For two weeks, UB political science students Bill Pike, Jeremy Ferris and Mike Frodyma, lived without running water. They kept a plastic tub of water next to the sink and used it for washing dishes, flushing toilets, and scrubbing the floors.
"We had to flush our toilets somehow," said Frodyma, a sophomore political science major.
This was not a science experiment. The students were the victims of the kind of absentee landlord that plagues the University Heights and makes the area around South Campus among the worst in Buffalo to live, according to home inspectors. On April 27, The Spectrum printed a report showing that within an eight-block radius of The University Heights, 75 landlords rent properties with hundreds of violations. Lisbon Avenue is one of the streets included in the report.
The Spectrum began investigating last year after four houses rented by UB students in the Heights caught fire within eight months. All of the residences that caught fire had faulty wiring or natural gas problems, according to Off Campus Student Relations.
Since April, housing inspectors, in conjunction with the university, have begun to crack down on violations and have started doing housing blitzes, in which they do surprise inspections.
On Saturday, Oct. 8, Daniel Ryan, UB's director of off campus student relations, and a group of house inspectors, knocked on the students' rusty Lisbon Avenue door.
They condemned the house almost immediately.
"They were just walking around and looking around like, ‘Oh wow, this looks pretty awful,'" Pike said.
Walls were caved in with holes stretching over a foot in diameter. Insulation spewed out of the ceiling and walls, floors were unfinished, toilets were rusty and the place smelled of must and mildew.
The next day, the students and their grey and white cat Marmel were homeless.
Ryan arranged a hotel for the first night and then the group found its new home on Heath St.
Ryan says that students should be more proactive when dealing with unlivable circumstances. But Pike and his roommates said that until the water stopped, they didn't really mind the living conditions because they hadn't paid rent in three months.
"For over a year, we've been asking students to call us if there's a problem so we could get an inspector in," Ryan said. "But going door-to-door is a much more effective way to get to them."
Frodyma had been living in the house since February and said it had been passed down through members of his fraternity for the past three years. He requested the name of the fraternity remain off the record.
"We've always done a pretty good job maintaining it throughout the years for it to last this long," Frodyma said. "Most fraternities don't stay in a house for more than one year so you can imagine what they look like when they're done."
For the three young men, the house held sentimental value. It was the same house that
Pike pledged in during his freshman year and a place that Ferris described as the "hang out spot for all of our friends."
No Landlord, No Money, No Service
The original water shut off date was Aug. 3. Pipes officially ran dry on Sept. 29.
"I got home from class and Mike told me, ‘Hey, did you hear the water got shut off?' and
I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?'" Pike said.
The three roommates were expecting the day to come sooner or later. In early August, they received a bill from the water department for $1900, according to Frodyma.
The landlord, Elijah Slack, who lives in Washington, D.C., is responsible for paying the water bills, the students said. The annual payment for a two-and a-half-story home in
Buffalo is approximately $200, according to the Buffalo Water Authority. The $1900 suggests years of neglect.
"At that point I said we need to do something about this because the water's not something we pay – the tenants can't pay the water bill," Pike said.
Frodyma made phone calls several times a week to the landlord and property manager, but did not get a response, according to Pike.
The students had also stopped paying their monthly rent of $265 in July.
"I've never even met the landlord," Pike said. "When the [Buffalo News] newspaper article said the name Elijah [Slack], that's the ?A\0x81rst time I've ever heard that name."
The students said they knew the house was a mess, but that they didn't mind. They didn't consider the violations dangerous and they never expected they would be forced out.
"When we were moving in there, we kind of knew what we were getting in for," Ferris said. "But not to the extent that it actually happened."
Ferris moved in at the end of August. His mother, Donna Rosen, A UB alumna, who lives on Long Island is appalled. "It makes me feel sick to my stomach; it is absolutely incredible that [Jeremy] was without water for two weeks," Rosen said. "But I have to say, it's also incredible he never called me and told me – I'm a lawyer."
What Is Being Done?
Pike thinks that he and his roommates would still be living on Lisbon if not for housing blitz.
"The real problems with [this house] were the heat and the water," Pike said. "It wasn't an unlivable condition. If we had heat and water we'd be fine like, when it's cleaned up it's not a bad looking place at all…If we had heat and water we'd still be living here."
Rosen is glad her son is in a better living situation.
"It's absolutely disgusting that these houses are allowed to operate," Rosen said. "I'm so grateful that the school is doing something to make sure that these kids are not being taken advantage of."
Ryan is trying to encourage students to be more savvy about renting off campus and is encouraging any students who suspect they are living with violations to report them.
"If you choose to live off campus, then you're making a choice," Ryan said. "Unfortunately, [for] a lot of students… it may be the first time that they've ever made a decision like that, on where to live. And so many of them may not be aware of what it is that they should be looking for before they sign a lease."
Pike, Frodyma, Marmel and Farris, along with two new roommates, quickly found a new off-campus home on Heath St. All agree is better than Lisbon.
"The whole condemnation was a blessing in disguise," Ferris said. "Now we have a nice house and a cheaper house. It's got carpeting, no flies, [and] water."