The Heights of Fear
UB takes hands-off attitude in South Campus neighborhood, students suffer consequences
Published: Sunday, February 24, 2013
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2013 00:02
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.