Reaching New Heights
Off-campus safety issues endanger UB students
Published: Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 20:11
Every year, thousands of UB students risk their lives by renting homes that violate city and state building codes.
In an eight-block radius within the University Heights, 75 landlords rent properties that total hundreds of violations.
Since August, four houses rented by UB students caught fire. All the residences had faulty wiring or natural gas problems, according to Off Campus Student Relations. In one case on Custer Street, five students were sleeping when a fire broke out and were saved by their friends who were visiting from another school.
"The morning when our friends woke us up, the smoke was filling my room because the fire was in between my floor and my roommate's ceiling," said Brady Cohen, a junior geography and international studies major. "I'm a very heavy sleeper and the smoke alarm never woke me up. Luckily our friends were there or who knows what would have happened."
The blame often lies with the landlords, many of whom don't live in Buffalo and all of whom are looking to make a profit on students who are eager to live independently for the first time in a part of the city that is affordable, close to campus, and near a happening nightlife.
Blame also lies with the city, which doesn't have enough inspectors to check every property and lacks the funding to follow up on all complaints.
It falls on the university, too, which allows its students, including those who come from abroad to study at UB, to live in dangerous conditions.
Finally, it rests with students, who, in their excitement of finding an apartment of their own, don't ask pertinent safety questions, require an inspection before moving in, or report problems when they see them.
The main violations are:
● illegally partitioned rooms
● electrical code violations
● lack of smoke detectors
● lack of carbon monoxide detectors
● shoddy porches that might collapse if not fixed
There are also a slew of minor violations, including trash in the backyards, broken gutters, and boarded windows, all of which can present serious dangers if not corrected.
At around 4 p.m. on Jan. 9, David Lafferty, a sophomore biomedical sciences major, was getting ready to head to his job as an EMT when one of his roommates asked if he smelled smoke.
"We walked into his room and there was smoke pouring out of his window," Lafferty said. "I turned around to go back into the kitchen and there was smoke pouring out of our sink, so we got out of the house and we called the fire department."
Firefighters arrived, but not before the house, located at 63 Montrose Ave., went up in flames. The students didn't have renter's insurance and lost many of their belongings. They also struggled to find housing in the days following the fire.
The fire marshal told the students that the blaze was electrical. The students insist they had been complaining about electrical issues for months, but that their absentee landlords – Brad Engel and Russ Hiltermann of BRoS Properties – did nothing to rectify the problems.
Engel and Hiltermann, who own 32 units in The Heights, insist the students were misusing electronics and were heating the house with space heaters. Investigators, however, have determined that the cause was an "electrical malfunction inside an interior wall" and was accidental, according to the Fire Marshal's Office.
Regardless of blame, the students were lucky that the fire was in the afternoon, and not in the middle of the night.
Why Landlords are to Blame
"Economics is the key factor," said Housing Court Judge Patrick M. Carney. "The key factor to somebody owning 10 houses in the University District and renting to as many students as he can, and putting as little money into them as possible, is money. It's the driving force."
Houses in the Heights cost under $100,000 and landlords rent to students for
about $300 a month, records show. Landlords often ignore building codes and subdivide rooms to fit more students in a home in order to make more money, according to Carney.
Ensuring that a home is safe, however, is the landlord's legal obligation, according to Dan Ryan, director of off-campus student relations. They must "comply with the state property maintenance code and get [the houses] fixed."
Fred Brace, the University District housing court liaison, says absentee landlords – those who do not live in Buffalo – are a big part of the problem within the University Heights. The most "nefarious" landlords, he said, are those who make up Limited Liability Corporations because they do not have to put their names on record, so blame gets shuffled and violations get overlooked.
"I rent from Mark Ulmann and Sheldon Milo, owners of UB Rentals, and they're impossible to get a hold of until they need something from you," said Harris Rosado, a sophomore sociology major. "They're only in it for the money and couldn't care less about the quality of living they provide their tenants."
Rosado and his housemates were robbed over winter break, and the window the robbers broke in through still isn't fixed. They were also told by their landlords that if they wanted any of their doors that were kicked in to be fixed, they would have to pay for new supplies.
Milo and Ulmann insist they have contractors who respond quickly to tenants' needs, but records show otherwise.
Buffalo Building Code Inspections sent a notice to Milo and Ulmann on April 11, citing four violations at 38 Northrup Place: missing smoke detectors; missing carbon monoxide detectors; an exposed electrical box in the living room; and door locks that aren't up to code.
Limited Liability Corporations and absentee landlords aren't the only ones to blame. Not all local landlords comply with the rules either.