Life in the Heights
Inspectors find life-threatening hazards on Heath Street
Published: Sunday, September 30, 2012
Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 20:11
A carbon monoxide leak. Faulty electrical wiring. A ceiling on the verge of collapse. Missing landlords.
In the last week, five students have had to evacuate their University Heights homes.
During Saturday’s housing blitz, a student living on Heath Street left her house so Buffalo City inspectors could immediately fix a potentially fatal carbon monoxide leak.
Last Wednesday, four students vacated their Englewood Avenue home so inspectors could fix faulty electric wiring, which could have caused electrocution or a fire.
In all of these instances, the landlords are to blame and hard to reach.
On Saturday, Dan Ryan, director of off-campus student relations; Gary Ziolkowski, a City of Buffalo chief building inspector; and two other city building inspectors evaluated the homes on Heath Street. They go to a different street in the Heights almost every week in their effort to ensure the homes meet city codes.
Cheng Yao Tan – a second-year architecture graduate student – lives at 54 Heath St. An international student from China, Tan was unfamiliar with the threat of carbon monoxide and said she “didn’t smell anything.” She didn’t know what carbon monoxide was until the inspectors came to her house Saturday.
“We don’t go in the basement very much,” Tan explained to the inspectors. “I don’t understand the problem.”
Tan called her landlord three times at the request of the inspectors. There was no answer, and she was unable to leave voicemail.
Her landlord did not install a carbon monoxide detector in the house; city code states there must be at least two detectors in a house, according to Ziolkowski.
There was also no flue, which vents out carbon monoxide byproduct, connected to the water tank.
“Obviously there is carbon monoxide leaking through the house,” a city inspector said, while attempting a makeshift repair. “She doesn’t feel sick or anything. But we are calling the gas company, and she is trying to call her landlord right now.”
During blitzes, inspectors write down issues to notify landlords, who must comply with city codes within 30 days. In this instance, the inspectors were forced to act immediately for the welfare of Tan and her fellow roommates who weren’t home.
Ryan explained the severity of situation to Tan: “Just because you’re not coming in the basement doesn’t mean the carbon monoxide isn’t going to come where you are,” Ryan told her.
One of the city inspectors attached the flue to the hot water tank as a temporary fix. They opened doors and windows around the home to improve ventilation while Tan was outside for her safety.
On Wednesday, four students evacuated their Englewood Avenue home for two days. One of their landlords upgraded their electrical wiring without a permit or an inspection.
The students from the Englewood home wished to remain anonymous because their house’s electric problems are finally being fixed. They have had problems in the past that their landlord failed to attend to, and they are afraid
When one of the students called an electrical company to fix the broken meter, he found the new wiring could cause a fire or electrocution. He turned off the electricity right away.
The students called their landlords for two hours. One of the landlords turned off his phone. In desperation, one of the students called Ryan.
“Our landlord finally got back to one of us, and he was frustrated and he was yelling at my roommate, like telling her that she shouldn’t have gone to UB and that he did everything correctly and something must’ve gotten filed wrong,” the student said.
The inspector proved the landlord never got a permit and he did the wiring himself by showing the students the meter box was not sealed. An electric company would have sealed the meter box.
If the students had used more electricity than the meter could handle, it would have caused electrocution or a fire.
Some students, like the ones from the Englewood home, are worried about how their landlords are going to respond if their concerns are made public. Saravanan Lakshmanan, a recent aerospace engineer graduate, isn’t afraid to stand up to his absent landlord.
After the last housing blitz, his landlord instructed Lakshmanan and his roommates not to let any inspectors from the city back into their house.
Lakshmanan, a resident of 81 Heath St., lives in a home ridden with severe water damage. His bathroom ceiling is buckling, nearing collapse.
Water was leaking from the showers on the second floor into the basement.
“[The landlord] said he was going to fix it, but it has not been done,” Lakshmanan said. “Whenever we take a shower, water goes all over the floor. Whenever we do our laundry, water goes all over the floor.”
Despite being instructed to not let inspectors back in, Ryan explained it is up to the tenants, not the landlord. Lakshmanan described his landlord, who he and his four other roommates only know as “Chen,” as frequently absent and difficult to reach.
“I sent him a letter three weeks ago,” Ziolkowski said. “I’m still finding things [wrong], especially downstairs in the basement. I’ll be sending him another letter taking him to court.”
While a lot of the landlords seem to be absent figures, there are some who have taken action when issues arise. Connie, a second year dental student, was a victim of burglary last year, due to the insufficient locks on her windows. Because the crime is unresolved, she didn’t want her last name in print.