Reaching New Heights
Off-campus safety issues endanger UB students
Houses rented by UB students in the University Heights violate city and state building codes. Ka Shing Chu /// The Spectrum
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.
In March, Jeremy Dunn, a local landlord who lives on Winspear Avenue, had four of his properties on Northrup Place (18, 24, 37 and 41) cited for exterior violations ranging from boarded windows to rotted gutters.
Dunn, however, claims that he tries to keep his houses up to code, but often runs into problems with students.
"I strive to see that all of my houses are up to the relevant housing codes; however, especially in certain areas, it is an ongoing battle," Dunn said in an email. "While I often have the electrical services and components updated, and always have smoke detectors installed, a very common problem is that student tenants take down smoke detectors while living in the houses. I believe they do this so they can smoke (cigarettes, pot, etc.) inside without the annoyance of setting of the alarms."
Landlords know the rules, but records indicate that they often ignore them to save money. While doing so, they're putting students' lives at risk.
Why the City is to Blame
Inspectors try to crack down on absentee landlords, said Brian Hayden, the building inspector responsible for the Heights, in an email. But, they are limited by money and access.
New York State's budgetary problems have left Building Inspections largely underfunded, Hayden said, and many homes go uninspected.
"We do not have enough inspectors to satisfy all the inspection requests that we get," Hayden said. "…Even with this year's upcoming retirements, it [is] safe to say that those positions will not be filled. We have done more with less for the last five years and the demands get larger."
Housing Court Judge Patrick M. Carney agreed, and insisted that more inspectors and violations would just cause bottleneck. Housing court is already filled with cases, he said, and would need a second judge to handle more demand.
Another problem is that in order for inspectors to enter homes, tenants have to ask. That means filing a complaint or – by luck spotting an inspector when he comes knocking and inviting him in.
Students rarely file complaints, Carney said.
"They're actually the victims of the problems, but they don't want to report it," Carney said.
Why the University is to Blame
"If a headline is going to read ‘University at Buffalo Student Dies in Fire,' there's no question that the university is tied directly to it," said Jim Guy, former deputy fire coordinator. "The school has an interest in making sure that all of its students are safe however they can to the best of its ability. And UB is investing a lot of money into the problems and are trying to deal with the issues of students in the neighborhood; however, these longstanding problems have not been corrected yet."
Although the problem is widespread, the university claims it is limited in how it can help.
Sub Board I Inc. provides free legal services to students and often deals with "landlord and tenant" complaints. From June through December, SBI received 126 L&T complaints.
SBI can only offer legal advice, however, and has a difficult time following up with students after discussing problems.
Dan Ryan, director of off-campus services, insists that student apathy is partly to blame. His office holds workshops about students' rights and housing problems, but few students attend, he said. Off Campus Student Relations also passes out safety pamphlets throughout the Heights, but can't be sure that every student receives or reads them.
"We clearly haven't reached the number of students that we want to," Ryan said.
"We hit every house but that's not necessarily every person who lives in the house. Also, some students don't end up reading the information. We continually struggle to do a better and better job to distribute literature. If students move off campus, we want them to make informed decisions."
A Spectrum survey revealed that less than 10 percent of student tenants in the Heights have read any UB literature regarding off-campus living.
International students, who often arrive in Buffalo later than American students,
tend to rent in the Heights, said Ellen Dussourd, director of international student and scholar services. They don't have cars and want to live near public transportation and close to campus, she said.
"…A large percentage of international students are graduate students, so they're not interested in living in the residence halls with undergraduates. Also, our students are on tight budgets – tighter budgets than most U.S. students– so the appeal of living off campus is low rent," Dussourd said.
Sometimes these students sign leases overseas, before setting foot in the house.
But the university can be more hands-on.
Canisius College – albeit both a private and much smaller school – does its best to work with Hamlin Park, the area surrounding the college where students tend to live.
Canisius is in contact with many of the landlords who rent to students and gets involved when students misbehave. It also is concerned with bringing the houses
in the area up to code, noting that the historic area wasn't intended to house today's technological advances.
"For the past probably five years, we've been really cultivating the relationship with the landlords," said Al Pilatto, associate director of residence life at Canisius College. "There are approximately 25 landlords who own most of the houses that surround the college, and we meet with them and communicate with them on a regular basis. It goes back to building relationships here….It's kind of a back-and-forth relationship."
UB President Satish K. Tripathi assured The Spectrum that his administration would look into the concerns in the Heights.
Why Students are to Blame
In March, Ryan, contacted Building Inspections to schedule weekends where inspectors would go door-to-door in the Heights to conduct inspections due to the four house fires involving UB students.
Inspectors went up and down the blocks between Englewood Avenue and Minnesota Avenue, knocking on doors at around 8 a.m. on April 9. Many students were either sleeping or didn't want to let inspectors in for fear they might get cited for underage drinking or for having drug paraphernalia.
But that was not what the inspectors were looking for, said Lou Petrucci, chief building inspector. They were concerned about safety violations, not recreational activities.
When students didn't answer the door or wouldn't let inspectors in, they conducted exterior inspections, which do not require the consent of the tenant. They
uncovered 15 homes on Northrup Place alone with such violations. A full list of homes with violations can be found in City Hall; however, Building Inspections doesn't keep those files digitally.
Although Hayden believes that keeping a house up to code is the landlord's
responsibility, Guy believes a tenant's safety is his own task.
"The primary responsibility lies with the person seeking to rent the property,"
Guy said. "To trust anybody else with your life is just foolish."
Students often want to expedite the house-hunting process; however, there are important precautions that many renters overlook, according to Ryan. There are important questions that potential tenants should ask before renting, but many fail to do so.
Aside from getting answers before signing a lease, students should feel comfortable with their landlords before entering into a binding contract.
"For students living off campus, landlords are very important. The choices students make and the legal contracts that they enter are probably the second-biggest financial commitments they've made in their lives, with the first being the choice to come to a university in the first place," Ryan said.
Students quickly sign leases because they fear that the house will be rented by others if they don't act hastily. David Siegel, a sophomore communication and film production major, signed a lease against his mother's advice and ended up in a losing lawsuit after his Lisbon home was the target of gang violence in October.
It often takes an unfortunate situation for students to realize their mistakes.
"The thing is, you don't really think about the essentials of the house until a bad situation comes about," Cohen said. "When we looked at the house, I was thinking about getting the most luxurious bedroom possible and considering which bathroom I would use. Those things aren't as important as other things involving safety, and unfortunately, we learned that the hard way."
Landlords are ignoring the building codes, Building Inspections is limited by the lack of funding, UB claims it can't do much with off-campus housing, and students are inexperienced in renting homes.
As houses keep burning down, the cycle continues.
Preventing a fire starts by knowing what to look for.
Most of the houses in the University Heights were built close to a century ago
and none were constructed with modern technology in mind, according to Hayden. Many
of the appliances that students own are not supported by the archaic electrical systems found throughout the Heights, and if they are overused, they can result in fires.
The common area of every floor in a unit should have a smoke detector, according to Steven Herberger, manager of fire and life safety environment, health and safety services. Furthermore, every bedroom should have a smoke detector, as well as every kitchen.
Herberger's role, however, is limited; he is responsible for on-campus fire safety systems. Still, he is concerned with educating students who choose to live off campus.
His predecessor, Jim Guy, was very involved with informing students of
fire hazards, and he hopes to leave a similar legacy when he moves on from UB.
"As deputy fire coordinator, part of my responsibility was fire prevention," Guy
said. "I tried to get in contact with the university to create an educational component and I couldn't get through the front door. It's a very difficult kingdom to get through. In December of 1999, I started working [at UB]. I had the key, I was in, but still, I couldn't get anyone to do anything…. It took several years to convince Dennis Black [vice president for university life and services] to help us, and [the university] didn't do anything more than include nine questions that the landlord would have to answer."
Guy persisted, though.
Although he's retired, he helps operate an informative website called offcampusliving.org to provide important facts about housing safety. The website has an off-campus housing checklist, a student safety brochure, informative slideshows, and, most prominently, fire safety tips.
Knowing what to do if a fire happens is important, but so is knowing how to
prevent a fire.
"From day one, my philosophy is, the best fire fought is the fire that was prevented," Guy said. "That's the baseline that I operate from - trying to help our society understand that fire safety isn't just for young children. It's more than just stop, drop, and roll."
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