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The Heights of Fear

UB takes hands-off attitude in South Campus neighborhood, students suffer consequences

Senior News Editor

Published: Sunday, February 24, 2013

Updated: Monday, February 25, 2013 00:02


Adrien D'Angelo ///The Spectrum

Buffalo Police respond to a crime, a frequent occurrence in the University Heights, on Saturday night.

bed bugs

Alexa Strudler /// The Spectrum

Jordan Little found his new Heights home was infested with bed bugs in late August. His landlord hired an exterminator who exterminated the house improperly -- Little's roommate was bit shortly after. As a result, Little slept on his friend's couch for most of the fall semester.

raw sewage

Alexa Strudler /// The Spectrum

This fall, Off-Campus Student Services continued its two-year journey of "housing blitzes" to check for code violations each Saturday in the Heights. On Oct. 13, Charles Didio, a city building inspector, found remnants of a raw sewage backup in a student's basement at 49 Merrimac St.

info 2

The two screen shots above display the crimes around North and South Campus on Saturday, Feb. 17 at 12:44 a.m. The top photo, on North Campus, shows zero crimes. The bottom photo, in an area of the University Heights, displays 34 crime incidents including at least two assaults, seven thefts, two robberies and one burglary.

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.

Is it?

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.

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Sat Mar 23 2013 08:50
"The responsibility for keeping these students safe falls on the school" Please explain where that responsibility ends. Is it geographical? Ellicott Creek to the North, Buffalo River to the South, Transit Road to the East and the Niagara River? That at least rules the University out of providing a round the clock detail for their students studying abroad. Perhaps it is sheer numbers. So, Thursday in the Square, New Years Eve on Chippewa, any Sabres game or any weekend at the Galleria, UB should have officers patrolling? Isn't it more logical to assume that adults will seek safe environments when possible, and rely on the municipality they are in to protect them? If the University actually had the responsibility to protect them (akin to what a parent would have) you would assume that along with that responsibility would come some power or at least influence. If they had that power or influence, do you think they would let their students live in the Heights under the current conditions?
Wed Mar 13 2013 13:17
It's infuriating to read ignorant comments. Crime is crime - it is not the fault of the victims, it is the fault of the criminals! Do you also feel that a battered woman should learn how not to piss off her partner so she doesn't get hit.
The responsibility for keeping these students safe falls on the school, the police force and the landlords. Yes - all of those who are receiving money. Who's kidding who???
Wed Mar 13 2013 12:13
I applaud your article. The controversy that it has sparked is however a bit unsettling. Perhaps turning a blind eye, or worse yet - responding to these allegations with such blatant indifference like the school officials have, I find cause for great concern.
UB is "not in the protection business". That is frankly "double talk".
They feel not only the need but the right to automatically enroll incoming students into the school's healthcare plan. They don't ask if you already have the coverage - instead they assign and charge you for coverage. So here we have an institution taking such great steps to ensure that each and every one of its students have healthcare. Impressive? perhaps, if it didn't then becomes your responsibility to waive it after the fact. I can tell you from experience that this is not a simple process and I am sure something that is readily overlooked by many applicants.

So in lies the confusion. How can one type of well being for their student body be so important to a school that they have a system in place to ensure it? but when asked about how they are going to address clear safety problems that inflict those same students their response is "we are not in the protection business" I find the combative attitude of that statement and the absence of concern, frightening.
I would also go further say to those same school officials that maybe their automatic healthcare assignment policy may not be the best argument to back that statement up.

Parents and students need to know the calculated risk they are taking when they move in to the Heights. The school has a civic responsibility to keep would be students and the like aware of what they are signing up for. Perhaps then when they do chose to live there they will do so with a clear understanding of the risks.

Perhaps UB can take all of those overlooked monies that the school willingly accepts for services not needed and start a security fund.

As for you Lisa - congratulations again! from what I can see all of the negative responses are baseless digs at you. I commend you for bringing light onto these serious issues and hope you continue to do so. My guess from people who care little about the issues and more about their need to comment.

Candy Hayes
Fri Mar 1 2013 12:32
I would also like to comment on the article written by the spectrum concerning the heights. I have lived here 38 years and during that time i have never been robbed, burglarized, or otherwise bothered by a crime. This is not to say that it does not happen but it has not happened to me. Of course I do not leave my front door open unless I am sitting on my front porch nor do I have pot sitting on my coffee table. There are students, homeowners and tenants living on this block. There have been burglaries and cars vandalized but if you go out and leave doors and windows open, you are setting yourself up. The crimes have been few and far between and the police have always responded quickly. People stop to talk to me and a student living across the street from me wants to bring his therapy class to do a cleanup of linear park when the weather allows. If students are having parties, they are over at a reasonable hour and are not particularly loud. If anyone is smoking pot I am not aware of it and it is non of my business anyway. So we have a block club, good neighbors and well kept houses. It is not perfect but we do respect each other. This is our neighborhood in the heights and I cannot imagine living any where else.
Fri Mar 1 2013 10:31
It's funny that you compare UB South Campus to OSU and UPenn on multiple fronts, but then do not compare the crime surrounding those campuses to the crime in the University Heights. Instead, you choose to compare the crime on UB South (an integrated urban campus) to UB North (an isolated suburban campus).

For those interested in the seeing the comparison between UB South Campus, Buffalo State, UPenn, and OSU please take a look at this:

While I agree with the ultimate aim of this article (encouraging the University to take a more proactive role in the University Heights), I do not agree with how the information was presented in such a biased and obtuse manner. If you want to start a dialogue, please do so on rational, well-researched grounds.

Thu Feb 28 2013 23:54
I live approximately a mile from University Heights, in North Buffalo. Why? Because I prefer to be in a safer neighborhood. I have a three bedroom apartment, and with utilities, (including laundry in the basement) rent comes to $300 a bedroom -- no different than the rent cited in the article. There are several churches, restaurants, coffee shops and banks in walking distance. There is a grocery store as well. A bus line with service every 15-20 minutes during the day runs one block from my house. And I am still close enough to Main St to "enjoy" University Heights if I so choose. Do I think it would benefit UB if the neighborhood were improved? Absolutely. Perhaps the school of architecture and urban planning could help somehow. But these students are ADULTS. They need to start taking some responsibility for themselves. No, they are not responsible for thugs and criminals breaking in. But as for continuing to live in run-down houses with violations, they need to hold their landlords responsible. They need to have leases. They need to understand how landlord-tenant courts work. And they need to talk to their parents if they get in over their heads.
Thu Feb 28 2013 12:34
This article as well as my 6+ years at UB have reinforced the idea that students are nothing more than passive "victims" in the Heights and see themselves more as transient visitors rather than vested residents. When I lived on Lisbon Avenue I was appalled by the amount of garbage strewn about the sidewalks and people's front yards, so I grabbed a trash bag and started picking it up. Students need to start taking ownership of their community if they want to see it improve. As one of the other commenters mentioned "be the change you wish to see."

For those of you looking to get more involved in the community please visit the University Heights Tool Library. With some of the projects coming out of the Tool Library, I think we're demonstrating students abilities to become researchers, instigators, entrepreneurs, etc. in collaboration with a diverse array of individuals and organizations to deal with real world issues, none of which would be possible in a sanitized environment like North Campus.

Instead of asking "What is UB/the city doing to improve THIS neighborhood?" hopefully students will begin to think "How can I apply the skills I have to improve MY neighborhood?" In the past, maybe the appropriate vehicle necessary for meaningful community engagement wasn't there for students to access, yet the projects initiated by the Tool Library and the community provide just such a vehicle.

The Heights has all the makings of an incredible urban neighborhood: Architecturally significant housing stock, density, a walkable mixed-use commercial corridor, green space, some of the best access to transit in the city, and the University as an anchor institution. Let's leverage these assets and work together towards real positive change.

Wed Feb 27 2013 09:45
Why is this article written from the perspective that ignores basic laws of supply and demand. You live off campus to save money, you can't expect something for nothing. Want to be free of the Campus codes, you are also free of their protection. I've lived down there, I've interacted with the University Police and Buffalo Police. You get what you pay for. Make your choice.
Tue Feb 26 2013 14:36
Sean I absolutely agree with you.

Don't get me wrong, I find no fault in the information found in the article. I do not advocate for glossing over the gritty crime statistics and landlord issues. What makes me cringe is the generic, alarmist, doom and gloom reporting style adopted by the author. It isn't what you say, its how you say it. There is nothing but negativity in this article and it ironically destroys its message. Read it for yourself, but allow me to give a one line summation. (This is, I'm afraid, quite easy to do.) The University at Buffalo has to increase its involvement in the Heights neighborhood to crack down on crime and landlord negligence. The article then proceeds to shoot itself in the foot.

"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." This vox pop quote sets the tone for the whole piece. "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." Tell me, where is the other side of the issue? Where can I read about the students who enjoy the neighborhood? I know some of these individuals personally, and they really love the location. I get that you are trying to prove a point, but where is the rest of the story? The lack of balance in the reporting takes a great deal of the legitimacy away from this article, regardless of the truths it contains.

Now, I don't want to bash the article too thoroughly, as I feel the underlying message is well intentioned. To me it feels like a call to action, a direct message to the UB administration to get their act together and start funding improvements in the Heights. However the article leaves out one key group of people, the student body.

According to this article, the students living in the University Heights are weak, vulnerable, naive, and defenseless. Unless the University steps in, we the students have no choice but to run away in fear. In fact, fear is a general theme in this article; so much so that it is part of the title.

There is a way to present the University Heights without implementing fear as a way of invoking a cheap emotional reaction. Fear is crippling and does not allow for positive change. The "Height of Fear" does not incite a rational logical thinking process that would allow a student to respond positively to this article. The whole tone is one of foreboding, doom, beyond the control of the student body. There is no reason to stick our necks out to help a neighborhood as violent as this one. Our last hope is heavy police enforcement.

"The first thing to understand is that the public peace-the sidewalk and street peace-of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as police are. It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves. In some city areas-older public housing projects and streets with very high population turnover are often conspicuous examples-the keeping of public sidewalk law orderis left almost entirely to the police and special guards. Such places are jungles. No amount of police can enforce civilization where he normal, casual enforcement of it has broken down." This is a quote out of "The Death and Life of Great American Cities. A few chapters of this book are dedicated to safety and the reduction of crime rates. Police patrols are not the answer. The mere fact there is a high volume of law enforcement in the area will drive people away.
What we need is a community. A community of students and permanent residents that look out for each other. Slowly but surely it will begin to push the crime out of the neighborhood. It isn't going to happen over night, but it begins with rebuilding the Heights. Its time to strengthen whats already there and develop new bonds. New stores, restaurants, and housing projects will increase the value of this neighborhood to the student body. What saddens me, is that I saw the author of this article at the University Heights Collaborative Meeting. Not one of the positive aspects of the meeting were ever brought up. The garden walks, the new parks, the farmers market...nothing. That isn't balanced reporting.

Just showing the dark side of the neighborhood isn't going to spur anybody into action. Relying on just the UB administration isn't going to work either. I feel like this article was an honest attempt to create a spark. Unfortunately the mismatched arguments, the maniacal doomsday themes, and the irrational dependency on UB proves to be its downfall. This article failed to show the good, the bad, and the ugly. This shrouds the Heights in a cloud of hopelessness, worthlessness, and danger. My only hope is that the reader goes beyond the story and experiences Buffalo and the Heights first hand.

Tue Feb 26 2013 09:51
Further, housing violations would not be near the problem it is in the Heights, the East Side, or anywhere if the city bothered to go after negligent and absentee landlords.
Tue Feb 26 2013 09:48
UB has a vested interest in University Heights being a slum. The worse the Heights is, the more incentive there is for students to pay outrageous rents to live on campus.
Mon Feb 25 2013 13:34
First, Amherst is "the third safest town in America" because they don't report over half of their small crimes. So that is a bogus statistic. I wonder if this writer came from the suburbs, because it certainly is written like she is. Second, NO FREAKING DUH AMHERST IS SAFER THAN BUFFALO! Thank you for this groundbreaking piece of info. You mean the affluent suburb has more money to spend on police, in a smaller area, than the poor city of buffalo does? Mind=blown. This article seems to be one giant commercial for the town of Amherst. I find it funny that she looks at all the negatives and none of the positives from living in the heights. I have lived in the heights for five years. I have been robbed at gunpoint in my own house. And when that happened, not once did i ask the question, "Where was UPD? What is UB going to do for me?" I assumed the risk when I moved off campus. The heights is the only reason I could afford to go to school. The on campus living is so absurdly expensive. I pay less than a third of what I would have to pay for on campus. Also, how many train stops are within walking distance from north? And grocery stores? Shops? Bars? Oh you mean you can get to anything like that from north unless you have a car. hmmm interesting. It's not UB's responsibility to watch over their students when they sign a lease. We are adults now and that is just passing the blame. Thats why you ask the current tenants about the landlord, thats why you have questions ready to ask about the house you're looking apartments. If a student lived on campus their whole tenure and then after they graduated they move to Brooklyn. Is UB going to make sure that they aren't getting involved with a shitty landlord? And I think it's a giant stretch to compare UB to schools like OSU and PENN. Those are giant names that students from across the country would kill to attend. UB is not. We do not have to pull, therefore, the money to do the things that those school, and canisus, a private school, did. Also, love that the spectrum advocates moving a lot of money from the city in which the school is named upon to a suburb outside of the limits. I'm sure that will be great for Buffalo's economy. It's a shame that every time anything is written about the heights, it generally demonizes it. I would love to see someone write an article praising the heights. But, that means the spectrum would have to open their minds...we're more likely to get a pleasing springfest

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