB has taken the necessary steps to eradicate issues completely in the Heights, like absentee landlordism.
"UB has made promises to invest in the University Heights a number of times," Shonn said. "Almost every president has made some promise about trying to improve the quality of life in the University Heights. And I don't know if anyone has ever done it. I think Dan Ryan has at least the best handle on what's going on, but what we don't seem to be able to do [like other colleges] is go out, buy a lot of housing, fix it up, manage it."
So long as the university continues to insist living in the Heights is a choice, students may have to choose a life of fear.
*Taylor Brundage is a Spectrum staff writer